Overall sustainability of NYC

August 31, 2008

I apologize for the broadness of this question, but I was wondering about the overall sustainability of New York City. Does its population density compensate for the concentrated pollution? How does it compare in terms of energy consumption per capita to other cities? Rural areas?
– Janelle

Janelle,

The short answer is a resounding YES! Most of the factors that contribute to environmental impact are lower in New York per capita than in less dense areas. New Yorkers drive less, and so use less energy and emit less pollution for transportation. NYC’s transit usage is much higher (50%) than any other American City (25-31% for San Fran, Chicago, and Philly and 15% or less for others). Additionally, the share of commuters using automobiles is much lower, meaning more walkers and bikers. Jonathan Rose, a local green developer says that in some areas of the country, more energy is consumed traveling to and from a building than within the building. While I can’t vouch for that in every circumstance, it’s definitely important.

New Yorkers also live in smaller spaces, so they use less energy to heat, cool, and light them and less material to build and maintain them. The average home size in 2004 nation-wide was 2,300 square feet, while New York City’s is likely close to half that (NYC Dept. of City Planning uses 1,000 square feet as a standard home size in multi-unit buildings). New Yorker’s use an average of about 4,700 kWh/year of electricity in their homes, beating San Francisco (6,750), Chicago, (8,150), and other cities (over 10,000).

New Yorkers also live in less land area per capita, allowing for more land to remain unsettled. New York has 305 square miles not covered by water. If everyone in New York lived at the density of the State of New Jersey (not exactly apples-to-apples but it is the densest state) we’d cover 6,700 square miles (about 90% of NJ). Under more consistent suburban conditions we’d probably cover about 2,000 sqare miles, so we’re living very efficiently. (To be fair, LA is actually denser than NYC, but we’re up there. We’d probably win if you exclude Staten Island – which we would never do).

So per capita, we’re definitely consuming less, and polluting less. However, we are concentrating our pollution so that the effects may be worse in specific areas within the city. While each of us causes fewer truck miles to be driven, they are mostly driven in a tight space in high proximity to people, leading to smog and illness. We have high rates of certain health problems like asthma b/c we are exposed to a higher amount of the pollution we do cause. Urban soil is generally more contaminated b/c there is and has been much more going on there. In fact some states have different standards for cleanliness of urban soils b/c background concentrations (i.e. the level you’d find almost anywhere) are higher for most contaminants.

So while we are living more sustainably and have a lower per-capita impact on many measures, we are directly exposed to more of the impact we do produce. It is one major reason cities have forged ahead where states (and certainly the Federal government) have stalled on sustainability planning and legislation. In NYC and other cities, sustainability issues have become community planning issues, and are being solved in novel and effective ways. In a way, we are taking responsibility for more of the negative impacts of modern life than other communities, and we can be proud of that.

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