NRDC's This Green Life
A Journal of Sorts
May 2007 / Links updated 2013
I HEART NEW YORK (and Other Green Towns)

I love living in New York, I really do. Where else can you find such diversity -- of food, culture, style and opinion -- or so much life right outside your door. Not to mention tolerance. Or art. And now I've discovered a whole new reason to love living here: it keeps my carbon footprint way down.


As a representative New Yorker, I am, apparently, responsible for just 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, compared to 11.2 for a green city like San Francisco, and 24.5 for the country at large, according to a landmark study recently completed by the City of New York.

The primary reason is New York's population density -- the highest in the nation by far -- which helps in three ways. First, it makes a truly comprehensive public transit system possible. Second, it makes walking and biking -- both emissions-free modes of transportation -- viable. And third, it keeps home energy use down (because New Yorkers live in smaller-than-average dwellings).

In this regard, no American city beats New York.

Ditto for sprawl, or the lack thereof. New York can't expand; there is no open land around it. So new development to accommodate new residents (of which 800,000 more are expected in the next couple of decades) is done as "infill" -- construction on vacant or underutilized lots. This infill will result in even higher density, which is great for the country as a whole (those 800,000 people won't be gobbling up open land elsewhere) and not bad for New York -- as long as the city also provides more parks, plazas, recreational facilities, greenery and public transit lines (all planned!).

Other features that make New York one of the country's more sustainable spots include its pure, unfiltered water supply (piped in from the Catskills); extensive curbside recycling program; commitment to green building; and greenmarket program, which makes local foods available in neighborhoods across the city.

But appearances aside, my point is not to persuade anyone else to move here. (Nine million people by 2030 will be enough, thank you very much.) I just want to make the rather counterintuitive point that living in a dense urban center, without a blade of grass to call your own, can be a more sustainable choice than buying a new home on an acre of land in the country.

Not in every case, of course, but often. While some metropolises are as sprawling and car-dependent as your average suburb, the potential for sustainability is greater in cities due to their density. And a few special places have made real hay of it -- especially Portland, Oregon, Seattle and San Francisco. Other notably green towns include Boston, Oakland, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Texas and, of course, New York.

For people who like the idea of sustainable communities but not the reality of cities, "smart growth" neighborhoods in small towns and suburbs offer many of the same benefits. These places are built to be compact, walkable and affordable, with easy access to shops, jobs and public transit. They are typically designed to communicate a distinct sense of place, and their wide sidewalks, parks and squares encourage old-fashioned neighborliness, while preserving open space.

If you have a move in mind, and want to factor sustainability into your decision about where to live, add the following considerations to your house-hunting checklist, alongside questions about property values and schools:

- Is the home located in an existing community on previously developed land?
- Is there a "Main Street" style shopping area close at hand?
- Are there appealing parks, plazas and public gathering spots?
- Are there crosswalks, sidewalks... and walkers?
- Are there bike paths...and bikers?
- Are there any farmers' markets in the area?
- Is there convenient public transit?
- Is your place of work nearby?
- Is the water supply clean?
- Is air quality good?
- Does the town have a decent recycling program?
- Does the community have a commitment to managing growth?

For city-lovers like me, drawn to bright lights, SustainLane's rankings of the 50 largest American cities provides a good guide.

Staying put? Keep in mind that any place can be made more sustainable by investing in public transit, preserving open space, establishing green building standards, converting the local government's vehicle fleet to alternative fuels, providing tax abatements for solar energy projects, creating a long-term sustainability plan and a raft of other measures. These are all issues that local residents have a say in, so make your opinions known.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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Family photos
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.


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New York City Tallies Its Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Plan

Green Manhattan: Everywhere Should be More Like New York

Annual U.S. City Rankings (2008)

Mayors Take the Lead

The Environmental Load of 300 million: How Heavy?

Behind the Ever-Expanding American Dream House

Community Transformation Examples

Smart Growth

One of 'my' trees
We New Yorkers don't live without nature, just without a patch of our own. That's never stopped me from loving the trees on my block as if they were mine -- or the parks I frequent either.

PlaNYC, the new sustainability blueprint for New York, proposes 127 initiatives to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, while accommodating almost a million new people, improving public amenities and keeping the city's economic engine humming. Besides congestion pricing (to discourage driving in the main business district of Manhattan during the work day), the initiatives include improvements to public transit, reclamation of brownfields and the planting of one million trees.

Smart growth plan
"Smart growth" neighborhoods retain a green and open feel by clustering homes and retail areas around public squares and parks.

Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.

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