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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Can Rural Living Be As Green As Urban Living?

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

Density is good. Researchers have determined that urban residents who live in densely settled neighborhoods have a lower carbon footprint than rural residents. This apartment building is in Yangon, Myanmar.
Image Credit: Stephen Bures / 123rf.com

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…

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7 Comments

  1. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #1

    Unintended costs
    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.

  2. Malcolm Taylor | | #2

    Armando,
    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.

  3. Malcolm Taylor | | #3

    Martin
    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.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Armando Cobo
    Armando,
    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).

  5. Dan Kolbert | | #5

    I love the mountains
    That's why I never go there.

  6. Andy Kosick | | #6

    Thanks for the perspective
    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?

  7. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Andy Kosick
    Andy,
    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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