Please Note:

Please note that this blog is no longer updated; it's published solely for reference.

September 28, 2009

big cities: exhausting and exhilarating

Photo credit: NASA, Johnson Space Center

Photo credit: NASA, Johnson Space Center

by Liz Neves

In the big city, on any given day, anything seems possible. Millions of thinkers, dreamers, and doers exchange ideas, creative sparks, and currency. There are plenty of reasons to be a city dweller – more jobs, much inspiration, more opportunities to help people who need it. But there’s one big drawback to city dwelling, especially New York City dwelling: dismally poor air quality.

Some might argue we just can’t help it. In a city of millions where almost all of our goods are trucked in and 12,000 tons of residential trash is trucked out every day, how could we fight the beast of diesel exhaust? When coal-burning power plants in the MidWest are emitting mercury and other harmful pollutants that drift our way with the air currents, what are we supposed to do to stop that?

The health implications of poor air quality from diesel exhaust and coal burning are numerous. Increased asthma rates, increased rates of cancer, even endocrine disruption and reproductive disorders result from the multitude of particulates we inhale.

But there are measures we can take, as a community, as individuals to improve our outdoor air quality (stay tuned for ways to improve indoor air quality in a future post). Here are a few:

Plant and care for trees

Trees are amazing filters of air pollution. They take in carbon dioxide and absorb harmful particulates through their leaves. Certain cultivars are particularly good at filtering air pollution and tolerating the harsh environment of the city, including the London Plane, Silver Leaf Linden, and Gingko Biloba. Through the Bloomberg administration’s PlaNYC there is an effort to plant 1 million trees citywide, concentrating on neighborhoods who need it most, such as those with high asthma rates and few standing trees.

Unfortunately, young street trees have a high mortality rate; half of them don’t make it within the first couple of years. But there are groups whose sole purpose is to care for street trees, including Trees NY and the New York Restoration Project. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge Program provides free courses on tree care as well.

Improve the efficiency of your home or office

Consuming less energy means fewer resources will be burned, fewer pollutants will be released. Considering about 50% of this country’s energy comes from coal, it could make a big impact if we all changed a few of our home practices.

Simply installing and using a programmable thermostat can save money and energy use. Setting the thermostat to around 68 degrees F in winter (78 degrees F in summer) when you’re home and awake and lowering it (in winter) when your not home or asleep can help you save significantly on your home energy bill.

Sealing drafty windows and doors with inexpensive and simple devices like caulking and door draft guards can make a big difference. Black & Decker recently launched some new devices for home use, like the auto-off energy switch and thermal heat sensor to help you determine where you could use some extra insulation.

Setting your hot water heater to a lower setting can help you save, too. According to the US Department of Energy, “for each 10ºF reduction in water temperature, you can save between 3%–5% in energy costs.” Simply using cold water for laundry, washing your hands, and doing dishes can also help save some energy (and money).

You might be rewarded for your efforts to make your home run more efficiently. Check to see if you’re eligible for Federal Tax Credits through Energy Star.

Get more tips on improving your home’s efficiency from ReCharge America.

Support alternative sources of energy

New York City residents have the option to switch to alternative sources of energy, such as wind power, through Con Ed Solutions. To find out if you have a choice of energy source in your part of the country, check out Community Energy.

Walk, ride your bike, take mass transit

Who needs a gym? Walking and bicycling are both great ways to get where you’re going while burning calories, not air-polluting fuel. Find out how walkable your city is with Walk Score.

Utilizing mass transit, like trains or buses, reduces emissions, saves wear and tear on your car (if you’ve got one), and decreases fuel consumption.

Reduce overall consumption

If you haven’t yet seen the Story of Stuff, it’s an eye-opening short film detailing the history of our consumer culture. It’s sure to get you thinking about how much you buy and whether those purchases are really necessary.

It’s easy to buy less when you know a few basic skills like sewing on buttons or repairing broken appliances instead of tossing out the old and buy new. Groups like Brooklyn Skillshare are ensuring that communities maintain skills like bicycle repair, sewing, and food preparation so that we can be a bit more self-sufficient and reduce consumption of new things by utilizing the resources we have handy.

By reducing overall purchase of new products, we can dramatically reduce the amount of fuel (and other non-renewable resources) burned as well as cutting back on the trash we produce. And having less clutter can actually help you breathe a little easier as well.

Buy local

When goods don’t have far to travel, generally less fuel is spent in the process of getting them to your household. By supporting local businesses who make goods locally, you’ll not only reduce the burning of fuel, you’ll be boosting the local economy. Organizations like Buy in Brooklyn encourage community members to support their local business owners. Local Harvest will help you find what’s fresh and in season in your area.


Half of all the household trash created in NYC is compostable. That would mean instead of 600 tractor trailers hauling out our trash daily, there would potentially be 300, reducing the amount of diesel fuel burned by half. Composting also keeps food waste out of landfills where they would release methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon. Not to mention that food waste can be turned into a fruitful commodity, a valuable medium for growing nutritious food.

Get involved

It’s encouraging to see how many health and sustainability groups have formed or have been strengthened in recent years. Here are just a few organizations you can support or join who have air quality or related initiatives:

These are just a few ways we can improve the air we breathe. Do you know someone (organization, community group, individual) who is taking steps to improve air quality? How are you helping to improve air quality where you live?

Yahya E. B. Henry

About Yahya E. B. Henry

Merging his passion for cities, real estate, tech and travel, Yahya is introducing the world to a new model of real estate development that draws from best practices around the globe.

  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn


  • Is it almost too late to save cities like New York with high populations and almost every piece of land in the city covered by a building or concrete?

  • These are great suggestions. Thanks for reminding me about the Story of Stuff—it is mind altering if one allows it.

  • It's not too late for NY. NY has so many great things going for it because of it's density – you don't have to take a car anywhere – you have so many other options. Because of this, the carbon footprint of someone living in Manhattan is sooo much less than the average American's. With this density, however, there are some downfalls that you pointed out. Thanks for making the great suggestions.

  • @Leron, thanks for your question. I'd hate to think that it's too late to save big cities (especially since I live in one!). There are plenty of efforts to green spaces that are covered in concrete and asphalt, which would not only beautify and clean the air, but also mitigate storm-water pollution run-off and combined sewer overflow. Green roofs, living walls, parks, community gardens, and green streets installations all help the situation. Check out this post from the Streets Blog about Green Streets in NYC:

    And high population just means more hands to help with greening efforts. ;)

    @Adia, thanks for your comment. You're absolutely right that one has to be in the frame of mind to accept the information in order for it to work its magic!

  • Thanks for your input, Christi. Density does have its benefits. Like I mentioned in my other comment, more people means more ideas, more people to affect positive change.

    One example of this is the increased interest and development of urban agriculture. Orgs like Growing Power in Milwaukee ( and BK Farmyards in Brooklyn ( are demonstrating that growing food in the city is not just viable, it can help the community thrive.

  • @Christi, I think you're right about the density issues; there a pluses and minuses. While public transportation options are plentiful, NYC has more buildings than any other US city. Mayor Bloomberg's goal of cutting CO2 emissions 30% 2030 will require a great deal of work. Great to see the initiative in place. Great suggestions Liz!

Get Adobe Flash player