Big Cities Aren't As Green As You Think: Suburbs Effectively Wipe Out Climate Benefits Of Urban Living

New Study Challenges the Sustainability Credentials of Cities

By Kendra Pierre-Louis on January 7, 2014 9:32 AM EST

Photo Credit: Alyson Hurt
Photo Credit: Alyson Hurt


Over the past few years, population dense cities, like New York City, have crowed that not only are they hubs for art, culture, and innovation, but that they're also less environmentally damaging than less dense environs. Their bragging rights as green places stem from the fact that large dense cities lead to lifestyles that are less structured around single family homes and driving, and more focused on multifamily buildings, mass transit, and walking. The result is that dense cities have less greenhouse gas emissions per person than other areas of the country.

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A new study out of the University of California, Berkeley, however, suggests that larger dense cities may have to swallow a large piece of humble pie. The extensive suburbs of cities like New York and Chicago serve to effectively wipe out their climate benefits. The study, which is to be published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, says that when one takes into account not just the direct impact of the cities themselves, but also of the suburban areas that pop up around them, that large metropolitan areas have slightly higher carbon footprints than small metropolitan areas. New York, it turns out is potentially less "green" than Lincoln, Nebraska.

Suburbs account for half of all household greenhouse gas emissions, even though they account for less than half the population, and the average carbon footprint for households in distance suburbs are up to twice as much as the national average. Households living in the center of large, population dense cities are roughly 50 percent below average. Small cities have slightly larger footprints than big cities, but still much smaller footprints than suburbs. Perhaps most paradoxically, increasing suburban density hurts, rather than improves the carbon footprint of suburbs because population dense suburbs tend to create their own suburbs.

A CoolClimate Map of New York City’s carbon footprint by zipcode tabulation area shows a pattern typical of large metropolitan areas: a small footprint (green) in the urban core but a large footprint (orange and red) in surrounding suburbs. (Credit: UC Berkeley)
A CoolClimate Map of New York City’s carbon footprint by zipcode tabulation area shows a pattern typical of large metropolitan areas: a small footprint (green) in the urban core but a large footprint (orange and red) in surrounding suburbs. (Credit: UC Berkeley)


The object of the study is not to make big city dwellers feel guilt, but rather to broaden urban planning's perspective around sustainability. "The goal of the project is to help cities better understand the primary drivers of household carbon footprints in each location," said Dr. Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy and resource policy at U.C. Berkeley, in a press release. "We hope cities will use this information to begin to create highly tailored, community-scale climate action plans."

Right now, a citiy's focus on sustainability tends to end at their municipalities borders — despite the symbiotic relationship between suburbs and cities. This study suggests that cities need to work in concert with their suburban footprint to effectively lower emissions nationwide.

If you're curious about your area's footprint, interactive carbon footprint maps for more than 31,000 U.S. zip codes is provided by the study's authors online here: http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps

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