Why Cities are better for Green Living than Suburbs

With once in a lifetime storms happening every other year and abnormal weather conditions occurring in all parts of the world, more and more people are becoming concerned about the size of their ecological footprint. The environmental impacts of our lifestyle choices. A significant part of that is where we choose to live, for those of us that still have the financial wherewithal to actually be able to make such a choice.

The vast majority of the world’s population live in cities, either the built up central areas of “downtown” or the suburbs surrounding it. Given the choice, which is the better type of location for maintaining an eco-friendly lifestyle, for living “green”?

Typically, people move to the suburbs when they intend to have children, as suburbs are perceived, and usually are, more kid-friendly than inner city areas. But it is much harder to keep our ecological footprint small in the suburbs than it is when living centrally. The primary reason for this is energy usage.

The lowest common denominator of energy conversion is heat energy. Whether this is from burning fossil fuels in motors, nuclear power generation or using electricity in our homes and businesses. All the energy we produce and use ends up as heat energy, because energy is not used up, it cannot be destroyed, it is converted. And the end product of every energy conversion process is eventually heat.

When it comes to energy use in the suburbs, transportation is an obvious culprit, but not the only one. Driving our car is the easiest and most convenient way to get around when we live in the suburbs, but is rarely so for the city-dweller. Even when public transportation is readily available, it is never as convenient as that in town and always has a higher energy expenditure per person. It is simply a matter of demand and distance traveled. City residential areas have a much higher concentration of inhabitants per square mile than the suburbs; so services are more frequent and heavily utilized while journey distances are shorter. The energy expenditure per city-dwelling person for travel purposes is therefore significantly lower.

In addition to our personal transportation energy usage is that required to meet our needs. Because inner city areas have a much higher concentration of people, the energy required to deliver goods and services to the area is lower because such are delivered in bulk and at shorter distances from central dispatch centers.

This can be offset to an extent when the suburban household makes use of their garden to grow a significant proportion of their own food. An ability rarely available to the apartment dweller. But traveling time often limits the amount of personal time available to do this, and stress often weakens the suburbanite’s motivation to keep it up.

The same applies to electricity supply. The further electricity travels over power cables the greater the resistance, so more electricity needs to be supplied to power a television 10 miles from the generating station than is needed for one 2 miles from it. Being more spread out, suburbs require considerably more electricity than that needed by the same number of people living in city apartments.  

City apartments are typically smaller than suburban houses and therefore require less energy to heat them in winter and cool them in summer. They have the added benefit in winter of many people generating body heat and sharing building heating, which increases the difference. In summer that works the other way, but air-conditioning requirements will still be lower.   

Land usage is also a significant factor. We can usually grow our own vegetables and fruits in our garden because many suburbs are built on what used to be farmland before city expansion swallowed it up. By moving to the suburbs we generate demand that is likely to result in more productive farmland being converted into residential subdivisions. The global population is still growing and conventional farming methods are producing less food per acre now than they were 30 years ago. We need all the productive farmland we can keep in production, preferably converting it to sustainable agricultural methods.

It is, therefore, considerably easier to live a green lifestyle in the city than it is in the suburbs. But it is also usually better to raise a family in the suburbs. We do want our children to have a viable future though, so we just need to plan and work harder at minimizing our ecological footprint when living there than we would in the city.