Why We Are The Greenest City In The U.S.

When most people think of New York City, one of the last things that come to mind is “green.” Although the buildings might outnumber the trees, and the air quality is far from ideal, surprisingly, New York City is the greenest city in the United States.

Shock and awe aside, once you begin to think about it, the pieces start to come together. The sheer density of people living in New York City, practically on top of one another, is the primary reason it is so efficient. Manhattan’s density is 800 times the national average. Combine that with the fact that eighty percent of people in New York City use public transit, bike, or walk as a means of transportation, compared to just eight percent in the rest of the United States.

For years, people have been conditioned to believe that cities are bad, and suburbs are good. When, in fact, suburban sprawl is far worse for the environment than city living. The compactness of Manhattan, a twenty-three square mile island, leaves little room to be wasteful with space, and forces most people to live in apartment buildings. Two car garages, sweeping lawns, fertilizers and pesticides to boot, and comfortable four bedroom houses take up much more space and energy, than a couple living in a one bedroom apartment with no car or lawn. In an article written for The New Yorker, David Owen writes, “The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties.”

Of course, this highly efficient city life has its drawbacks. Manhattan has the highest childhood asthma rates in the country due to the vast amounts of energy being burned in a compacted area, and air pollution is attributed to six percent of deaths per year in Manhattan. According to David Owen, “calculated by the square foot, New York City generates more greenhouse gases, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than most other American regions of comparable size. ” However, if we were to view these figures in terms of resident or household, New York City would be considered a model of environmental responsibility, with a greenhouse gas footprint less than 30 percent that of the national average.

Many urban planners consider Manhattan’s layout an exception as to how most cities are designed. However, instead of having Manhattan be an exception, it should become an example of how an efficient city should operate. For example, Phoenix, Arizona is one of the United States’ largest cities, yet its public transportation system is almost nonexistent, simply because Phoenix has spread itself so far across the desert. There is little incentive to build any form of public transit system. Compactness is the key here.

So yes, it is true, the city devoid of greenery happens to be the greenest city in the United States. New York City still has a long way to go in terms of air quality, and its overall carbon footprint, but it is still running a highly efficient operation. Central Park termed “the lungs of New York City” serves as an air purification system for NYC, but the city calls for more trees to combat air pollution. Luckily, the beginnings of a remedy are in order. Mayor Bloomberg has put PlaNYC into motion, an innovative long-term program to make the city greener and more sustainable over the next couple of decades. Some projects include making sure every New Yorker is within a ten minute walk of a playground, planting one million trees, and a plan to phase out heavy heating oils by 2030.

Looking toward the future, New York City will hopefully perfect the art of high density and high efficiency, all the while expanding its greenery. Vertical farming, now more than ever, is an appealing option as open space becomes a rarity.  With an ever increasing population, expected to reach 9 billion in the next 30 years, we will not be able to accommodate the change by making the world look more like Long Island suburbs. Cities are the only viable option.


Did You Know…

  • 54 percent of New York City households and 77 percent of Manhattan households do not own cars.
  • The average New Yorker weighs five pounds less than a person living elsewhere in the United States due to the city’s walkability.
  • New Yorkers have the smallest carbon footprints in the United States: 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person per year. Manhattanites generate even less.



By: Mary Flannelly