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Cities Greener Than Suburbs

Urban living can reduce your carbon footprint.

When it comes to the climate, are cities slicker than suburbs? Researcher Ed Glaeser says yes: city living can substantially reduce your carbon footprint, compared with a home in a distant suburb.

Americans who settle in leafy, low-density suburbs will leave a
significantly deeper carbon footprint, it turns out, than Americans who
live cheek by jowl in urban towers...When environmentalists resist new construction in their dense but environmentally friendly cities, they inadvertently ensure
that it will take place somewhere else—somewhere with higher carbon

There are at least two ways that urban living reduces CO2 emissions. First, living in a city reduces the consumption of transportation fuels: the closer
jobs and stores are to your home, the less you have to drive. Second, if your urban home shares walls, ceilings, or floors with neighbors, you'll wind up using less energy to heat and cool your home. Glaeser and his research partner, UCLA's Matthew Kahn, did some heavy number crunching, finding that folks who choose to live in a dense city emit as much as 7 tons less CO2 per household each year than folks who choose a home in the suburbs.

Glaeser makes a second, equally interesting point: living in a place with temperate weather -- not too hot, not too cold -- or in a place with a clean electricity supply can do wonders for your carbon footprint. So focusing on new urban housing in temperate regions is an especially good strategy for keeping climate-warming emissions in check. (Overall, Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle do a bit better than the national average for personal carbon footprints -- see page 41 of this pdf if you want the city-by-city breakdowns.)

I'm a bit annoyed that Glaeser makes what seems like a sweeping critique of "environmentalists" opposing compact neighborhoods; it seems like an unnecessary swipe, since plenty of folks who consider themselves "green" are big supporters of compact cities and transit-oriented development. But despite that hiccup, I think that Glaeser's done a real service here. It's an important reminder that living in a a leafy suburb doesn't necessarily mean you're living green.

This piece originally appeared on the Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

Image credit: tanakawho via Flickr.

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With all due respect to what you try to convey and the people doing the study: I do not like the title of this post. It's just too misleading!!! Quote: <> doesn't meant cities ARE greener than suburbs. You jumped from individual choices to a general statement. One can live with low impact in the suburbs as well as in cities. It's the mass which makes the difference. If in a 2 million city 10% are highly green but 90% are living high impact, or in a 10'000 suburb 1% is low and 99% are high impact, makes a huge difference...Not trying to contradict, just see everything in CONTEXT.

Posted by: Fabio on 19 Feb 09

The quote above should say
"city living CAN substantially reduce your carbon footprint" doesn't mean
"cities ARE greener than suburbs"

Posted by: fabio on 19 Feb 09

No: cities ARE greener than suburbs, as measured by carbon emissions, energy usage, water usage, and certainly land usage. That's not a potential option -- it' an established, on-the-ground fact.

Posted by: Nathan Koren on 22 Feb 09

No: cities ARE greener than suburbs, as measured by carbon emissions, energy usage, water usage, and certainly land usage. That's not a potential option -- it's an established, on-the-ground fact.

Posted by: Nathan Koren on 22 Feb 09

And apologies for the double post!

Posted by: Nathan Koren on 22 Feb 09

I find it interesting how it was only 20 years ago that the notion of moving to the suburbs was deemed the most socially accepted / conscious choice an American young professional could make. It’s exciting to watch as writers like yourself are beginning to note the obvious inconveniences and general incompetence associated with the suburban American lifestyle. It’s encouraging to hear intelligent factual analysis begin to be incorporated in discussion of the fallacies of suburban neighborhoods. As a designer, the notion of a makeshift community evolving arbitrarily 30 miles away from all relevant forms of life is innately flawed. I am glad to hear the scientific community contribute to the hopeful demise of the suburban routine. I think it is going to be extremely thrilling to watch as environmental concerns begin to play a greater factor in determining urban sprawl than out of date social norms.

While I agree that city suburbs’ mistreatment of transportation and clean electricity supplies contribute heavily to hazardous C02 emissions, I think that the fundamental ideologies that are existent within our societies are more of a concern than individual urban strategies. I live in an extremely urban neighborhood in Los Angeles, a neighborhood where people drive to the supermarket that is five walking minutes away from their home. As much as I would love to imagine it, I don’t ever imagine myself using any form of transportation other than my car to reach the supermarket. This is partly due to the environment I live in, but it is mostly due to the fact that I am a product of the American lifestyle that hasn’t placed enough of an emphasis on efficiency and global responsibility in our day to day lives. I would blame this on a (general) lack of eco-initiative coming from Washington and state departments. It is only now that environmental concerns are beginning to impact the way government policy is formed. Only through actions like the current California State budget proposal’s 12% gasoline tax will people begin to realize and question the inefficiencies that exist in their lives.

Posted by: Kevin Klein on 26 Feb 09

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