Two days ago I flew back home to suburban Vancouver, following a week-long visit to New York City. For me, the Big Apple was somewhat mind-blowing. It’s a city that sticks to you, in more ways than one. The heat and humidity, the throngs of people, the smell of the subway, the lights and the aggressive drivers and the strangers who have very few qualms about telling you exactly what they think. Being there made me feel provincial, and reminded me of how very little I have actually seen of the world. And I thought, as I walked around with wide-open eyes, that it was a fabulous place to visit but that I couldn’t imagine living someplace like Manhattan.
I grew up in a rural setting, in a former company town surrounded by farmland. Our little brick house had wood heat, and across the street was a large grassy park and a farmer’s field where cows stood, lazily chewing their cud. For me, living in the suburbs as I do now is a comfortable compromise. My current neighbourhood is more walkable and offers more amenities than my childhood home, but it also allows me the space to have a backyard where I can have a garden and my kids can play. And since I work from home and my husband works in a neighbouring suburb, commuting isn’t really an issue for us.
However, as someone who cares rather a lot about the planet, I feel as if I should consider what sort of environmental impact comes with my choice of where to live. So as I return to the suburbs from the big city I compare how green cities and suburbs are in a few key areas.
Walking around Manhattan
Green Living: Cities vs. Suburbs
- Waste Management – I’m starting with this one, because this is one area where the suburbs have cities beat. In New York City, for instance, just 15% of waste is currently recycled. Their goal is to increase that to 30% by 2017. In contrast, here in the Vancouver area 55% of waste is currently recycled. A 2009 report indicates that recycling rates were almost twice as high for single family homes vs. apartments and townhouses. I’ve found this when visiting my friends. The difference arises because buildings generally have their own waste management contracts, while curbside waste collection is handled by the municipality.
- Carbon Footprint – By all accounts, the city is the clear winner on this one. Urban dwellers generally travel shorter distances to work. They’re also more likely to use transit or to cycle or walk. In fact, their emissions from transportation are 70% lower than for those of us who live in more spread out regions. As well, with smaller homes, they use less energy for heating, cooling and lighting. They’re also not mowing their lawns with gas-powered lawnmowers, or grilling on massive gas grills as often. The other argument is that when we live close together, we’re not encroaching on wild spaces in the same way.
- Human Health – I have kids. This means that while I care a whole lot about issues like recycling and climate change, my top concern will always be the health of my children. So how do cities and suburbs compare when it comes to issues affecting human health? While there aren’t always clear answers, you can make some sweeping generalizations about quality of life. Generally speaking, there’s more air pollution in cities. You’re going to be around more idling cars and you’re going to walk past more people smoking in the street. However, the fact you’re walking in the street is a big plus. Urbanites have less access to land to grow their own food, and while they’re closer to farmers’ markets they’re farther from actual farms. But they also have access to a wider range of products (think organic fair trade chocolate) with green cred.
The garlic I grew in my suburban backyard
Is there a clear answer between the suburbs and city? It depends on who you ask. It also depends on what issues are most important to you, and the region you’re living in. For instance, while my home here in Vancouver likely consumes more energy than a typical home for a family of four in New York City, my power comes from water rather than coal, and I have curbside compost pick-up. I drive more, and I have a vegetable garden. It’s all about making trade-offs in choosing the suburbs or the city.
There are a whole lot of things that go into deciding where to live. And truthfully, we couldn’t all live in cities. Someone has to grow the food, produce the clothing and secure the resources that city-dwellers use every day. The more aware you are of the impact of your choices on the planet, the better decisions you can make. This doesn’t mean we all have to adopt exactly the same lifestyle. But it does mean that before we get in our cars, or buy that new pair of shoes, or sign a contract to buy a home, we should spend some time thinking about what will come out of that decision we’re making.
Do you live in the city, the suburbs, or in a more rural setting? How does the place you live impact your ability to make sustainable choices? And did you consider the planet when you chose where to live? I’d love to hear your thoughts!