Is living in a city more sustainable?

As world leaders meet at COP26 to develop a strategy to combat the climate crisis, more and more individuals are turning inwards and looking for ways to make changes in their own lives. While actions like recycling are important, where you live and get around impacts the environment more than anything else.


According to Pew Research, 31% of Americans live in cities, 55% live in the suburbs, and 14% live in rural communities (1). So which option is the most sustainable? Is it possible to live in any place and lead an environmentally-conscious life? 


Read on to find out. 


The environmental benefits of city life

If you’re trying to live as sustainably as possible, city life does come with its benefits. 


For one thing, people who live in cities use much less infrastructure than those in suburbs or the countryside. The same goes for water—households in cities use a fraction of the water that those outside use. As most people in metropolitan areas live in comparatively small apartments that don’t have lawns or gardens, that’s not surprising. 


Depending on where you live, your city may also be traversable without a car. If you have the option to take the bus, the metro, or even walk to your destination (and regularly choose to do so), you’re further reducing your carbon footprint.


Most people who live in more isolated, sprawled-out communities lack usable public transportation options. They end up having to drive everywhere, and because of that, have higher levels of carbon emissions. 


The downsides

All of that said, the comparison isn’t as black and white as many people may think. In fact, in some instances, living in the suburbs or countryside is more sustainable than living in a city. 


Although some cities provide public transportation options, many American cities don’t. Because of that, people are often forced to drive around from destination to destination. This leads to congested roads and highways, which further increases carbon emissions. 


At the same time, some research seems to indicate that people in cities use more energy than those in the suburbs and the countryside (2). At first glance, this may seem strange since most apartments are smaller than houses. However, most apartments have elevators, common areas, TVs, swimming pools, and other amenities. All of those consume huge amounts of energy, which increases per capita usage. 


What an eco-friendly city could look like 

In a perfect world, cities would be designed and built as sustainably as possible. But what would that look like?


For one thing, urban planners would prioritize public transportation while discouraging private vehicles. This would cut down on traffic while also ensuring that people emit as little as possible when they go about their daily lives.


Apartment buildings would also take advantage of renewable energy. They’d harness the sun, the wind, and other forms of sustainable power to generate electricity. While elevators may be necessary for tall buildings, other amenities, like rooftop swimming pools, might need to be cut out.


The takeaway

While cities provide some sustainability benefits, they’re lacking in other areas. While you can try to lead as sustainable a life as possible, the government needs to work with urban planners and environmentalists to design cities in a way that minimizes the need to use fossil fuels. 

For that to happen, all of us will need to become a part of the climate revolution.

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