How-To

5 tips for being a more sustainable city dweller

Talia Vicars
12

Have you ever considered that the cities we love to call home are actually part of the great outdoors, just in their own way? Well, it’s not called the concrete jungle for nothing – there are entire ecosystems living and flourishing in urban environments. And, as an organism (yes, humans are organisms!) living as part of these ecosystems, we can directly impact and help protect the life forms around us. But, let’s be real…living that fast-paced city life comes with its own set of challenges, especially if we’re trying to live more sustainability. 

Let’s look at some of the most helpful hints and tips for how to live that urban environmentalist lifestyle and protect those precious city ecosystems by buying online, commuting, and reducing waste.

#1 Support local legislation that increases green space and advocates for more tree coverage 

#2 Bee specific about the plants you’re planting

#3 Refuse, then minimize waste

#4 Buy online to avoid the car… 

#5 … but first walk, bike, and take the train

TLDR

Human population growth predictions forecast the continued move towards urbanization – i.e., the growth of cities. And, in turn, the more these urban environments grow, the more fragmented the impact they can have on natural environments and habitats. Because cities aren’t going anywhere, we have to learn to consider plants and wildlife as part of this growth.  

#1 Support local legislation that increases green space and advocates for more tree coverage

So many greenwashed (yikes!) organizations and companies talk about planting trees as the be-all-end-all solution for climate change. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. But, trees and green spaces can have a significant impact on ecosystems in urban areas. 

Plants (including trees) have all kinds of environmental benefits. In the face of environmental hazards (shoutout climate change), plants can protect against soil erosion, floods, and landslides in densely urbanized areas. Another benefit? Plants can actually muffle traffic noise. Plants can also reduce greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and other pollutants, which can cool down urban environments. Think about how swampy sweaty, hot cities can be in the summer. Trees and other plants can act as natural air conditioners. And, the effects can be pretty devastating when they’re not around. A study looking at 1960’s urban planning policies that disproportionately negatively impacted marginalized communities, also known as redlining, found that these communities now live in some of the hottest parts of cities. What do these extra-hot areas have in common? Fewer trees and lots of sticky-hot asphalt. These areas are also called heat islands – they’re urban areas that experience higher temperatures than their less urbanized counterparts where there is more greenery. These heat islands can range anywhere from 1–7°F higher than other areas. So, supporting pro-tree and plant legislation can also actually mean advocating for environmental justice. Booyah. Yay, trees!

#2 Bee specific about the plants you’re planting

So, while we know that green spaces are important for both people and plants, keep in mind that not all green spaces are created equal. 

Sometimes, urban planners select exotic flora that look cool instead of native plants. For example, cherry blossom trees may be planted because they’re, well, beautiful, or other trees may be selected because they create fewer allergens or resins. However, this people-centric approach can have some negative effects on native species. The introduction of exotic flora, or alien species, can result in serious biodiversity consequences. Native plants create the foundation for local food webs and provide wildlife with food and shelter, including pollinators like bees and butterflies

We don’t have to tell you how important pollinators are (#pollinationnation), but we will emphasize two fun facts on why we basically owe everything to these little guys. 1) Pollinators are integral to growing our food and supporting the ever-growing population – almost 80% of the world's crop plants require animal pollination. 2) Pollinators are integral to flowering plants, which sequester carbon, purify water, and help prevent erosion.

So, if you’re planting in a community garden or you’re the lucky duck with a backyard or garden space, make sure to bee specific. Choose plants that are native to your area to support biodiversity and protect pollinators. This native plant finder tool can help you discover plants that are native to your area and even ranks them on the number of butterfly and moth species that use them as hosts for their offspring. 

#3 Refuse, then minimize waste

Regardless of where we live – city or farmstead – minimizing the amount of waste we create is a key step to reducing our impact on the environment. In urban areas, there are often a lot of handy facilities and programs that can make this just a little easier. 

First things first, when it comes to the three R’s, remember to first refuse before reducing, reusing, and recycling. One of the best ways to minimize waste is to, well, not create it in the first place. This is obviously not always a possibility – we live in a modern world focused on convenience, which includes a lot of single-use plastics and to-go containers destined for landfills. Minimize when you can’t refuse!

To minimize what actually goes in the bin, check to see if there’s a composting facility near you for your organic materials – some cities host backyard community composting to keep it local. Remember, there are differences between industrial composting and backyard composting, so don’t go casually throwing your compostable utensils back there. And, if you create recyclable waste, check out our handy recycling resource to figure out how to dispose of your recyclables responsibly. 

#4 Buy online to avoid the car… 

When it comes to buying online, there are some key things you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your purchase. For a deep dive into all things online shopping – including the relative areas of impact of online and in-person shopping and the possible ways to shop – check out this blog.

Otherwise, keep these key points in mind. First off, if you can avoid shopping online by walking or taking public transit to the store to shop in person, do that. Otherwise, if you’d have to hop in your car (who has a car in the city these days!?), then opt for a ground shipping option. Getting a product via ground shipping is actually less carbon-intensive than driving yourself. When online shopping, try to avoid that convenient next-day delivery option. Buy in bulk to optimize fuel use and packaging materials and, as always, avoid buying stuff you don’t need. When we buy things that we don’t need, the likelihood goes up that we return those things. Returns create a lot of unnecessary waste and emissions and happen much more for online purchases than for in-person purchases (40% online compared to just 7% in-store). 

#5 … but first walk, bike, and take the train

There’s no better way to get to know a city than walking or biking its streets if you’re able to walk or bike! There are added sustainability and human health benefits, too. These modes of transportation (walking and cycling) are known as active mobility and they have the lowest carbon footprint of all transportation options.

Active mobility is a great choice when your destination is close to home. An estimated 40% of all personal trips are under two miles, so if you can walk or bike, we encourage it! It also means you’ll get your steps in. However, it’s not always safe to go on foot or by bike, largely because the infrastructure to support walking and cycling is hugely underfunded. This is no surprise because of America’s obsession with the private car. Our car-centric culture establishes a private car as the ultimate status symbol of upward mobility. In fact, it’s estimated that as much as half of an American city’s land is dedicated to cars – in the form of streets, roads, parking lots, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs, automobile-oriented businesses, car dealerships, and more. Historically, to make way for this carbon-intensive mode of transportation, sidewalks and bike lanes have shrunk. 

Enter: public transportation. While American public transportation infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, an individual who transitions from a 20-mile commute by car to a public transit option can reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by more than 48,000 pounds in a year. For a family of two, that’s equal to a 10% reduction. And, it’s even better than those cool, new electric scooters you may have seen taking up the road, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). And, there are added safety benefits! Hopping on public transit is about 10 times safer per mile than traveling by car. 

All in all, living in a city brings about exciting and novel adventures. How will you keep people and the planet in mind during these escapades?