How Sustainable is The Big Apple?

A View of Central Park by Mathew Knott via Flickr

New York City. For some people the first thoughts that pop into their head are Central Park, urban density, low-ecological impact. Others think of traffic jams, trash piled high on city streets, and the consumeristic orgy that is Times Square. But in truth, it is neither of these extremes. Or perhaps it is both. The Big Apple is at the same time a leader in going green while also showing us the flaws in urbanization.

The issue of sustainable cities is not going away anytime soon. Historically, the world’s population, as it increased, has grown more urban. According to the United Nations Population Fund, already half of the world’s population lives in cities – a number that is projected to increase to 5 billion people by 2030. This means that cities are quickly becoming a focal point for sustainability.

David Owen explains one sustainable aspect of NYC in an article for The New Yorker.

“By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. “

The city also has 27,000 acres of parks divided between Central Park, Riverside Park and Prospect Park – an area the size of Disney World. Those are indeed both very positive trends, however, NYC is not exempt from many of the sustainability issues inherent in urban areas.

Where does all our waste go? (Courtesy of United Nations Photo via flickr.)

One of the major issues is disposing of the daily 24,000 tons of waste its resident and visitors produce per day. The Department of Sanitation deals with nearly 13,000 tons waste generated by residents, while the rest is dealt with by private companies. A growing lack of landfill space combined with increasing restrictions and costs mean New York City will be facing a crisis in the near future.  Or if the city chooses to burn the waste, then the problem gets distributed to the global population through the atmosphere. Ultimately, the best solution to the rotten half of the Big Apple’s sustainability record is a major economic shift that centers on degrowth rather than continued growth.

A shift to a shorter work week, simpler lifestyles, less consumerism, more public goods to replace private goods and more self-provisioning – what Erik Assadourian describes in Chapter 2 of State of the World 2012, “The Path of Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries.” That, while not an easy sell, would help to address many of the social, health and environmental problems New Yorkers, Americans, and yes, all people face. And combined with New York’s density and green spaces, The Big Apple would then certainly be one of the greenest cities on the planet.


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