Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The city consumes more water and energy, and generates more waste, than any other huge metro.
New York, many say, is the greatest city in the world. It also might be the most wasteful.
That's according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The large research team, led by Christopher A. Kennedy of the University of Toronto, examined how 27 "megacities" (metropolitan areas with more than 10 million people) metabolize resources and create waste. Together these monster cities consume 9.3 percent of the world's electricity and produce 12.6 percent of the world's waste—even though they contain only 6.7 percent of the world's population.
Kennedy and collaborators also find that some of these megacities are bigger offenders than others—with New York a recurring culprit. When it comes to per capita energy use (top), water use (middle), and solid waste disposal (bottom), New York City tops each of the three lists:
The size, unique geographies, and economic activity of each city influences its position on this list. Colder places, like New York and Moscow, tend to use more heat, for example, which brings up their overall energy usage. Cities with wealthier people, on the other hand, tend to consume more resources and generate more waste. A typical New Yorker consumes 24 times the energy of a person living in Kolkata, India, and generates 15 times as much solid waste, for example.
Comparing New York and Tokyo shows what a significant impact sustainable urban policy and design can have, regardless of the city's size, geography, and wealth. Tokyo has greener urban design, an extensive public transit system that uses less fuel than New York's, and has managed to reduce water leakage from its pipelines to only 3 percent, the study says. Here's Kennedy describing the gap in a news release:
“The New York metropolis has 12 million fewer people than Tokyo, yet it uses more energy in total: the equivalent of one oil supertanker every 1.5 days,” he said. “When I saw that, I thought it was just incredible.”
It's worth noting that New York is one of the most economically powerful places on the planet, and it's also making strides to improve its resource efficiency. Recently, New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a 10-year plan to reconfigure the city energy use and waste management. If it works, the city and its reputation will hopefully both become a bit cleaner.