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New York City: A Surprising Model for Urban Planning & Environmental Sustainability

A recent study from one of the leading sustainable design consulting firms found New York City to be the most sustainable city in the United States

Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Climate Change, Environment, Cities, New York City, Urban Planning, Policy, The SustainabilityX® Magazine

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The last thing anyone thinks about when picturing New York is environmental sustainability. Loud, densely packed subway stations, piles of garbage that often line the streets, and almost constant urban congestion do little to add to a more sustainable image for New York. Yet a recent study from one of the leading consulting firms in sustainable design found New York to not only be the most sustainable city in the United States but rank 20th internationally (1).

The key to understanding “why” rests on a single word: density.

While density might not look great due to how packed and congested New York seems to always be, its benefits are evident.

New York’s excellent public transportation system means fewer cars on the road and thus less greenhouse gases going into the air.

Public transportation is an effective way to reduce CO2 emissions for two reasons.

First, cars are significantly more inefficient in terms of both energy use per person and emissions produced when compared to railway and bus systems.

Second, it requires fewer overall trips as you’re able to move more people in a shorter span of time (2).

The only caveat is that your transportation system has to get people to actually ride it. The number one factor that makes public transportation effective is ridership, something that New York is set up well to take advantage of. The sheer number of people who live in such a small space almost requires you to take the subway.

The relatively inexpensive cost, an efficient timetable, and overall availability of bus and rail stations allow New York to take full advantage of public transportation. However, sustainability doesn’t just rest on how we get somewhere; it rests on how we live as well.

New Yorkers tend to live in densely packed neighborhoods in apartments that go up several stories into the air. Surrounding these apartments are businesses that are equally as packed onto the ground floor and often across the street from where people live.

This means that someone can go grocery shopping, run errands, and go out to eat all in the same neighborhood and all on foot.

Living in apartments also means less resources and space that are required per person.

Apartments all share the same waste, sewage, and electric systems, making urban life more efficient when compared to suburban life. Stacked apartments also require less energy to be heated or cooled down due to the smaller overall living space. The result is a greenhouse gas rate of 7.4 metric tons, lower than any other city in the United States and 30% less than the 24.5 metric ton national average (3).

New York’s sustainable design also reaches far into the future to determine how the city can be renovated to accommodate a more sustainable way of living.

For example, New York has begun to tear down empty or near-empty parking garages to replace them with affordable housing. In urban planning, space is a valuable commodity and efficient land use becomes extremely important. Removing parking garages both disincentives driving while encouraging more people to live in dense urban spaces, ensuring that future urban planning fits into a model of density (4).

Cities are often looked to for where the future lies.

Trends of all sorts, from business to culture, often find their roots in large urban cities like New York or LA. All too often, urban planning is ignored in regards to the lessons we can learn. New York offers a unique and interesting lesson for urban planners, providing insight into how future urban planning can become more sustainable.


  1. Sustainable Cities Index (2016), Arcadis, https://www.arcadis.com/en/global/our-perspectives/sustainable-cities-index-2016/

  2. American Public Transportation Association (2016), Public Transportation Reduces Greenhouse Gases and Conserves Energy, http://www.apta.com/resources/reportsandpublications/documents/greenhouse_brochure.pdf

  3. City of New York and Mayor’s Office on Sustainability (2016), Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2014, http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/sustainability/downloads/pdf/publications/NYC_GHG_Inventory_2014.pdf

  4. New York City Planning Commission (2016), Jerome Avenue Rezoning, Draft and Scope of Work, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/applicants/env-review/jerome-avenue/draft-scope-of-work.pdf