Solving Cities

Are city dwellers more green than Thoreau wannabes?

Posting in Cities

The ideal of living among the natural world is popular among traditional environmentalists. But is it more green to live among concrete than trees?

Henry David Thoreau is a hero to many traditional environmentalists. The idea of being self-sufficient among the natural world is a catchy one. But are the real environmentalists those who are actually living in the urban jungle?

Edward Glaeser thinks so. In fact, he says in the Boston Globe today, "If you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of a city."

In a study, Glaeser, a Harvard economist, and author of the new book Triumph of the City, found that households living in communities of 10,000 or more people used an average of 687 gallons of gas per year, while households in communities of 1,000 or less used an average of 1,164 gallons.

We estimated that a standardized household in Boston’s urban core emits about 6,700 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide per year due to driving habits than an equivalent suburban household. Certainly, when I moved from Cambridge to a woodsy suburb, I spent endless hours in my planet-polluting Subaru. The public transportation that is more common in cities does little to balance the scales.

But it's not only the car habits of urbanites that make cities greener. Cities use electricity much more efficiently than their suburban foes, he argues.

There are also substantial electricity and home heating differences between cities and suburbs, mostly because suburbanites have bigger homes, even holding income and family size constant. After all, many people move to the suburbs precisely because they want a bigger home. On average, electricity use is 88 percent higher in single-family detached homes than in apartments in buildings with five or more units.

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All told, the standardized suburban household in the Boston area produces almost six tons more carbon dioxide per year than the standardized urban household.

So what's the best rule to live by if you want to be green? Glaeser: "Living around trees is less green than living around concrete."

Photo: Robert Goodwin/Flickr

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure