Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sustainability in the City


Arduous is walking down the street wearing a tutu clutching her Klean Kanteen, when a bus rolls by. It is prominently featuring a picture of Arduous the label "CNG fuel." As the bus goes by, Arduous runs toward it like her life depends on it. She catches the bus, but her Klean Kanteen spills, splashing water all across her chest.


All right, so maybe my life isn't all Manolo Blahniks and questionable fashion choices, but I love living in the city. In this, I suspect I am in a minority among enviro-bloggers. Most eco-nuts dream of large gardens with chickens. Call me chicken shit (ba dum pum), but I have absolutely zero desire to ever own a live chicken. As for the garden, I'd be perfectly content with a small plot in a community garden. (Honestly, I'm pretty happy to just BUY my produce from other people because, well I'm LAZY, but in theory a community garden sounds lovely.) As such, I've always approached sustainable living from an urban perspective. Now, I do believe that a sustainable life is possible wherever, should you choose to make it so. However, I'd like to make a case here for the city. In my opinion and experience, it is much EASIER to live a sustainable lifestyle in a city. Here's why:
  1. Access to public transit: This is by far the biggest upside to city living and one of the huge downsides to living in a more rural area. Much as I bemoan LA Metro, and long for the NYC Subway, or the "El," or even BART, I have to admit that yes, you can get around LA without a car. If you're far from the subway, you will be subject to the mercies of the bus system, but the point is, there ARE buses and they DO go most everywhere.
  2. Access to farmers' markets: Off the top of my head, there are at least ten farmers' markets held within 10 miles of my house. In fact, there are probably more.
  3. Access to theatre and culture: I know this one isn't as big a deal for a lot of people, but personally, I'm not willing to live my life only seeing a play or a live music performance once every year or so. Of course there are plenty of people who live in Los Angeles who don't take advantage of the wealth of cultural opportunities in the city. But if you care to look, you'll find amazing bands performing most nights (often for no to little cover charge), art openings (free wine!), and innovative theatre happening in converted store fronts.
  4. Limited space: Some of you are thinking, "That's good?" Yes, from an environmental perspective, it's better to live in smaller places. In a city, most people tend to live in small apartments. And small apartments generally use less energy than houses. One of the reasons my electric bill is 11% of the average American's is because my apartment is just SMALL. Apartment buildings also allow people to share resources better. The obvious example is the washer and dryer. A typical suburban family owns one washer and one dryer for four people. My apartment building has two washers and two dryers and probably 40 people. Other apartment buildings have gyms which can cut down on individual elliptical machine ownership. Still others have rec rooms with stashes of board games. And let's not forget that we have 40 people "sharing" our small lawn and planter boxes. Our lawn is smaller than most suburban lawns as it is, but split amongst 40 people, the per person water use must be fairly negligible.
  5. Jobs: let's face it. It's hard to live a sustainable lifestyle when you can't make ends meet. Cities are (generally) where the jobs are. And the closer you live to your job, the less time you have to spend commuting, the more time you have for everything else.

A couple weeks ago, Melinda at Elements in Time and I had somewhat of a difference of opinion on the sustainability of Los Angeles. Melinda lived in LA for ten years, and I've lived here for going on seven, so we both clearly know the city fairly well. Melinda's opinion was that Los Angeles was not a sustainable place to live, and she cited "water issues, lack of urban planning, increasing fires, and more," as reasons Los Angeles is not particularly sustainable.

Now, I recognize the validity of her reasoning. I remember only too well the fires from last summer- in particular one that happened almost on top of me. And I certainly respect Melinda's viewpoint. But personally, I am more optimistic about the sustainability of Los Angeles.

Yes, we have water issues. But, according to the LA Times, "Thirty-nine percent of residential water use in California occurs outdoors, mainly when homeowners water their lawns." As I mentioned, cities tend to have more people per lawn than suburbs. In addition, there are economies of scale that occur when a large group of people live in one area. Simply put, it's cheaper to direct water to one place and have a few million people benefit, than it is to direct water to a couple hundred different rural outposts.

As for the urban planning, it's true that Los Angeles is no New York or San Francisco. But it's changing. When I first moved to the Hollywood ghetto (no, I no longer live there) there's was almost nothing in walking distance. One dive bar, one beyond-dive bar. One British pub with an exceedingly un-British Melrose Place-like courtyard. And a Bally's Total Fitness.

Seven years later there are several cute brunch places, a Borders, and a Bed, Bath & Beyond. There's the Arclight Theatre, and Amoeba Records. The effect has been dramatic. What was once a rather seedy area is now vibrant and teeming with people.

It is possible that development will not continue at such a fast pace now that the housing market has crashed, and the country is verging on recession. But cities have been much more insulated from the housing crash than the suburbs and exurbs. The reason? Young people are still moving into the cities in droves. And what's more, they are living there for much longer than previous generations.

Los Angeles also has the advantage of having a fairly mild climate. I basically went the whole winter with no heat. And the dryness in the summer means that air conditioning isn't quite the necessity it is in say Chicago. And living in California makes eating local food much easier since everything is grown here already!

In the end, I think if you work at it enough you can live sustainably anywhere. Los Angeles isn't for everyone, and every single person isn't going to find it personally sustainable. But for me, it's a pretty good fit. Because in the end, Los Angeles is where my community is. And it's just more fun to sit in your heatless apartment when you're drinking a bottle of wine with a good friend.


Joyce said...

I think some people confuse sustainability with self-sufficiency. I would agree with you that a city dweller can certainly live very sustainably, but those who choose rural life often like to work toward self-sufficiency. I don't think a city dweller should feel guilty if they can't grow their own food, spin their own yarn, or whatever. We need people to live in cities and do city type-jobs. And you are also right about enjoying your friends and the kind of entertainment that suits you. Some people like a quieter sort of life, some like a more social type of life. It's all good!
I enjoy my life in a middle-sized city. We have a good cultural life because of the large universtiy that is here, yet we don't have long commutes, and there is the opportunity to know a lot of families for several generations. Kind of the best of both worlds.

ruchi said...

Yeah. I am so never spinning my own yarn. :)

ruchi said...

P.S. Joyce, I think you are right that university towns are in some ways the "holy grail." They combine culture, walkability, and often good school districts. If and when I have children and have to leave the city for good schools, university towns will be on top of my list!

Unknown said...

Ohhh! do I get to be the "Miranda" on Sustainability in the City???!?!?!

EcoGeoFemme said...

I totally, completely agree (except that it is quite possible to live without air conditioning in a place like Chicago). :)

Melissa said...

great thoughts...especially about the shared resources of laundry, exercise machines, etc. We'd be in trouble if every family in this country wanted to live on 100 acre farms in the middle of nowhere. I kind of get scared thinking about that actually. Although I might like a chicken...

Anonymous said...

Talk about unsustainable cities - Las Vegas comes to mind. I recently heard a talk about water-energy nexus. If we truly factored in the cost of water, Las Vegas as a city would collapse under its own dry weight. Our municipal utility charges us $2.5 per kgallon, which is no where near its true cost, according to the speaker. Interesting thought.

ruchi said...

SDG, sure you can be Melinda and we can go to local food brunch places and discuss men and phthalates! But who is willing to be Charlotte/Samantha?

EGF, you're right, you're right. You totally can do without air conditioning in Chicago. I actually hate a/c and loooove heat. I'd say it was my genes, but I suspect it's because growing up, we never had a/c. (You REALLY don't need it in the Bay Area.)

Melissa, I thought that too. Really people who want to live in rural areas should be glad that there are some of us who don't! Because, uh, if everyone moved to the rural areas ... well they wouldn't be so rural anymore. And there are some urban areas that allow chickens. I don't know about SJ, but I hear they allow them in Seattle.

Cindy, yeah, as much as I do believe that you can live sustainably wherever, Las Vegas isn't a shining example of the kind of sustainability I was talking about that you get in a city. Although, Google just pulled up five farmers' markets in Las Vegas, so at least they have that?

Sam said...

I go back and forth in how self sufficient I want to be. The Dervaes is a good model for me because they are practicing their beliefs in an urban environment, but there is all that work to do! Like you, I am very lazy. I like gobs of free time where I have nothing planned.

I've grown up and lived in cities my whole life (except for 3 disastrous, depressing years when I live in the suburbs and in the country) and I do think its easier being "green" in an urban environment than anywhere else. For me the only downside it the cost of property/land.

Some of the things I am currently doing (grey water, cooking all meals from scratch) I do because its no big effort for me. But recently I noticed something that might be fungal growth on my tomato plant and I wondered how much more devastating it would be if it was my livelihood.

Anonymous said...

While Los Angeles does get a bad wrap, there are numerous people here working on issues of sustainability. From greening housing to transportation alternatives to restoring the watershed, change is occurring. Good news is when Los Angeles is makes strides towards sustainability, then we know it can be done anywhere in the world!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

The buzzword here in Vancouver is ecodensity, which sums up all the points you made about more effective use / sharing of resources. I'm lucky enough to live within cycling distance of work, farmers' markets, and many entertainment options. I would hate to live in the suburbs and have to commute by car every day - especially since most of our suburbs involve commutes with massive bridge and tunnel bottlenecks. It was definitely worth the higher housing prices to stay in the city.

ruchi said...

Beany, sometimes I wonder if "self-sufficiency" is also a cultural expectation? Americans as a whole, I think, are much more about self-sufficiency. OTOH, Indians would never dream of such a thing. What? Not have a maid servant or a cook or a driver etc etc? Why would you do that?

Ron, I totally agree with you. I see the change happening every day.

Cae, you bring up something that a lot of people ignore. Living in the city is a trade off, yes. You have higher housing costs, but often fewer transportation costs. This was something Green LA Girl brought up a while back on her LA Times blog. Someone asked her how she could afford to live in Santa Monica, and she said that the reason she could live there was because she didn't have a car. No car payment, no gas payment, no car insurance. Many people think the car, car payment, gas payment, and insurance are necessities and thus try and find cheaper housing in the burbs. But the truth is a car isn't a NECESSITY as such. It's an either/or.

Anonymous said...

bikesbikesbikesbikesbikesbikesbikes - you guys get to ride 360 days a year!!! That is reason alone to move back home (almost)...I left 10 years ago and every time I visit I am shocked by the changes. Keep up the good work - I'll be back to take advantage soon enough!


ruchi said...

Doi! I forgot about being able to bike all the time!! This is because I do not bike. I have been thinking it would be nice to have on though ... I might have to start looking around for one.

Green Bean said...

Carrie, I mean Arduous, I tend to agree with you. And with Joyce. Sustainability and self sufficiency are not the same thing. I think that both life in the city and in the country can be low carbon - depending on what your individual situation is. I have yearned for a country life but, truth be told, we're finding life here in the high density Bay Area to be pretty sustainable. Locally grown, organic food is readily available. I can walk or take the train many places. It is easier to build a community because there are more people.

Oh, and Arduous, I don't know what you are talking about never spining your own yarn. You do that here every day.

ruchi said...

Oh Green Bean, you are punny!

Going Crunchy said...

Ooh, but do tell us about your "Big."

Actually, from what I've seen the carbon footprint of a city dweller totally and completely kicks the butt of any suburbanite. Shared spaces, commons, shared buildings, smaller living spaces, no cars.

I think the suburbs have really been the downtrend of our society.

So go have a cosmo, and give Big a smooch.

Sam said...

Arduous: you just shed light on why my Indian friends in India think I'm crazy for asking them to quit using plastic wrapped stuff.

O well..I was not designed to win popularity contests anyway.

I was doing my most dreaded task recently: socializing with strangers, and so many people were convinced that a sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle wasn't possible in an urban environment. I tried to convince them that it was probably true for NYC, but not for any other city in the US since a farm or food source is at most a day's bike ride away. And I think one could maintain a small veggie garden and get the oils and flour from a source within 50 miles (assuming peak oil apocalypse scenarios). I don't see what else one could need. Maybe clothes...but that could be turned into a yearly purchase. I think the high population in cities might be a bottleneck...

Melissa said...

oooh I want to be Charlotte!!

I am not sure about chickens here, but the only space I have is a small balcony, so I think that would be kind of mean :)

amy.leblanc said...

"I suspect I am in a minority among enviro-bloggers".....

i don't think so, actually. first, how many rural people blog? ;) second, as many have pointed out, carbon-footprint statistics show that living in dense urban areas is way more environmental now that earth's population is 6+ billion. sure, there are the amish types out there who have very little impact and the total off-the-grid eco-nuts with compost toilets and solar powered homes, but the average rural dweller drives everywhere, has a big house to heat/power, etcetera. most enviro-bloggers i have read live in cities and are pushing for sustainable planning and growth. maybe there's a whole slew of rural enviro bloggers out there, but i have a feeling they're too busy feeding their chickens to blog. ;)

i really enjoy your blog. thanks!

Anonymous said...

GOOD BLOG!!!!! Totally agree with you. One thing stood out and a product I actually bought and enjoy was the kanteen - that stainless steel bottle. i rock climb so I like that I can attach it to my belt. anyway, downfall is that it clangs but is about the same weight as a plastic bottle. If anyone else is interested i got mine at

Anonymous said...

Arduous, I apologize for taking so long to comment! I read this a while back and meant to write an answer post, but this whole apartment search got in the way.

You make some great points, and I believe that you can do your best - and you MUST do your best - no matter where you are.

Water is a huge problem in all of the southwest, and while stopping the watering of lawns will use up far less water, there are two problems remaining: 1. You have to get people to stop watering their lawns. Yesterday. And 2. LA, Las Vegas, and other southwest cities still would be using way more water than the Colorado River and the various lakes can support. They're running dry, there are huge water rights issues with Mexico - Mexico is simply not getting enough water.

You can get close, by collecting every drop of rain water, using greywater, and using composting toilets. But even the folks at Path to Freedom - whose lifestyle, work, and whole lives revolve around sustainability - they admit their huge problem with relying on tap water to survive.

The fire issue is not as big of an issue in the center of town, but Pasadena, Altadena, Glendale, Malibu, and most of Orange and Ventura Counties are in fire country. It's getting worse. So the solution would be to stop building out there, to start building green roofs and landscape with fire resistant plants.... those are off the top of my head, but I'm sure there are other solutions.

Transportation is a huge issue in LA. Even the poorest residents have a tough time getting around on the bus system. That system needs major work (requiring major funding) before it will work to help people become more sustainable.

So, I challenge you and everyone that lives in the desert to fix these problems, and then I'll believe you. ; ) It will be an arduous adventure to get to that point (and we're running out of time). But I'll support you however I can, every step of the way. And I do believe you can -and must- do it!

Anonymous said...


One thing I want to clarify is that I'm not saying city living isn't sustainable. On the contrary, we've decided to move to a city to become *more* sustainable. It's LA in particular that I believe is currently unsustainable.

And I do hope that didn't come across as too harsh or anything - I've really spent a lot of time thinking through all of this so it's very important to me, and dear to my heart.t

ruchi said...

Melinda I totally see your point. I think it's a trade-off. Yes, LA has water issues, but it's also a city that is eminently livable without heat or air con. We don't believe that cities that are cold are unsustainable, so why should dry cities be necessarily unsustainable?

My point with the water is that it makes the most sense for us to direct water to one place: namely a city. If people were dispersed it becomes a much bigger problem. We are all going to experience changing water patterns thanks to global warming. And honestly, what's the solution? If we moved everyone from Los Angeles to Northern California we'd still have those problems. The entire West is having water issues. So, in my opinion, because suburbs tend to be bigger suckers of water, not cities, it makes sense to encourage living in the cities of California, which include Los Angeles.

I do agree that the transport system needs work. But I have been surprised to find that the system is actually better than most people, especially Angelenos, assume. And I find that aside from work, most everything is in walking distance- library, post office, grocery stores, video rental, restaurants, bars, etc etc. In fact, if you look up the walkability of most LA neighborhoods, you'll find they rate pretty highly. In some ways, I think it's more of an attitude adjustment that needs to be made. Many Angelenos get into their car without thought, even for an errand a couple blocks away. But attitudes can be changed.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the comments about fire, because I live in the most fire prone area of the world, south east Australia. We watched those fires last year on the television, and we know what it's like to live under a smoke haze, to have your holiday plans change suddenly because the roads are cut off, and we know people who've lost their houses. We know people who've filled their bath tubs with water, and spent hot windy days checking their houses for spot fires, knowing it's too late to evacuate. What stunned me was how 'un-ready' so many houses and people seemed. Obviously it's hard to tell from this distance, but our summers (and springs) are one long warning about fire preparation and prevention. There is so much you can do to make a house more fire resistant, and things you can do to get ready to skillfully and safely fight bush fires and protect your home. Australia has had several major fires in my lifetime, including the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 that killed many people, and since then there's been lots of research about making it better. It's not considered an eco-nut thing here, ordinary suburban/outer urban/small town homes are designed to survive fire with roof sprinklers, water tanks, and maintenance of the gardens.

Also, we have very little water here, but I think moving 4 million people north is pretty unenvironmental, so we've gotta make composting toilets and brown grass fashionable.