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Energy-efficient Gotham: Our biggest gripes are our greenest strengths

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New Yorkers have become increasingly conscious of what steps they can take to help the environment — from using less water to buying local produce — but we’ve taken one big step simply by living here.

“New York City is the greenest community in the United States. We have the lowest energy-use-per-capita of the nation and 95 percent of households in Manhattan don’t own a car. That’s off the charts for the rest of the country,” said David Owen, author of “Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.”

Our apartment buildings, public transportation system and shared amenities make for what Owen calls “unconscious efficiencies.”

“Dense places show us how to arrange ourselves to maximize efficiency,” he said.

It turns out that our chief complaints about life in the Big Apple are making us inadvertent environmentalists. Here’s how we mark Earth Day every day:

Tiny apartments

The cost of renting our notoriously cramped apartments is high, but the energy needed to heat and cool such small spaces is lower than that for a sprawling suburban home, experts said.

“Living in multifamily buildings is much more energy-efficient. When you stack apartments on top of and next to each other, there’s less surface area exposed to the outside,” said Nevin Cohen, chair of environmental studies at The New School.

Too congested to drive

We’ve cut down on gas emissions by cutting down on cars, experts said. The city is made even greener by its pedestrian-friendliness, bike lanes and an extensive bus and subway system, they said.

More than 80 percent of New York City residents use public transportation, Cohen said.

“We don’t have a car because it’s so horribly inconvenient and we can take the train. We walk because everything we need is so close,” Owen said. “The main lesson is: If you want transit to work, you have to move people closer together.”

Minimal in-house laundry

The New Yorkers who schlep their dirty clothes to laundromats or communal building laundry rooms are doing a great service, experts said.

“An in-home washing machine uses 230 gallons of water a week. A machine at a laundromat uses 70 gallons a week per capita,” Cohen said, “because when people are using the laundromat, they’re filling up their washing machines.”

Cities allow us to share resources, whether they’re laundromats, libraries or playgrounds, which are more efficient than swing sets in backyards, Cohen said.

Being green by default simply isn’t enough, and Gotham is nowhere close to reaching its potential, experts noted.

“People who live in cities are generally wealthier than others … and generally consume more. In New York, for example, people buy lots of things from all over the world,” Cohen said. “The ecological footprint may be larger.”

He suggests consuming less, whether it’s iPads or newsprint.

Benjamin Jervey, author of “The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City,” wants New York to update its aging power grid and take advantage of solar power.

It’s up to New York to lead the charge, Owen said. “Others are saying if we want it to work, we’ve got to make our cities more like New York City.”
 

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