Which Is More Environmentally Responsible, Urban or Rural Living?

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We often equate living in an environmentally responsible way with country living. The imagery is appealing: sun-drenched fields, tender green leaves on young fruit trees, laundry on the line, harvesting fresh chicken eggs. However, the question deserves to be examined: which is really greener, urban living, or rural living?

Environmental Arguments for Rural Living

  • Children with opportunities for ample outdoors experiences have frequent, genuine interactions with the natural world. There is some evidence that these experiences have health benefits like reduced anxiety and lower risks of myopia and obesity.
  • Living closer to nature provides more hands-on experience and direct understanding of environmental issues. Witnessing sediment pollution, acid mine drainage, or algae blooms make it more likely that someone will seek to educate themselves about the problem, and perhaps organize their community to find solutions or otherwise take some steps to mitigate the issue. 
  • By living closer to agriculture, one can get to know farmers, learn about the sustainability levels of the various practices they follow, and choose quality local food with a low environmental footprint. When the space is available, rural residents can grow healthy crops themselves or harvest wild foods, reducing their reliance on meats, fruit, and vegetables grown with questionable practices and transported over long distances. In addition, backyard food growers can control food waste better; supermarket food goes through distribution and marketing practices that create large amounts of waste.
  • Rural living provides unique opportunities to minimize energy needs, reduce one’s carbon footprint, and lower contributions to global climate change. Less constrained by apartment or condo living, in the absence of restrictive homeowner association rules, and with more space available, rural residents have more freedom to design their own passive solar house, put up solar panels, or even install a micro-hydro turbine.

Environmental Arguments for Urban Living

  • Cities are characterized by dense housing, with many more people living in a comparatively small area. This concentrates human land use, easing pressure on natural areas outside the city. Without the high demand for suburban or rural living, there would be much less pressure on agriculture lands and wild lands, less habitat fragmentation, and less roadkill-causing car traffic.
  • This dense urban fabric means small dwellings, requiring far less energy to heat and cool and leaving less room for energy-hungry appliances than the bigger homes typical of the countryside.
  • A walking lifestyle is more accessible in the city, where the workplace may be located within walking or biking distance. In rural areas people are much more reliant on car transportation, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. For those not walking to work or to conduct errands, public transportation options are usually much more accessible to urban residents.
  • Access to quality local food. Surprisingly, it is often easier to find farmers markets in the city, where shoppers can make choices that favor local foods grown following sustainable practices. However, some of the worst food deserts in the country are in economically depressed urban areas, where the only accessible sources of food are convenient stores and fast-food restaurants offering few healthy and environmentally conscious options.
  • While it is admittedly more of a health issue, in the United States water quality is generally better in cities, counter-intuitively. There, everyone is connected to a municipal water source that has been treated and is routinely tested. In rural areas, most people rely on well water, which vary greatly in quality and is rarely tested. Furthermore, the proximity to intensive agricultural operations can increase the chances of groundwater being contaminated by pesticides.
  • Sewage treatment is centralized, monitored, and generally effective in cities. Rural residents rely on a patchwork of septic systems of various ages and level of maintenance.

The Verdict

In my opinion urban living likely results in, on average, lifestyles with a lighter environmental impact. At the same time, rural life may allow more flexibility for individuals to make personal choices aimed at minimizing ones ecological footprint. How about suburban living? That is a great question which deserves to be explored more in depth soon.