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Greenest Place in the U.S.? It's Not Where You Think.

By David Owen

Green rankings in the U.S. don’t tell the full story about the places where the human footprint is lightest. If you really want the best environmental model, you need to look at the nation’s biggest — and greenest — metropolis: New York City.

newyork-green-200.jpgIn 2007, Forbes picked Vermont as the greenest state, a choice consistent with conventional thinking about low-impact living. Vermont has an abundance of trees, farms, backyard compost heaps, and environmentally aware citizens, and it has no crowded expressways or big, dirty cities. (The population of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, is just under 40,000.) Vermont also ranks high in almost all the categories on which Forbes based its analysis, such as the proportion of buildings certified by the U. S. Green Building Council’s increasingly popular eco-rating system, which is called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the implementation of public policies that encourage energy efficiency.

But Forbes’s ranking was unfortunate, because Vermont, in many important ways, sets a poor environmental example. Spreading people thinly across the countryside, Vermont-style, may make them look and feel green, but it actually increases the damage they do to the environment while also making that damage harder to see and to address. In the categories that matter the most, Vermont ranks low in comparison with many other American places. It has no truly significant public transit system (other than its school bus routes), and, because its population is so dispersed, it is one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country. A typical Vermonter consumes 545 gallons of gasoline per year — almost a hundred gallons more than the national average.

Is there a better U.S. environmental role model than Vermont? There are many — and the best of them, I believe, is New York City.

This choice may seem ludicrous to most Americans, including most New Yorkers, because for decades we have been taught to think of crowded cities as one of the principal sources of our worst environmental problems. In the most significant ways, though, New York is a paragon of ecological responsibility. The average city resident consumes only about a quarter as much gasoline as the average Vermonter — and the average Manhattan resident consumes even less, just 90 gallons a year, a rate that the rest of the country hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s. New Yorkers also consume far less electricity — about 4,700 kilowatt hours per household per year, compared with roughly 7,100 kilowatt hours in Vermont and more than 11,000 kilowatt hours in the United States as a whole. New York City is more populous than all but 11 states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.

The key to New York City’s relative environmental benignity is the very thing that, to most Americans, makes it appear to be an ecological nightmare: its extreme compactness. Moving people and their daily destinations close together reduces their need for automobiles, makes efficient public transit possible, and restores walking as a viable form of transportation. (Dense urban cores are among the few places left in America where people still routinely go around on foot; in the suburbs, you seldom see anyone walking who is actually traveling to a destination rather than merely moving between a building and a vehicle or trying to lose weight.)

Metropolitan New York accounts for almost a third of all the public-transit passenger miles traveled in the United States, and it has, by far, the nation’s lowest rate of automobile ownership. (Fifty-four percent of New York City households — and 77 percent of Manhattan households — own no car at all. In Vermont and the rest of the country, the percentage of no-automobile households is close to zero.) Eighty-two percent of employed Manhattanites travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s 10 times the rate for Americans in general, eight times the rate for workers in Los Angeles County, and 16 times the rate for residents of metropolitan Atlanta.

Population density also lowers energy and water use in all categories, constrains family size, limits the consumption of all kinds of goods, reduces ownership of wasteful appliances, decreases the generation of solid waste, and forces most residents to live in some of the world’s most inherently energy-efficient residential structures: apartment buildings. As a result, New Yorkers have the smallest carbon footprints in the United States: 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person per year, or less than 30 percent of the national average. Manhattanites generate even less.

Americans tend to think of dense cities as despoilers of the natural landscape, but they actually help to preserve it. If you spread all 8.2 million New York City residents across the countryside at the population density of Vermont, you would need a space equal to the land area of the six New England states plus New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia — and then, of course, you’d have to find places to put all the people you were displacing. In a paradoxical way, environmental groups have been a major contributor to residential sprawl, for organizations like the Sierra Club, whose anti-city ethos has been indivisible from its mission since the time of John Muir, have fueled the yearning for fresh air and elbow room which drives not only the preservation of wilderness areas but also the construction of disconnected subdivisions and daily hundred-mile commutes. Preaching the sanctity of open spaces helps to propel development into those very spaces, and the process is self-reinforcing because, as one environmentalist said to me, “Sprawl is created by people escaping sprawl.”

Wild landscapes are less often destroyed by people who despise wild landscapes than by people who love them, or think they do — by people who move to be near them, and then, when others follow, move again. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond, a mile from his nearest neighbor, set the American pattern for creeping residential development, since anyone seeking to replicate his experience needed to move at least a mile farther along.

At an environmental presentation last year, I sat next to an investment banker who was initially skeptical when I explained that New Yorkers have a significantly lower environmental impact than other Americans. “But that’s just because they’re all crammed together,” he said. Just so. He then disparaged New Yorkers’ energy efficiency as “unconscious,” as though intention were more important than results. But unconscious efficiencies are the most desirable ones, because they require neither enforcement nor a personal commitment to cutting back. New Yorkers’ energy consumption has always been low, no matter what was happening with the price of fossil fuels; their carbon footprint isn’t small because they go around snapping off lights.

I spoke with one energy expert, who, when I asked him to explain why per-capita energy consumption was so much lower in Europe than in the United States, said, “It’s not a secret, and it’s not the result of some miraculous technological breakthrough. It’s because Europeans are more likely to live in dense cities and less likely to own cars.” In European cities, as in New York, in other words, the most important efficiencies are built-in. And for the same reasons.

New York City looks so different from so much of the rest of the country that its environmental examples aren’t easy to apply — and even New Yorkers tend not to appreciate their power. (No one is more surprised than a Manhattanite to be told that Manhattanites are the nation’s lowest per-capita energy consumers.) But dense urban centers offer one of the few plausible remedies for some of the world’s most discouraging environmental ills, including climate change. Anti-urban naturalists like Thoreau and Muir make poor guides for anyone struggling with the increasingly urgent problem of how to support billions of mobile, acquisitive, hungry human beings without triggering disasters that can’t be contained.

The world’s population is projected to increase to 9 billion during the next 30 years — an increase of seven times the current population of the United States, or roughly equal to the current population of India and China combined. We won’t be able to accommodate that change by making the world look more like Vermont.

This article originally appeared on Yale Environment 360.

Image Credit: Mario Tama, Getty Images

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does this research take into account the energy used by lighting up the systems, screens, and buildings in NYC as a part of the per capita energy and gas use? Or the energy or gas required to run the public transit systems? While the effect on the per capita amount may be negligible once spread over everyone in NYC, it is still important to consider these sources because they still create a carbon footprint (and a large one at that) that should not be passed on for someone else to carry.

Posted by: Lora on 28 Oct 09

Very good article. I never would have guessed. However, the author didn't take into account water usage, storm water run-off, waste water, oxygen producing vegetation, etc...
I believe these things need to be included with per capita energy usage to determine a "Greenest Place".

Posted by: bobby on 28 Oct 09

I'd be curious to find out whether this analysis takes into account energy required to move food to the city, the land required to be cultivated to produce food for the city, and the fleet of vehicles needed to move it in. While impact at the most proximal may be minimal, what is the analysis of the more distant energy usage for food, consumer goods, and the impact that has on other locations.

Posted by: Luke on 28 Oct 09


Nice try. Although the items you have pointed out are in fact good and valid, you have COMPLETELY missed the biggest non-green entities of any big city, in a universal word: TAXI

Add that to your greener than thou New Yorkers and you are probably number 48, 49 and 50 in the worst category. Taxis are running 24x7 with or without a fare and are often poorly maintained. Even with the fleet of hybrids already deployed and I believe mandated for the future, they still burn gas and run 24x7.

As the previous poster mentioned, agricultural displacement, transportation of materials and carbon foot print of the massive commercial infrastructure that employs these eco-NYers needs to be considered before handing out the prizes.

Seriously, good try though,


Posted by: Pete M on 28 Oct 09

It's critical, this issue of cities. The fact that so many people find it counter-intuitive shows how much work is left to do. Another excellent, useful post, thanks.

Posted by: Rollo on 28 Oct 09

New York is definitely more efficient than most US cities in terms of energy use because of its extensive public transit, walking and cycling combined with building energy efficiencies that come with density. Another issue besides taxis that is not covered in this article is that 80 percent of the city's greenhouse gases come from building energy use, the majority which is generated by burning coal, natural gas and even heating oil. Only 2% of New York City's power comes from what can be classified as renewable sources, compared to well over 10% in Boston and numerous California cities. When you consider that the city increased its electricity consumption 23% between 1997-2007 and that it is forecast by Con Ed to increase electricity consumption 10% over the next decade, the lack of the author's alluding to where New York City's energy comes from is apparent. My point is that "Green cities" need to be measured not only in energy use or demand, but also in energy supply, one of the root causes of global climate change.

The writer also uses a diningenuous analytical method by comparing transit habits in Manhattan (one part of New York City) versus entire metro area counties, which is akin to comparing transit habits in Downtown Washington DC or San Francisco with the outer reaches of Queens.

Otherwise, well done and good food for thought.

Posted by: Warren Karlenzig on 28 Oct 09

It's true that to some degree, density has environmental benefits, the most obvious being less need for energy-intensive transportation. However, as other response posts have pointed out, many "ecological footprint" analyses leave out significant life-cycle impacts when evaluating per capita energy and material use in cities. While New Yorkers may be able to get away without owning a personal vehicle, supplying such a dense population with food, water, and other materials (and then carrying away the city's waste) requires intensive, daily transportation. How much plastic is brought into the city every day and how much is carried out as waste, and how many trucks and barges does it require? Is it possible to feed a city as dense and enormous as New York without the existence of distant, industrial monocultures? Do the per capita calculations in this article take these activities into account?

My point is that despite the new enviro "party line" of "the denser the better", density does not imply sustainability - and I'm not sure New York City is the model for which we want to strive, for two main reasons:

First, there are reasons why people want to leave dense cities like New York and move to rural areas or small towns. These places tend to be surrounded by natural beauty, they tend to feel less impersonal than big cities, they're quieter and calmer, they have enough space for people to grow their own food and enjoy nature, and they usually aren't struck by many of the social afflictions of big cities: crime, failing school systems, etc., which are intimately connected with density.

Second, places like Vermont have the potential to be just as sustainable as massive, dense cities - probably more so. It's a difficult task, but the problem of transportation in less-dense areas CAN be solved by better community design (more 'villages', fewer 'subdivisions'), telecommuting, and more efficient vehicles. Then, due to their closer relationship with natural systems, less-dense areas have the ability to set up local, efficient, closed-loop systems in ways massive cities can not possibly achieve.

Of course, we can't all live like Vermonters. As the article points out, there simply isn't enough space. But we don't all want to live like New Yorkers, and we don't have to in order to build a sustainable society, either. We need to find ways of forging sustainable communities in big cities and small towns alike.

Posted by: Andy Lubershane on 29 Oct 09

One thing that comes to mind as potentially left out is a critical part of the lifestyle of many New York City's more affluent residents: national and international air travel. My understanding is that one even national flight per year completely offsets, by far, all other efforts an individual might make to "live green" (installing solar panels, carpooling, using public transport, living in a LEEDS certified house/building, etc.). I think this factor of air travel also implies that those with the biggest carbon footprint tend to be more educated and affluent. Food for thought.

If I'm wrong on any points, please do correct me though.

Posted by: Rafi on 29 Oct 09

Speak for yourself, Andy! Not everyone wants to live in small towns, which by definition can't support much culture. Plenty dream of living in New York. Not everyone has animals and family, or even aspires to having them (but I concede, most do).

And since when was density "synonymous" with social problems, except in the USA? Problems result from systematic neglect, and that's a political issue. Look at any major European city for counter-examples.

Otherwise, good points.

Posted by: Rollo on 30 Oct 09

Very nice article, but I dont know if there is a real accurate way to count how much energy people in diffrent cities are using. Its not an easy calculation atlest. For example I have seen that buildings are the biggest energy consumers, , so even if New Yorkers spend less energy by using cars etc, they still live in buildings that are polluting alot. The energy consumed by all the buildings in New York combined is probably really bad for the environment. And that has to go into the calculation aswell.

Posted by: Niklas on 30 Oct 09

I seem to recall seeing another post here (or maybe it was on Climate Progress) that suggests that transportation costs for bringing food into a city pale in comparison to the energy that must be devoted to growing the food in the first place, which is energy that must be spent whether you're eating local or imported food. It seems that the energy saved by living densely would more than offset any additional transportation costs for food import and waste removal. (For what it's worth, were any of those calculations factored into the analysis of Vermont?)

As for taxis - they do some damage to the points about New Yorkers not owning cars, but don't they actually reflect another green way of living - that is, tool-sharing (in this case, cars)?

Posted by: Chris L on 30 Oct 09

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