6 Ways Dense Cities Are Better for the Environment

Much more than changing your lightbulbs or installing insulation, one of the most important steps you can take towards living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle is moving to a big city.

To some this sounds counterintuitive, because cities are such massive displays of human intervention with and dominance over nature. And undeniably, cities themselves consume extraordinary amounts of resources. But for each individual person living in a city, the carbon footprint and resource consumption is, on average, far less than that of those living in the suburbs or the country. Here are some of the reasons why denser cities are better for the environment:

1. Public transportation is better than cars.

The most obvious environmental benefit of living in a city is the ubiquity of public transportation, but it’s really difficult to overstate its importance. While around 90 percent of American households own at least one car, that number is 23 percent for Manhattan.

Fewer cars generally means fewer carbon emissions, which is enough to celebrate on its own. But you are also significantly less likely to be killed in a car accident, a significant killer in the U.S., in the city than in less dense regions.

A greater reliance on public transportation also means less land has to be put aside for parking, which is essentially wasted space.

2. Since city homes have no lawns, they waste less water.

Recent water shortages in California have brought the issue of water usage to the forefront of public consciousness. Growing up in a suburb outside of Boston, this issue first crossed my mind in the hot summer months when lawn watering would be restricted to conserve the town’s resources.

But the idealized lawns of the American imagination have costs over and above the drain on reservoirs. Since lawns are not a natural feature of our environment, we work hard to maintain them. Chemicals used as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides can contaminate nearby ecosystems. The carbon emissions of gas-powered lawn mowers add up as well; let’s not even discuss the considerable noise pollution they cause.

There is, of course, something very pleasant about grassy areas, and they needn’t be abolished altogether. In cities, large areas can be set aside for parks that the residents can share.

3. Cities literally take up less space per person.

Land use gets less attention than it deserves as an environmental issue. Since land is a finite resource, and one we share with other animals and plants, we should be much more thoughtful about how we use it. Though cities are often looked at as the most intense kind of invasion into the natural landscape, they are much less intrusive than if the same number of humans decided to spread out over a much larger area. In other words, it’s much better to turn a piece of land into a skyscraper than a parking lot.

Humans need places to live and work, and we don’t have to apologize for that. But because whatever we do will impose some costs on an environment that sustains us, we should do out best to limit our impositions.

4. Living in tall buildings is much more energy efficient than living in separated dwellings.

City apartments tend to be smaller than typical suburban or country houses, making them much less resource intensive to construct, heat and cool. Additionally, it’s much more energy efficient to pack housing units tightly together, as we do in tall apartment buildings. Sharing walls, floors and ceilings between households reduces energy costs significantly; it would be much more costly to heat and cool similarly-sized units if they were scattered across the countryside.

5. Sharing amenities saves energy and resources.

Parks, bridges, tunnels, post offices and all the public amenities we require for everyday life are much most efficiently utilized when humans live close together. Take mail delivery, for example. When I lived in the suburbs, I watched my mail carrier drive her truck to each individual mailbox to drop off packages and letters. In the city, each stop much more frequently includes deliveries for multiple families, reducing the amount of fuel required to deliver mail per capita.

Or consider the grocery store. In the city, there are typically multiple grocery stores in walking distance from any home. Outside the city, residents sometimes drive several miles just to pick up necessities. This is more costly on the back end, too, when trucks have to travel farther to deliver products to retailers that are geographically spread out.

6. Innovation thrives in cities.

This point in somewhat separate from the others, but it could be the most important. Though legal and social solutions are in all likelihood necessary for undoing and preventing some of the greatest ecological damage that humans are doing to the planet, new inventions and ideas may also play a significant role. And it’s a well-documented fact that city life, with its richness of people and industries occupying such close quarters, is the best spur to innovation that we know about.

Photo Credit: David Quintano


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

Valentina R.
Valentina R2 years ago

I'll still pick rural, thank you.

Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey2 years ago

Makes sense

Thomas Clother
Thomas Clother2 years ago

It would have been useful to have included a sub title along the lines of 'And intelligent town planning would help build a dense city that people would enjoy inhabiting.'

A great deal of the posts focus on the negative aspects of poorly planned cities, but a city with decent municipal parks, apartments with sufficient room for any cat swinging that you might wish to do, and reliable, affordable public transport systems is a great place to live.

Kathryn Irby
Past Member 2 years ago

Makes sense! Thx!

Danuta Watola
Danuta W2 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Maggie W.
Maggie D2 years ago

There is not enough money in the world to get me to live in a crowded, smelly, loud, concrete jungle with rude, greedy and self-important people.

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thank you

Darren Woolsey
Darren W2 years ago

One of the few times I've heard of an argument in favourite of a sterile, concrete jungle.

Aaron Johnson
Aaron Johnson2 years ago

I lived in a big city before! I lived in New York once.