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Mark Stroup

What would the carbon footprint be?

Is there an advantage if a family reduces the amount of driving they do by 10,000 miles and increases their living space by 2,000 sf? I checked out http://www.carbonfootprint.com/. If you assume that such a person would have a 50 percent increase in utility use, then, yes, the cf is bigger. That's a big assumption, though. If you live in an apartment you have to insulate less than if you lived in a stand alone house. If your increase in utility bills is only 25 percent, you're about the same.

My guess, though, is that the alternative for a person buying a 6,000 sf house in Manhattan is an 8,000 sf house in New Jersey or Connecticut.

For every 2,000 miles you drive, you increase your carbon output by more than one tonne(That's British for "ton." The tonne might be heavier because of the extra letters).

Sam M


Fair enough. But when people slam the McMansion-ites, they usually take them to task in terms of "greed" and other nefarious things. And those same people often praise urban dwellers for being so forward-looking and progressive in this regard.

But what we are clearly seeing in this case is a move from small "family apartments" in Manhattan to HUGE ones.

Clearly, it is possible to live "in the city" in much smaller apartments. In fact, according to this article, very rich people lived in much smaller places until very, very recently. So what we are seeing these people do is basically triple their living space. Not because they have to or because they need it. But because they like more space and can afford it.

Which sounds kind of familiar.

As for commuting... how often do you suppose these people fly to London, LA, Chicago, etc. compared to their peers from yesteryear. Sure, e-mail and other things are supposed to cut down on such things. But they are also supposed to cut down on paper usage. But it's not clear that they do.

So a 7,000-square-foot behemoth in Manhattan might be better than a 7,000-square-foot behemoth in Greenwich in terms of it's commuting footprint. But it's hardly a lesson in asceticism.


Haven't we covered this already? Failure to account for all the services and "amenities" that are typically associated with city life and only focusing on commuting and home square footage creates a false impression of how much residents of cities are consuming.

Maybe apartments require less insulation and maybe the people who live in Manhattan drive less but it's still a fact that the trains, subways, buses, taxis, police, street lamps, traffic signals, security cameras and many other things are buzzing, clicking, humming and whirring 24/7/365 whether they're being utilized or not.

This really isn't complicated now; take the total utility usage of a high density living space (city) divide it by the number of people living there and then compare the result to any group of suburban governments with the same number of people... then ask yourself if there's really anything be saved by driving less or not needing to insulate an apartment.

Cities like New York where people are packed in like sardines trying to kill each other will look better than cities like Pittsburgh, but there's still going to be huge energy hogs none the less.

And that's just the beginning. What do you suppose the environmental impact of having every drop of water consumed piped in from several hundred miles away is?

Keep believing that your high density living spaces are powered by fairy-dust and the oil you're not burning in your car is somehow different that the oil being burned by the trucks that have to bring everything to you and the buses running near empty during non-rush hour times ... you're only fooling yourself.

Sam M


I figured you would weigh in.

Although these people present an interesting case. City livers who DECREASE density by hogging up tons of space.

My head spins. And aches.

Seems clear to me that these discussions were always a good deal more complex than the goog-guy/bad-guy narratives that people normally spin out. And they are getting more complex all the time. We are now seeing some pretty dense townhouse and even condo developments out in the burbs. And 6,000-square-foot mansions in the heart of Manhattan.


Mark Stroup

How does the per capita utility usage for an area like Shadyside compare to an area like Cranberry?

Jonathan Potts

What, trucks don't deliver things to the suburbs? And what about all those 24-hour Wal-Marts? I don't dispute that urban residents indeed use more energy than they suppose. But you make it sound as though everyone who doesn't live in a city lives in some bucolic, wooded paradise, where the lights all shut off at 5 p.m. You think people in Cranberry and Monroeville really use less energy than people in Pittsburgh? It's hard for me to swallow.


My wife and I are just finishing stuffing our pantry with multiple quarts of tomatoes, beans, zucchini, peppers, broccoli and corn from our garden this summer, stuff that we won't be having trucked into our local Walmart for quite a few months ... what portion of an apartment dweller groceries do they produce themselves? Even the water we drink, shower in and used to water the garden a few times came from wells right around the community they serve, city dwellers all get theirs pumped from well up the river delivered in a way that uses far more energy and resources to get it to them and it's one of the reasons our water bills are a fraction of a city residents'. I'm even flirting with the idea of setting a goal of saving enough money in the next few years to install a wind turbine to meet most of our home electricity needs... any high density folk in Pittsburgh doing the same?

Just a few examples to make the point that sure suburbs have trucks to deliver things to them as well, and not everyone makes the same choices we do and while others do even better, the difference is that unlike high density living folks were not always completely dependent on them for everything we need to live.

I've said it before and I'll say it again; I lived in the city for many years and I live out of in now and I'd put my families "carbon footprint" today up against any similar sized families in the city and win 98% of the time if EVERYTHING is included. And we're not even trying very hard.

Jonathan Potts


Your lifestyle is admirable. Just don't kid yourself into thinking all of your fellow suburbanites live the same way.

John Morris

Getting back to Sam's original post, density levels in most of NYC are rising so that tells the tale. As I said before, I would imagine that the ultimate thing for people who can afford it in a city is to have a big apartment or house in an area with all the amenities that come with density. Few people can afford it. Since for the most part, we are talking about stacked apartments, you can cannot compare it to suburban homes.

As far as Paul's comments go, It seems as if Paul is willing to accept a somewhat rural lifestyle. As one can see by the massive development of restaurants, and stores in an average suburb, this is not what most people are doing. The old model was for people to have a city house and a country house, if they could afford one and most people accepted a rural lifestyle for the country house or chose to live a completely rural life.

As far as Paul’s other calculations—they make no sense at all. In fact, I think that the cost for almost all utilities are higher in suburban and rural areas. This cost is hidden by government policies which pass the costs along.

Jonathan Potts

The only problem with Paul's argument is that many suburban communities were built on what was once farmland. That is the reason why waste so much fuel trucking food across the country.

Jonathan Potts

I meant the "other problem", not the "only problem."


Jonathan, I don't believe I ever said everyone in the suburbs is doing the same or that what we're doing is particularly admirable... like I said, we're not really trying very hard. My only point is, alway has been, that the stock argument that city/high density living is always inherently less energy intensive and environmentally friendly isn't true. Personal choices factor in much often than mere location and often it's the case that high density living can limit the choices available to you.

You can live in a small apartment in a high density area it with CFLs and walk to work but insisting on taking frequent vacations overseas on airplanes, furnishing your apartment with items shipped from Scandinavia and buy items like cars and appliances made in Europe will leave you with a much larger carbon footprint than the person who's driving an SUV to and from work daily.

Most, not all, but most of the people I've known who live in cities from New York (my hometown) to DC, to Pittsburgh and believe they're doing the eco-friendly thing by walking, biking or busing to work simply refuse to factor in the other choices they're making and accept how much more than the average person they're really consuming to satisfy their desires.

And it's not just the case when talking about where to live. A lot of environmental efforts and arguments seem to be based on assumptions that over time prove to be false, like this one...


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