Why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to SUSTAINABILITY
More like Manhattan
The Utopian community was Manhattan. Most Americans including most New Yorkers think of New York city as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of environmental responsibility. In fact by most significant measures, New York is the Greenest Community in the United States.
The most devastating damage that humans have done to the environment has arisen from the burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric by comparison with other Americans including people who live in rural areas or in such putatively eco friendly cities as Portland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado.
82% of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general.
“ If New Yorkers lived at the typical American sprawl density of three households per residential acre, they would require many times as much land. They’d be driving cars, and they’d have huge lawns and be using pesticides and fertilizers on their lawns, so that runoff would go into streams.”
The key to the New Yorker’s relative environmental beginning is its extreme compactness.
New Yorkers individually drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and farms, because the tightly circumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies for reckless consumption.
The compactness of development, the fertile mix of commercial and residential uses, and the availability of public transportation make automobile ownership all but unnecessary in most of the city.
New York city is by no means the world’s only or best example of the environment benefits of concentrating human populations and mixing uses.
Many large cities in Europe – where the main population centers arose long before the auto mobiles, and therefore evolved to be served by less environmentally disastrous means of getting around – are less wasteful than New York and the most energy efficient and least automobile dependent cities in the world include a number of Asian ones, among them Hong king and Singapore. But New York is a useful example because it is familiar both to Americans, and to people in the developing world and because it proves that affluent people are capable of living comfortably while consuming energy and inflicting environmental damage at levels well below current US averages.
It offers important lessons about how to permanently reduce energy use, water consumption, carbon output, and many other environmental ills.
“Of course sustainable living is easier in Vermont township, where local produce is plentiful and every backyard is equipped with compost bin.”
But this is exactly wrong. “Sustainable living” is actually much harder in small far-flung places than it is in dense cities.
A dense urban area’s greenest features- its low per-capita energy use, its high acceptance of public transit and walking, its small carbon footprint per resident- are not explicable anomalies. In terms of sustainability, dense cities have far more to teach us than solar-powered mountainside cabins or quaint old New England towns.
The history of civilization is a chronicle of destruction. No sensible modern human can contemplate that history without a shudder. Everywhere we look, we see evidence of our recklessness, as well as signs that our destructive reach is growing.
We are going to need to find ways to reduce size of spaces we inhabit, heat, cool, furnish, and maintain.
The world not just the United States needs to pursue land-use strategies that promote high-density, mixed-use urban development, rather than sprawl.
The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles to the gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging.
The truth is that every product and service we buy includes, and has always included, a fuel surcharge, because the cost of doing any business necessarily reflects the cost of the fuel that is consumed in the course of doing it. As the cost of fossil fuels goes up and down, the size of the fuel surcharge changes, too, on everything we buy and do, whether the surcharge is itemized on the bill or not.
Between 1987 and 2007, as scientists were more certain and more specific about the consequences of our extraordinarily robust dependence on oil, new American cars actually grew 89 percent in horsepower, while declining 2 percent in fuel efficiency, and U.S. gasoline consumption increased by about a third. Sales of oversized cars have fallen dramatically since early 2008, and the automobile industry has been transformed to the verge of financial collapse.
Oil is a cornucopian resource. Mostly everything we use, is made at least partly of plastic and therefore partly of oil: computer, CPU, keyboard, monitor, scanner, printer, telephone, cellphone, compact disks, chair, carpet, sneakers, wastebasket, pens, camera, scissors, window air conditioner, latex wall paint, the lenses for eye glasses..
Americans consume approximately 850 million gallons of crude oil per day. That’s a bit less than a quarter of the world’s production, and it works out to about 2.8 gallons per person. Actually when you consider everything that Americans currently do with oil- commuting to work, heating homes, operating farm machinery, manufacturing plastic and pharmaceuticals, transporting goods, flying all over the globe on a whim, fueling the world’s largest and most mobile military force. *
- The U.S. Department of Defense, which used approximately 117 billion barrels in 2006, is the largest single oil consumer in the world. It uses more oil per capita than all but three of the world’s countries. Every one dollar increase in the price of barrel of oil costs Pentagon an extra $130 million a year.
CARS don’t just use energy themselves; they also raise energy consumption in all forms and in all categories, with the usual environmental consequences, by enabling people to live in ways that are unavoidably inefficient.
Not only do local environment absorb much of the cost of more and more local roadways, profoundly longer water and electrical lines, and much larger sewer systems to support sprawling development, they must also fund public services to the new residents who live farther and farther from the core community.
These new residents need police and fire protection, schools, libraries, trash removal, and other services. Stretching all these basic services over ever-growing geographic areas places a great burden on local governments. For example, the Minneapolis/St. Paul region built 78 new schools in the suburbs between 1970 and 1990 while simultaneously closing 162 schools in good condition located within city limits.
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a prominent early evangelist of auto-mobile based population dispersion. Wright, liked Ford, saw the car as a weapon against traditional urban life: it was a defining element in his evolving vision of an American utopia, which he called Usonia. In his book The Living City he explained, “Cars (and personal helicopters) would enable Usonians to place a more comfortable distance between themselves and their neighbors, freeing them from the typical big-city streetscape, which Wright called “a vast prison with glass fronts.”
Every mile traveled on a train eliminates nine miles traveled by car.
Towards decreasing one’s carbon footprint
1. If a good transit option becomes available, then people and business adjust by locating nearer to the lines; thus transit shortens travel distances.
2. People taking transit often combine several journeys in one – for example, picking up groceries on the way home from work, which in a car-based suburban setting would likely mean separate car trips.
3. Households that switch to transit often give up one car and thus have less car use because the choice of using a car is less available.
4. Transit users often find that the habit of walking or biking to stations flows the rest of their lifestyles.
Adding public transit in places that aren’t dense enough to support it, expanding our already environmentally disastrous network of roads and highways, and supporting flawed alternative-energy schemes – projects that are high on many politician’s wish lists – might stimulate the economy in the short term but can only set us further behind for the future. A truly green economy, furthermore, is certain to be smaller economy that the one we are used to, for the simple reason that renewable fuels don’t offer the same energy leverage as the stuff we currently burn.