Eco Etiquette: Can Our Cities Save Us?

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

My husband and I are close to retirement (I know, even in this economy), and I'd always thought we'd move somewhere out in the country, but after seeing this story about America's greenest cities, I'm intrigued. Is living in a city greener than living in a small town or quiet suburb?


Well, first off, that depends on what city you're talking about; whether it's Bend, Oregon, with its organic breweries and ubiquitous solar panels, or Beijing, with its life-shortening smog and 12-day traffic jams.

But generally speaking, living in an urban environment can be significantly "greener" than living in a tree-lined suburb, at least concerning carbon emissions. It has everything to do with efficiency: People in cities drive less, walk and use public transportation more, and don't have water-sucking green lawns to tend.

They also live in smaller spaces, which require less electricity and gas to power/heat/cool, not to mention fewer material possessions to furnish. All in all, city dwellers use about 40 percent less energy than suburbanites, according to Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist and author of Triumph of the City. ("If you love nature, stay away from it," he wrote in this Boston Globe op-ed.)

It's not only environmental efficiency that's drawing more dwellers to cities; it's economy of life. At a global trends conference hosted by Ford I attended last month, urban expert and ArtPlace director Carol Coletta spoke about the powerful draw of cities for Millenials, who want to be close to technology, art, and social life, and don't want to deal with the responsibility of owning a car. (Yes, Ford is prescient enough to envision a world where American transportation may mean something other than two cars in every garage; the company is already collaborating with car-sharing service Zipcar.)

In fact, says Coletta, 85 percent of Millenials say they prefer urban living. (Of course, this may also have something to do with the high unemployment rate for early twentysomethings -- cities are where the jobs are -- but I digress.)

A smaller footprint, more convenience -- sounds great, right? Unfortunately, cities may not be able to support a sustainable way of life for much longer if their leaders don't take a harsh look at reality. Urban populations are swelling: For the first time in nearly 100 years, American cities are growing faster than suburbs. And the trend is global: It's anticipated that in 20 years, 5 billion of the world's then–8 billion people will live in urban areas.

According to The World Bank Institute, however, they'll also emit about 75 percent of the Earth's greenhouse gases. What's more, many cities (and megacities -- those with populations of 10 million or more) are in areas that will be severely impacted by global warming.

Houston, we have a problem.

The first step in confronting any problem, of course, is to acknowledge that there is a problem. And this, fortunately, is where some cities are leading the way.

Late last month, UCLA released a study -- commissioned by the city of Los Angeles -- examining future temperatures for the LA area. The study was groundbreaking in its detail: 2,500 times more precise than previous climate models for the region, the researchers were able to predict temperatures down to the neighborhood scale (2 ¼ miles).

The study found that sometime between 2041 and 2060, the number of extreme heat days (above 95 degrees) in Downtown LA will triple; in LA's nearby valley areas, those days will quadruple. Even LA's typically breezy coastal areas will see an overall temperature rise of 3 to 4 degrees.

The news isn't good, but the information is real. And armed with it, LA's leaders and citizens can not only work now to help limit the damage (the goal of making the city coal-free by 2020 is a good start), they can also prepare for the climate change realities that lie ahead.

Other cities are following suit, even without the level of detailed information granted by the UCLA study. Chicago, for one, has an aggressive climate action plan in place: The city is installing permeable pavement to reduce flooding, planting trees equipped for warmer weather, and laying down heat-absorbing green roofs on the city's skyscrapers, all in anticipation of a climate that scientists say may be more Baton Rouge than blustery by the end of this century.

At the national level, we've hemmed and hawed about taking any meaningful steps toward confronting climate change; we've allowed politics and partisan bickering to obliterate prudence and measured foresight. Cities can't afford to do this. The people are coming and the temperature is rising. Green is the only way to go.