Living in a low-density place with lots of greenery and open space can feel like a pretty “green” way to live. Maybe you’ve even got a little garden where you grow delicious tomatoes. And indeed, a lot of people seem to think this is the case. According to this recent YouGov poll (which surveyed 1,000 Americans), 75% of US adult citizens believe that “it’s better for the environment if houses are built farther apart.” The number drops slightly to 68% for Democrats, but we’re still talking about a clear majority.
Most experts will tell you that the opposite is, in fact, true. One of the best ways to be green is to live in a high-density urban setting and get as far away as you can from the natural environment so that you don’t screw it up. There are multiple reasons for this, but it generally comes down to the fact that cities use land and other resources far more efficiently on a per capita basis. Smaller living spaces, fewer cars, more things that are shared, and so on.
The reason why this isn’t so obvious is that per capita thinking is perhaps harder to grasp. Living in the countryside certainly feels more green than living in the middle of New York City. But what if the 8.5 million or so people in New York City suddenly decided to sprawl outward into the countryside to consume more housing (that would then need to be heated and cooled), and then started driving everywhere (in lieu of taking transit, cycling, and walking)?
This would be a less green outcome. It’s about the collective here, not what feels nice and green for any one individual.