If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heel size 6 Jimmy Choo. Traditional cities have fewer carbon emissions because they don’t require vast amounts of driving. Fewer than a third of New Yorkers drive to work, while 86 percent of American commuters drive. Twenty-nine percent of all the public-transportation commuters in America live in New York’s five boroughs. Gotham has, by a wide margin, the least gas usage per capita of all American metropolitan areas. Department of Energy data confirms that New York State’s per capita energy consumption is next to last in the country, which largely reflects public transit use in New York City.
Few slogans are as silly as the environmental mantra “Think globally, act locally.” Good environmentalism requires a worldwide perspective and global action, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders. We must recognize that if we try to make one neighborhood greener by stopping new building, we can easily make the world browner, by pushing new development to someplace far less environmentally friendly. The environmentalists of coastal California may have made their own region more pleasant, but they are harming the environment by pushing new building away from Berkeley suburbs, which have a temperate climate and ready access to public transportation, to suburban Las Vegas, which is all about cars and air-conditioning. The stakes are particularly high in the developing world, where urban patterns are far less set and where the number of people involved is much larger. Today, most Indians and Chinese are still too poor to live a car-oriented lifestyle. Carbon emissions from driving and home energy use in America’s greenest metropolitan areas are still more than ten times the emissions in the average Chinese metropolitan area.
But as India and China get richer, their people will face a choice that could dramatically affect all our lives. Will they follow America and move toward car-based exurbs or stick with denser urban settings that are far more environmentally friendly? If per capita carbon emissions in both China and India rise to U.S. per capita levels, then global carbon emissions will increase by 139 percent. If their emissions stop at French levels, global emissions will rise by only 30 percent. Driving and urbanization patterns in these countries may well be the most important environmental issues of the twenty-first century.
Indeed, the most important reason for Europe and the United States to get their own “green” houses in order is that, without reform, it will be awfully hard to convince India and China to use less carbon. Good environmentalism means putting buildings in places where they will do the least ecological harm. This means that we must be more tolerant of tearing down the short buildings in cities in order to build tall ones, and more intolerant of the activists who oppose emissions-reducing urban growth. Governments should encourage people to live in modestly sized urban aeries instead of bribing home buyers into big suburban McMansions. If ideas are the currency of our age, then building the right homes for those ideas will determine our collective fate.
The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to those truths and dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.