Greenest Place in the U.S.?
It’s Not Where You Think
Green rankings in the U.S. don’t tell the full story about the places where the human footprint is lightest. If you really want the best environmental model, you need to look at the nation’s biggest — and greenest — metropolis: New York City.
In 2007, Forbes picked Vermont as the greenest state, a choice consistent with conventional thinking about low-impact living. Vermont has an abundance of trees, farms, backyard compost heaps, and environmentally aware citizens, and it has no crowded expressways or big, dirty cities. (The population of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, is just under 40,000.) Vermont also ranks high in almost all the categories on which Forbes based its analysis, such as the proportion of buildings certified by the U. S. Green Building Council’s increasingly popular eco-rating system, which is called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the implementation of public policies that encourage energy efficiency.
But Forbes’s ranking was unfortunate, because Vermont, in many important ways, sets a poor environmental example. Spreading people thinly across the countryside, Vermont-style, may make them look and feel green, but it actually increases the damage they do to the environment while also making that damage harder to see and to address. In the categories that matter the most, Vermont ranks low in comparison with many other American places. It has no truly significant public transit system (other than its school bus routes), and, because its population is so dispersed, it is one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country. A typical Vermonter consumes 545 gallons of gasoline per year — almost a hundred gallons more than the national average.
Is there a better U.S. environmental role model than Vermont? There are many — and the best of them, I believe, is New York City.
This choice may seem ludicrous to most Americans, including most New Yorkers, because for decades we have been taught to think of crowded cities as one of the principal sources of our worst environmental problems. In the most significant ways, though, New York is a paragon of ecological
The key to New York’s relative environmental benignity is the very thing that makes it appear to be an ecological nightmare: its extreme compactness.responsibility. The average city resident consumes only about a quarter as much gasoline as the average Vermonter — and the average Manhattan resident consumes even less, just 90 gallons a year, a rate that the rest of the country hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s. New Yorkers also consume far less electricity — about 4,700 kilowatt hours per household per year, compared with roughly 7,100 kilowatt hours in Vermont and more than 11,000 kilowatt hours in the United States as a whole. New York City is more populous than all but 11 states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.
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