It’s only really surprising to those who haven’t read the numerous gbNYC posts in which I beat on about it, but New York City is a surprisingly efficient city by most meaningful metrics. Yes, NYC is something of an energy-guzzler overall, but in terms of per capita carbon footprint, New York City is pretty easily the greenest big city in the United States. This is surprising if you think of green as being synonymous with a yurt near a mountain stream, but not that surprising when you consider that most of us live in small apartments, don’t drive (or own) cars and either walk or take mass transit everywhere. There’s a terrific book about this, and I mention it like three times a week. But the gist of it all is that while New York’s built environment is fairly green and improving steadily, the built-in efficiencies of that environment — all the stuff mentioned a couple sentences ago, and the attendant fact that NYC’s very design incentivizes those behaviors to a huge degree — are what makes New York City greener than, say, Los Angeles. Wait, that report you read says what?
We love Preston and Jetson Green, and mean nothing by that link except that JG was where we first saw this news. (It’s also in the New York Times, with a somewhat deceptive headline) And to be fair, the estimable Mr. Koerner doesn’t do anything in the post linked to above but note the results of a new survey that reveals that Los Angeles is the city in the United States with the most Energy Star certified buildings. We also love us some Energy Star, and it is indeed impressive that L.A. has so many buildings — 293, to be exact, more than three times as many as New York — and a whopping 76 million square feet of Energy Star-certified real estate. Washington, D.C., Denver, freaking Houston, double-freaking Atlanta (which is pictured above, from above) — all of the nine cities with more Energy Star buildings than NYC are obviously to be commended. (By square footage, New York ranks sixth, if you were wondering) But let’s be clear what we’re talking about, here.
What makes Energy Star great is its dynamism, relative to LEED — to simplify wildly, Energy Star is based on actual building performance, not hitting a bunch of marks on a pre-construction checklist, as is the case with LEED — but one advantage that LEED already has, and which they are reportedly working on improving, is the way that it recognizes a building’s context within its environment. So while an Energy Star building might be, broadly speaking, more efficient and sustainable than a LEED-certified counterpart, that standard refers only to the building itself; the LEED building in question would get points for its interaction with the built environment surrounding it; for being near mass transit, say. (It would also receive points for having bike racks or a refueling station for a nonexistent electric car, which is another issue entirely) At the risk of getting more off-topic, the point is this: a city full of Energy Star buildings is great, but if they’re distributed per the chaotic un-zoned non-rules of idiotic sprawl (as in Houston or Atlanta) or are reachable only by automobile (as in L.A. or Dallas), then they’re showpieces. Cool ones, responsible ones, but not ones that confer anything more than a PR advantage on their communities or owners.
A green city is a living, integrated thing, and very few cities in the United States — and certainly not car-intensive sprawl-bombs like Los Angeles or Atlanta — qualify by that standard. That — certainly much more so than old buildings with old HVAC systems — is the real challenge to creating effective sustainability standards and truly green cities. It’s cool that enough people in Houston and Atlanta care about Energy Star buildings to go about building and certifying energy-efficient structures. But in terms of the broader efficiencies that might actually offer a better and more integrated built environment to the people working in those buildings or calling those cities home, they’re still a good long way behind New York.