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Sustainability In NYC: Living Low-Footprint In the Big Apple

One person may not be able to make a huge difference in sustainability, but an entire city can. This article discusses the ways NYC has been practicing sustainability and how you can too.
Times Square in NYC

No one wakes up and says, “What a great day to be sustainable!” Well, maybe someone does. But many folks don’t. The average person is mainly focused on meeting their daily goals in the most convenient and economical way.

If that means buying inexpensive imported goods, using plastic utensils for a quick takeout lunch, and driving their own car instead of hopping on the bus – well, what’s one person in the grand scheme of things, right?

One person can do a lot. But living sustainably needs to go beyond the individual. For sustainable living to truly become a way of life, an entire network of individuals, groups, government entities and organizations need to contribute. And that’s exactly what’s been happening in New York City.

What does it mean to be ‘living sustainably?’

Before we dive into living sustainably in New York City, it’s imperative to understand what the term actually means. While your brain may go racing into a lengthy and complex explanation, the definition is actually quite straightforward.

Living sustainably simply means behaving in a way that will not jeopardize the ability of the current or future generations to meet their needs.

What can become complex is the number and manner of ways communities can support sustainable living. Individuals are only one piece of the big puzzle and, as mentioned, convenience and cost-effectiveness can easily outweigh sustainability for the average individual in the rush of daily life.

In addition to actions from the individual, action needs to be taken by:

  • Non-governmental organizations, educational facilities and researchers: They can gather, organize and analyze information that can guide government agencies and other groups in setting policies, educational outreach and practices.
  • Government agencies: They can create guidelines, policies and incentives to improve infrastructure and support sustainable lifestyle choices.
  • Businesses, including restaurants: They can adopt and promote sustainable living practices, weaving their values into everything they do and sell.
  • Media and other influential organizations: They can help spread the word through messaging, public service announcements, documentaries and other campaigns and projects to inspire and support sustainable living.

What is New York doing for sustainability?

With an entire mayor’s office dedicated to Climate and Environmental Justice, New York City is on board with sustainable living. It’s not just all talk, either. The city supports sustainable living in a number of ways. These include:

Providing transportation systems: A massive network of subway and bus routes provides affordable transportation for people and goods while reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Having breathable air and drinkable water:

  • Air quality in New York City is consistently good. Greenhouse gas emissions are 19% lower than they were in 2005.
  • With more than one billion gallons of clean water delivered daily from large reservoirs upstate, New York City’s drinking water is “world renowned for its quality.” The city has also constructed or rebuilt more than 500 miles of sewers, with plans to activate a third city water tunnel to safeguard the water supply and allow older tunnels to be repaired.

New York City also boasts:

  • Healthy foods available in all neighborhoods.
  • Cleaner waterways: The highly polluted Gowanus Canal is in the midst of a huge makeover and even the notoriously filthy East River is a bit cleaner than it has been in the past.
  • A dependable and efficient power system that meets the needs of an expanding population.
  • Buildings designed to provide comfort and a healthy environment at minimal energy costs.
  • Solid waste recycling and composting programs and facilities, along with methods to turn it into energy with minimal impact on air quality.
  • Parks, housing and new job opportunities created during the cleanup of formerly contaminated land from the city’s long industrial history. More than 475 brownfield properties are slated to be transformed into more than 3,800 units of affordable housing. The city is also nearing its goal of planting one million new trees.

Much of the city’s sustainability success can be credited to PlaNYC, New York City’s sustainability plan introduced in 2007. Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the efforts, which aimed to:

  • Prep the city for an additional one million residents over the next 20 years
  • Fortify the city’s economy
  • Combat climate change
  • Enhance the city’s overall quality of life

PlaNYC was updated in 2011 and additional initiatives were added in 2014. New York City aims to stake its claim as the most sustainable big city in the world.

Is New York City a sustainable city?

While the mayor’s office says New York still has some work to do before ranking as the most sustainable big city in the world, it’s near the top of the ranks in the United States.

The annual Lawn Starter report on the most sustainable cities in 2023 places the Big Apple third on a list of 200 sustainable cities across the nation. Number one went to San Francisco, followed by Boston at number two.

The report calculated overall sustainability scores by looking at five different sustainability categories:

  • Policy
  • Sustainable development
  • Pollution
  • Transportation
  • Food production

While New York City ranked third overall, it did take first place in the policy and transportation categories.

[POSSIBLE INFOGRAPHIC TO USE (I just grabbed the top five):]

How to live sustainably in NYC

The city of New York appears to be doing its part to make sustainable living a way of life, and its residents can follow suit. Here are eight ways you can weave sustainable living into your regular routine.

Take advantage of public transportation

New York ranks at the top for sustainability in transportation, with 472 subway stations and more than 300 local, select, and express bus routes throughout the five boroughs. Taking public transportation instead of your car can cut down on congestion and emissions.

Walk as much as possible

Walking is another way to cut down on emissions while also producing less noise and air pollution. Not to mention the benefits of burning calories, moving your muscles and getting some fresh air.

Residents walking everywhere in NYC

Be aware of where your food comes from

If possible, choose foods that don’t create more harm than good for the planet during their production. Go for organic fruits and vegetables that are in season and grown locally, without harmful pesticides and other chemicals. Make sure your seafood and meat come from well-managed sources.

Shop local

Shopping locally means less transportation for shipping to get what you need. This again translates to less pollution, emissions, noise and congestion – especially if you walk or take the bus or train to the shop. You’re also supporting the local economy.

Compost and recycle

Composting and recycling solid waste keeps it out of landfills. New York City has a strong recycling program, collecting about 2,000 tons of recycling per day. It also has a composting program, with drop-off composting sites throughout the city that collect food waste and yard waste.

Choose where your electricity comes from

Even if they can’t install solar panels on their apartment building roofs, New York City residents can support clean energy in a variety of ways. One of those ways is community solar. Here you subscribe to support a solar farm in exchange for a reduction on your electricity bill.

Solar panel farm

Volunteer for local environmental causes or organizations

Local organizations can play a big role in supporting and promoting sustainability, as can joining local causes that focus on what’s best for us and generations to come. New York City has no shortage of environmental groups and causes that would likely welcome your help.

Make your apartment as eco-friendly as possible

Making your apartment eco-friendly is another way to live sustainably. This involves things like being mindful of the amount of electricity and water you use, using green cleaning products, and choosing natural, certified and green materials for your furniture, flooring and furnishing.

Practicing sustainability by taking public transportation via the NYC subway

Do NYC sustainably

With so many options at the ready, living sustainably in New York City is not difficult to achieve. In fact, you may already be doing it without even thinking about it.

You’re choosing sustainable practices every time you take the subway or bus instead of taking a taxi or your car, every time you opt for locally grown organic veggies, and every time you walk to the corner store instead of placing an online order from a faraway shop.

Even if you don’t necessarily wake up each day with the declaration to live sustainably, New York City makes it easy for sustainable living to come naturally.

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