Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

“If You Love Nature, Stay Away From It.” Agree?

Harvard Professor Ed Glaeser is not a neutral guy. Anyone who writes a book called “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier” is going to have distinct opinions about the merits of city living. He sees cities as the principle way forward for a world population projected to exceed 10B people by 2050.

Besides touting the City’s fertile conditions for economic progress, innovation and wellbeing, Glaeser asserts that cities are far greener than their arboreal suburban and rural neighbors. In a Boston Globe op-ed published a few years ago, Glaeser starts his piece with an anecdote about how Henry David Thoreau–the “secular saint of environmentalism” as he put it–set fire to 300 acres of forest around Concord, MA while communing with nature. He argues that Thoreau’s fire is analogous to the human desire to live around–and in–nature. It’s a nice idea, but a grim reality. He warns that “we are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it.”

Glaeser uses a case study that compares central Boston dwellers with their suburban counterparts to demonstrate his point. Between their larger homes, higher energy bills and increased transportation needs, he states that “the standardized suburban household in the Boston area produces almost six tons more carbon dioxide per year than the standardized urban household.”

Several years ago, Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter wrote an article called “Are Cities Really Green” (it’s as timely today as it was then). Alter refers to a New Yorker article by David Owen, who claimed that if New York City were its own state, it would rank 51st in terms of per capita energy consumption. Both Glaeser and Owen’s claims are in line with the Abogo website, which measures the carbon consumption of a household by its address. Predictably, the less urban an address, the more carbon it produces.

But Alter also referred to Economist Tyler Cowen who said city folk shouldn’t get so high on themselves for their greenness–that “praising Manhattan [or likely any city] is a bit like looking only at the roof of a car and concluding it doesn’t burn much gas.” He says that cities are the economic drivers for the rest of the country, creating the industries that send people to the less-dense, greater-polluting outskirts. Sure, if city-dwellers lived in a bubble, their environmental impact would be much smaller than suburbanites and country folk. But they don’t live in a bubble. As Cowen explains, “”Think of Manhattan as a place which outsources its pollution, simply because land there is so valuable.”.

There’s truth on all sides. Yes, cities are more efficient, and no, they don’t live in a economic or environmental bubble. Not all cities are created alike, nor are suburbs and rural homes.

We would note that Cowen refers to the content more than the form of the city, which assumes an inextricable connection between the two. Such is not the case however. Some cities might be economic, carbon-outsourcing powerhouses like New York and Hong Kong; others, like Lagos or say Portland, OR rely more on their internal economy. If you leave content out of the equation, cities, with their smaller housing footprints and reduced transportation needs, are, on average, going to have a smaller per capita environmental footprints than suburbs and the country.

Far be it from us to present pat answers. What do you think? Are cities inherently the greenest place to live? Or is the city mouse just outsourcing his dirt? Is there a winner? Does there need to be?

Osaka, Japan image via Shutterstock

  • Rancher
  • Brent

    Contrary to popular belief, humans did actually evolve on this planet. If we exclude homo sapiens, the totality of all life and all species have a positive impact on the functioning of the ecosystems they inhabit (perhaps we should exclude invasives as well so that we don’t have to think about when invasive species become native). But, paradoxically, all species also alter in some way how their ecosystems function. So why are the alterations that we make to ecosystems detrimental, while the alterations that other species make are beneficial? Are there examples of homo sapiens that do have a positive impact on their ecosystems? When did homo sapiens start having a detrimental effect on their ecosystems?

    In my mind answering these questions shifts one’s perspective such that it becomes completely absurd to discus human intervention as being de facto bad, or the inverse, that completely prohibiting human intervention from some parcel of an ecosystem is an unmitigated good. We live here. We necessarily alter our ecosystems. Maybe we ought to get good at that again rather than segregate the human from the non-human.

  • Rua Lupa

    Until you can source all human needs within city limits, cities are not the be all and end all. Farmers and Fisheries from the outskirts and around the world provide the city’s food, and raw goods that produce medicine. Mines and Refineries are and likely will remain outside urban areas with a few exceptions of areas high in desired minerals that can just mole around endlessly and a city can develop there – perhaps even underground since already mined out areas could easily be utilized, now that would be neat. You also have mills for clothing fibers and food that are not normally within cities. Manufacturing is in industrial zones and are not safe to be in cities unless manufacturing takes a turn to be more environmentally sound. If all these needs, and possibly more not mentioned, can be met in a city landscape, and done so in a way that is sustainable and biodiverse (in-city parks, greenwalls and roofs, with permeable pavement to allow for healthy city environment, and designed around pedestrians with easy public transportation to farther areas i.e. subways and trains) then that would be a place anyone would want to live in and the suburban sprawl would be history.

    Rural areas would remain because there needs to be some small communities working to gather goods that are more difficult to find in large quantities, and range lands needed for healthy livestock for meat, milk, leather, and fibers.

    If cities do become maximized sustainable cities where only these type of rural areas remain. Suburban areas wouldn’t need to be around and there would be a lot more wilderness the world over, and that wilderness would be a lot closer for recreation by urbanites, which means that there would be nearby camping parks and resorts. I’m sure some would still demand a personal cottage, but at that point that wouldn’t be a priority, or possibly even an interest, for most people. If most people don’t want a personally owned getaway cottage (if you could rent a good one for months at time, why bother buying to build?) then the “cottage country” where its, lets face it, cottage sprawl and resulting diminished wilderness wouldn’t be a problem.

    This is very much a possibility and one that I suspect is coming to be in the future – perhaps even the near future. One which I look forward to.

  • Ivana_Puke

    A little off topic but I just read this article about NY by David Byrne. For some unknown reason my first reaction was to wonder if Life Edited had read it. Well if you haven’t here it is.

    • David Friedlander

      really great article and as someone who’s re-transplanting himself to nyc, very germane to my life. no easy answer: nyc and many very expensive cities are great to live in, yet are becoming prohibitively expensive for many of the people who make them great.

  • eflash
    • David Friedlander

      corrected. thanks!

  • WithheldName

    Yep. Everywhere you see a chic bohemian brownstone with urbanistas who walk to work and shop locally…there must be:

    1. A mine to extract the clay for the bricks for that brownstone
    2. A warehouse to store those bricks
    3. Trucks to haul those bricks to the construction site
    4. A factory to make those trucks
    5. Repair shops to fix those trucks
    6. Oil wells to extract the fuel for those trucks
    7. Refineries to process the oil into gasoline
    8. Tankers to haul the oil to the pump stations to fill the trucks
    9. Factories to build the tankers
    10. Mines and factories to make the steel for the trucks and tankers
    11. Etc., etc., etc.

    So unless the brownstones are made from clay scooped by hand from the banks of the East River and dried in the sun on the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue and carried by bicycle and hand-assembled into the walls of those brownstones…New York City simply looks green on paper…because all its carbon-emitting support industries are located in New Jersey, Texas, China, and so on.

    If New York City were truly green, it would resemble a shanty town in Calcutta where the residents built their shacks from scraps carried from nearby junkyards.