Can Rural Living Be As Green As Urban Living?

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Can Rural Living Be As Green As Urban Living?

If you want to minimize your environmental footprint, move to a city

Posted on Jul 1 2016 by Martin Holladay

Rural residents are surrounded by greenery and breathe fresh air. Urban residents are surrounded by concrete and breathe polluted air.

On the other hand, rural residents live in wasteful single-family homes and depend on private cars for transportation. Urban residents live in efficient apartments and use public transportation.

So which lifestyle is greener? According to most analysts, urban living is better for the planet than rural living. But a few aspects of the question remain unsettled.

Forty years ago, many writers took it for granted that close-to-nature rural living was more environmentally friendly than living in a concrete jungle. These days, on the other hand, when writers bring up old clichés about polluted cities, it’s usually as a setup for a “yes, but” twist.

For example, a Time magazine article from 2012 noted, “More and more people are moving into cities around the world — and those cities are getting bigger and bigger. The urbanization shift could wreck the environment. … Between now and 2030, urban areas will expand by more than 463,000 sq. mi. (1.2 million sq. km). That’s equal to 20,000 U.S. football fields being paved over every day for the first few decades of this century. … In China and in India, cities will balloon. … That’s worrying because much of the urbanization wave is happening with little to no advance planning, amplifying the environmental cost of stuffing hundreds of millions of poor people into half-built metropolitan areas that often lack basic sanitation, waste management or water services.”

Sounds like an open-and-shut case, right? The twist comes later in the article: “Residents of cities like New York … tend to have smaller carbon footprints, especially compared to their counterparts in the countryside and the suburbs. Dense urban areas reduce commute distances — saving gas — and allow residents to forgo cars altogether. That density also pushes urban residents to live in smaller homes, which in turn means less energy is needed for heating and cooling living spaces.”

Romantic writers honored the pastoral ideal

The “rural life is greener” cliché goes back a long ways; Charles Dickens would have recognized the concepts underpinning the “rural life is greener” idea. These days, however, the cliché seems dated, and many people realize that density has environmental benefits.

Yet William Meyer, an associate professor of geography at Colgate University, believes that the “rural life is greener” cliché still pops up often enough that it needs to be refuted. Meyer labels this cliché “commonsense environmental anti-urbanism.”

(William Meyer, the author of The Environmental Advantages of Cities, is one of three writers who dominate discussions of the rural-versus-urban debate. The other two are Edward L. Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, and David Owen, author of Green Metropolis.)

Some writers on the issue take the opposite view from William Meyer, declaring that common sense dictates that urban living is greener than rural living. In a piece for The Guardian, Leo Hickman wrote, “At first glance, it would certainly seem logical that city living is the greener option — if it is, indeed, an option. Surrounded by public transport, you don’t need to own a car. And by living in dense, compact housing, you should need less in the way of resources and energy. The economies of scale and superior efficiencies available in a city should, in theory, always trump those in a rural environment.”

Per capita, urbanites have lower levels of land use, energy use, and water use

David Owen has delved deeply into data on the carbon footprint of the typical New Yorker. Owen wrote, “Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world.”

Meyer sums up the main reasons why urbanites deserve green medals: “The smaller living and yard spaces, less dependence on automobiles, and more efficient use of infrastructure (roads, utility connections) among urban dwellers mean a lower per capita consumption of key resources from land and water to energy and materials.”

Several analysts have noted that anyone who cares about endangered species should live in a city, since building homes in rural areas often disrupts wildlife habitat. Meyer points out, “Low-density occupation deforests, fragments, or otherwise disrupts much larger areas per household [than high-density occupation].”

There are several other reasons why urban living is aligned with environmental values.

Cities slow population growth. As Meyer notes, “People living in rural areas have higher fertility rates — have more children — than people living in urban areas.”

Urban residents care more about protecting the environment than rural residents. In “The Rural-Urban Continuum and Environmental Concerns,” J. Allen Williams, Jr. and Helen A. Moore cite three research papers (Tremblay and Dunlap 1978; Van Liere and Dunlap 1980; Lowe and Pinhey 1982) that support the proposition that “urban dwellers tend to be more concerned than their rural counterparts about environmental issues.”

Urban residents are healthier than rural residents. Meyer wrote, “Death rates are higher in rural areas in the world today; life expectancy is higher in cities.” This phenomenon is true not only in poor countries, but even in Canada. In a research paper by Carlyn J. Matz, David M. Stieb, and Orly Brion, the authors wrote, “There is evidence that rural residents experience a health disadvantage compared to urban residents, associated with a greater prevalence of health risk factors and socioeconomic differences. We examined differences between urban and rural Canadians … Analysis of data … revealed a number of differences in time-activity patterns, occupational activity, and housing characteristics between urban and rural populations. In particular, rural populations spent more time outdoors, were more likely to work outdoors and spent more time near gas or diesel powered equipment (other than vehicles). There was also a greater prevalence of wood burning as the main source of household heating, as well as a lower prevalence of air conditioning and a higher prevalence of smoking in rural areas. Additional research is warranted to better understand precisely how these differences may contribute to health disparities between urban and rural areas.”

Surprisingly, air pollution contributes to these negative health outcomes for rural residents. Meyer wrote, “The world’s worst air pollution anywhere is in rural areas. It’s in rural areas in the third world, and it’s indoor air pollution. It’s because rural areas depend upon smoky biomassOrganic waste that can be converted to usable forms of energy such as heat or electricity, or crops grown specifically for that purpose. fuels, so you get higher levels of that kind of pollution indoors in rural areas. You breathe it in very directly. It’s the biggest contribution to air pollution doses for people, but it’s not visible.”

Cities provide neighborhoods where culturally marginalized people can form vibrant communities. Joshua Leon, an assistant professor of political science at Iona College, wrote, “Could a country without cities have managed to form Chinatowns or LGBT districts in any sizeable way?”

Two studies show that urban living is greener than rural living

Most academic researchers looking into the rural-versus-urban debate tend to side with the pro-urban authors I’ve cited. According to a study by David Dodman published in the April 2009 issue of Environment and Urbanization, greenhouse gas emissions of city dwellers are often far smaller than the national averages.

A report by the Brookings Institution came to the same conclusion. According to an article on Environmental Research Web, the Brookings study found that “Metro area residents have smaller carbon footprints than the average American. … Each resident of the 100 largest metropolitan areas is responsible for 2.47 tons of carbon dioxide in energy consumption on average, compared to the U.S. average of 2.87 tons. Typically, a city dweller will use public transport more often and live at higher population density, both factors which can decrease carbon footprint.”

David Owen makes fun of Vermont

As I noted earlier, David Owen loves to sing the praises of New York City residents, whose carbon footprint is tiny. In a recent article, Owen, in search of a rural state to ridicule, chose my home state of Vermont.

Owen wrote, “Spreading people thinly across the countryside, Vermont-style, may make them look and feel green, but it actually increases the damage they do to the environment while also making that damage harder to see and to address. In the categories that matter the most, Vermont ranks low in comparison with many other American places. It has no truly significant public transit system (other than its school bus routes), and, because its population is so dispersed, it is one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country. A typical Vermonter consumes 545 gallons of gasoline per year — almost a hundred gallons more than the national average. …

“New Yorkers also consume far less electricity — about 4,700 kilowatt hours per household per year, compared with roughly 7,100 kilowatt hours in Vermont and more than 11,000 kilowatt hours in the United States as a whole…. (Fifty-four percent of New York City households — and 77 percent of Manhattan households — own no car at all. In Vermont and the rest of the country, the percentage of no-automobile households is close to zero.)

“Wild landscapes are less often destroyed by people who despise wild landscapes than by people who love them, or think they do — by people who move to be near them, and then, when others follow, move again. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond, a mile from his nearest neighbor, set the American pattern for creeping residential development, since anyone seeking to replicate his experience needed to move at least a mile farther along.”

Edward L. Glaeser also teases Thoreau

Edward L. Glaeser picked up the anti-Thoreau theme in a New York Times article called “The Lorax Was Wrong.”

Glaeser wrote, “Of course, many environmentalists will still prefer to take their cue from Henry David Thoreau, who advocated living alone in the woods. They would do well to remember that Thoreau, in a sloppy chowder-cooking moment, burned down 300 acres of prime Concord woodland. Few Boston merchants did as much environmental harm, which suggests that if you want to take good care of the environment, stay away from it and live in cities.”

What about the suburbs?

Reading about the rural-versus-urban debate, suburban dwellers may be wondering, “What about us?”

In many respects, suburbs represent the worst option (environmentally speaking) in the rural/urban/suburban triad. The suburbs have their champions, of course — more notably, Frank Lloyd Wright, who imagined a suburban utopia he called “Broadacre City.” In this imaginary community, each family was allotted an acre of land, and all transportation was by private automobile. According to Matt Novak, the editor of Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, “Wright saw many of humanity’s problems reflected in the outmoded cities around him. ‘To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor,’ he wrote in 1945. The city was a scourge; an antiquated idea that may have been useful in the past, but was rendered completely obsolete by new technology.”

Among pro-urban authors, Glaeser holds a special contempt for suburban developments that market themselves as “green.” An online review of Glaeser’s book, Triumph of the City, notes that Glaeser “calls out fake green developments like The Woodlands in Texas which is full of ‘trees and energy-efficient homes, but [occupied by] homeowners [who] drive so much that they undo most of those environmental benefits.’”

In an article published on the website, Carla Saulter urges parents to raise their kids in an urban area. She wrote, “We Americans tend to believe that a healthy environment in which to raise children is a large, single-family home in a quiet, suburban community. Many of us are convinced that trading the polluted, crowded city for greener pastures (also known as the large backyards that usually come along with suburban homes) is the right decision for our children. Unfortunately, the farther we move from urban centers, the more auto-dependent, resource-intensive, and by extension, environmentally detrimental our lives become. Auto-dependent living is bad for our children; it’s also very, very bad for the planet. … If you live in a sprawling, autocentric community that requires you to drive your kids to the supermarket to buy their organic produce and to the local playfield to get their exercise, you’re not doing them — or the planet — any favors. … Dense communities are arguably better for kids’ health than suburbs, because the built environment in urban environments is more likely to encourage walking and other forms of active transportation.”

The bigger the city, the better the benefits

Several writers and researchers have noted that bigger and denser cities have greater environmental virtues than smaller, less dense cities. The correlation between higher density and lower environmental impact appears to be consistent.

Writing in The Atlantic, Richard Florida noted that “Larger, denser cities are cleaner and more energy efficient than smaller cities, suburbs, and even small towns.”

Wait — it’s a little more complicated that it appears

The “urban living is greener” analysis may have a few wrinkles. One author, Peter Hanlon, cites a Finnish study as evidence that pro-urban writers may be failing to account for some aspects of urban dwellers’ carbon footprints.

The study by Jukka Heinonen, Mikko Jalas, Jouni Juntunen, Sanna Ala-Mantila, and Seppo Junnila is titled “How lifestyles change along with the level of urbanization and what the greenhouse gas implications are — a study of Finland.”

Discussing the study, Hanlon writes, “To boil the paper down, it’s great that urbanites aren’t driving to work or heating and cooling McMansions, but the urban lifestyle encourages what the authors label ‘parallel consumption.’ That is, taking advantage of services out and about in the city because of the possible limitations of typically small urban living spaces. So as compared to the more home-centric rural life, people in metropolitan areas are more likely to eat at restaurants, use laundry services or even own cottages to get away from the hectic city. In addition, urban residents tend to spend more superfluously on products like clothes and electronic gadgets.”

In other words, you can’t just compare the monthly electricity bill paid by an urban dweller with the monthly electricity bill paid by a rural dweller. If urban dwellers need a gym membership for their exercise routine, or often eat out because their apartment kitchens are so small, then some portion of the electricity used by urban gyms and urban restaurants needs to be allocated to urban dwellers.

Green cities and brown cities

A few authors have tried to draw a distinction between “green cities” and “brown cities.” Matthew Kahn, author of Green Cities, explained, “Many of us have an intuitive sense of what sets a green city, such as Portland, Oregon, apart from brown urban centers, like Mexico City. Green cities have clean air and water and pleasant streets and parks. Green cities are resilient in the face of natural disasters, and the risk of major infectious disease outbreaks in such cities is low. Green cities also encourage green behavior, such as the use of public transit, and their ecological impact is relatively small.”

My guess is that the line between a so-called green city and a so-called brown city is extraordinarily fuzzy — more impressionistic than quantifiable. Fortunately, international studies that fail to make this distinction still show that, on average, people who live in cities (whether “brown” or “green”) have smaller environmental footprints than rural dwellers.

Urbanization is unstoppable

Whether American environmentalists love them or hate them, cities are here to stay, and urbanization appears to be unstoppable. All over the world, rural people with limited economic prospects are moving to cities. They’re looking for jobs, for education for their children, for improved health care, and for the many cultural and social opportunities that cities provide.

All political attempts to reverse urbanization — most notably, Pol Pot's campaign to empty Cambodian cities in the late 1970s — have ended in disaster, from both an economic and moral perspective.

In an article titled “Why Stopping Urbanization Is Not Only Impossible, But Misses the Environmental Point,” Rob McDonald wrote, “Every country, without exception, has urbanized as it has economically developed: a growing fraction of the population lives in cities as economies diversify from agriculture into other industries. Governments that have tried to stop urbanization have largely failed. Both China and South Africa, for instance, tried to limit rural-to-urban migration (responsible for about half of total urban population growth) by limiting the permits issued that allowed migration. They only succeeded in creating a large pool of urban residents without permits who were open to economic and political exploitation.”

Cities can't exist in a vacuum

The rural-versus-urban debate, though philosophically interesting, is unlikely to affect most people’s decisions about where they want to live. In almost all cases, people choose to settle in a particular location (assuming, of course, that they are wealthy enough to be able to choose where to live) for emotional or practical reasons, not for environmental reasons. We live where we live because we want to be close to members of our extended family, or because a particular town is beautiful and speaks to our soul, or because we are offered a job opportunity nearby.

Moreover, cities couldn’t exist without rural residents: Without farmers who grow food, miners who extract raw materials, loggers who help produce lumber, and fishermen who work in remote regions, city life would be impossible. We are all interdependent.

Congestion, noise, heavy traffic, and urban stress

I wrote portions of this article while riding in a bus conveying me from northern New England to Manhattan. The bus trip started in a rural area with almost no traffic, an area where the air is clean and the views of the mountains are stunning. During the last hour of our trip, the bus was caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and dense commercial enterprises crowded out the trees. As the bus driver dropped us off at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and East 42nd Street, among the concrete canyons of midtown Manhattan, I pondered researchers' conclusions that there is a linear relationship between urban density and greenness — in other words, the finding that the denser a city, the greener.

Cities have undeniable attractions. Cities are vibrant and exciting, and cities encourage lively social interactions. But as a rural resident, I wonder whether traffic and high residential density are stressful in ways that urban residents don't fully understand. Perhaps urban residents are the proverbial frogs in the warming stewpot.

For residential neighborhoods, is it possible that there is an optimal density, not yet specified, for human happiness — a density that is high enough to include environmental benefits, but not so high as to unduly increase residents' stress levels? If so, is there some way for researchers to determine the point at which urban density has passed this optimal density threshold?

We now know that rural living leaves a large environmental footprint. Rural residents need to rise to the challenge of finding ways to reduce this footprint — perhaps by choosing a fuel-efficient car (or an electric car that gets its fuel from a PVPhotovoltaics. Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic (PV) cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. array); by bicycling more; by choosing to live in a small, fuel-efficient house; or by making efforts to live in harmony with the flora and fauna that surround us.

The decision on where we live is complicated

It turns out that even some of the authors who have helped shape our understanding of the rural-versus-urban debate are all too human when it comes to choosing where they want to live. According to a Wikipedia article, Edward Glaeser, the author of Triumph of the City, “moved with his wife and children to the suburbs … because of [the] ‘home interest deduction, highway infrastructure and local school systems.’ He explained that this move is further ‘evidence of how public policy stacks the deck against cities.’”

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Resilient Food Supply Systems.”

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Jul 1, 2016 10:08 AM ET

Unintended costs
by Armando Cobo

Are there any cost implications for living Urban vs. Rural vs. Suburbia when it comes to clean air, crime, education, quality of life, slower pace, newer infrastructure, etc.? Seem to me that the few times I travel to big cities I can't wait to get back to the relative "tranquility" of our suburbs, specially in South and Southwest.

Jul 1, 2016 1:39 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

Many of the negative attributes you associate with cities are the direct result of their relationship with suburbs. The cost of infrastructures to support commuters and the dirty air caused by them.The cost of supplying infrastructure to dispersed low-dencity developments. The crime often is exported from suburbs with no public spaces to their nearby downtowns where people gather, especially at night. The exclusion of any of the underclass who are left in ghettos. When I return from a trip to the city nearest me to my home in the countryside i can't think if any reason to stop in the intervening suburbs.

Jul 1, 2016 1:55 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

Rather than trying to quantify what the optimum density for human living environments should be, wouldn't it be easier to simply look for examples of where people appear to be happy and enjoy living? One obvious example is Copenhagen, which is generally agreed to be very livable. Another way of determining where they are might be is to think of which ones people flock to on holiday.

I'm not sure density is as important as other factors, both physical, like the presence of convivial public spaces such as you find in Lisbon and the beautiful Greek and Italian cities, and social, where you have a mix of cultures and low levels of inequality.

Thanks for the article. We are in a bit of a mess right now. It helps to remember that how we think about these larger issues will be more determinative of our futures than our choice of wall insulation.

Jul 1, 2016 5:58 PM ET

Response to Armando Cobo
by Martin Holladay

You raise a lot of issues.

Clean air. In general, outdoor air is cleaner in rural areas (although the fact that rural people often have high levels of tobacco smoking and heating with wood complicates the question). Suffice it to say that I think that addressing air pollution (by reducing the burning of fossil fuels) is good for our lungs and the future of our planet. If human civilization survives this century, then our air will get cleaner.

Crime. The causes of crime are complex. There are many examples of low-crime cities and high-crime suburbs. There are even high-crime rural areas -- especially in rural areas hit hard by methamphetamine and opiate addiction.

Education. I can't think of any reason why the quality of education would be higher in rural areas or suburbs than in urban areas. There are political reasons this might be true in some areas of the U.S., but these political factors have nothing to do with the rural vs. urban debate. All over the world, families move from rural areas (where schools are often nonexistent or poor) to urban areas in hopes of providing an education for their children.

Quality of life. This phrase means different things to different people. If "quality of life" means the chance to hear live music and eat in fine restaurants, you probably want to live in a city.

Slower pace. If you like a slow-paced life, I suppose you might prefer to live in a rural area or a suburban area. But I can imagine that some urban residents may have perfected the art of the slow-paced life: Wake up at 10:00 a.m. Read the New York Times. Eat a bagel. Take a nap. See? You can do that in the city if you want to.

Newer infrastructure. You're more likely to find that in Shanghai or Beijing than the Texas suburbs (or the Texas countryside).

Jul 1, 2016 9:45 PM ET

I love the mountains
by Dan Kolbert

That's why I never go there.

Jul 5, 2016 10:20 PM ET

Thanks for the perspective
by Andy Kosick

This couldn't be more relevant. One has to take a few steps back from the wall section every now and then and wonder if some of the things they're working on will even make sense in twenty years.

In reading this I realized that if a person from outer space happened upon this discussion they might assume the word "green" to mean "how to fit as many humans on the planet as possible without destroying it", which made me think that we are probably still not even asking the right questions.

Also, the urban argument seems to be saying (though perhaps unintentionally) that there is no longer any compatibility between humans and the natural environment?

Jul 6, 2016 9:38 AM ET

Response to Andy Kosick
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for the comments.

It is, indeed, hard to predict what present-day actions will make sense in 20 years, especially in light of the looming climate change disaster. (I just finished reading Thin Ice by Mark Bowen -- a book I high recommend, by the way -- and his interviews with climatologists are sobering and depressing.)

I think that it's possible for urban dwellers to have a strong connection to the natural environment. It's really hard to generalize about urban dwellers -- or rural dwellers, for that matter.

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