Urban centers are often conceptualized as principal sources of our environmental problems. When thinking “green,” it is more palatable to conjure images of sprawling countrysides rather than crowded cities. But in many ways, it is the crowded, compact nature of New York City that provides it the most opportunities to be green.

The proliferation of public transit means that New Yorkers consume far less gasoline than their suburban counterparts. 82 percent of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. If New York City was granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.

New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio even committed to an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as part of his One City Built to Last initiative.

Despite this compelling evidence of green living, New York City was usurped by San Francisco and twelve other cities for WalletHub’s 2016 list of “Greenest Cities in America.”

WalletHub’s Ranking and Methodology

The personal finance website WalletHub touts itself as “a one-stop destination for all the tools and information consumers and small business owners need to make better financial decisions and save money.”  Each year, WalletHub develops a ranking of the greenest American cities. This year’s list, 2016’s Greenest Cities in America, has just been released.

At the top of this year’s list is San Francisco. This is not the first time San Francisco has been lauded for its environmental efforts – it was named the greenest city in North America at the first North American Green Cities Index in 2011, and the city with the greenest homes in 2013 according to RedFin.

How exactly did WalletHub compile rankings?

The data used to create the list of greenest cities in the United States were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Trust for Public Land, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center, the Environmental Working Group, Walk Score, and Yelp.

WalletHub looked at 4 key segments:

  1. Transportation
  2. Energy Sources
  3. Environmental Quality
  4. Green Lifestyle and Local Government Policies

Within those 4 segments WalletHub identified 20 key metrics:

  1. Median Air Quality Index
  2. Greenhouse-Gas Emissions per Capita
  3. Green Space (percentage of parkland)
  4. Water Quality
  5. Percentage of Commuters Who Drive (not carpooling, not walking, not taking public transit and not biking)
  6. Average Commute Time by Car
  7. Bike Score
  8. Walk Score
  9. Miles of Bicycle Lanes
  10. Presence of Bike Sharing Program
  11. Annual Excess Fuel Consumed (measures gallons per auto commuter; used as a proxy for “congestion level”)
  12. Intersection Density
  13. Accessibility of Jobs by Public Transit
  14. Percentage of Electricity from Renewable Sources
  15. Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Installations per Capita
  16. Number of Smart-Energy Policies & Initiatives
  17. Number of Farmers Markets per Capita (by the square root of the population)
  18. Green Job Opportunities
  19. Community Garden Plots per Capita
  20. Number of Local Programs for Promoting the Use of Green Energy

According to their research, here are the top ten cities:

  1. San Francisco, CA
  2. Honolulu, HI
  3. San Jose, CA
  4. Fremont, CA
  5. San Diego, CA
  6. Washington, DC
  7. Oakland, CA
  8. Portland, OR
  9. Sacramento, CA
  10. Minneapolis, MN

So what happened to New York City?

Between 2015 and 2016, WalletHub added seven key metrics to their list: Average Commute Time by Car, Miles of Bicycle Lanes, Presence of Bike Sharing Program, Intersection Density, Solar Photovoltaic PV Installations per Capita, Community Garden Plots per Capita, and Accessibility of Jobs by Public Transit.

New York City’s shift in ranking could be partially due to these changing metrics.

San Francisco set a goal to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. In pursuit of this goal, legislation passed to make new commercial and residential buildings up to 10 stories in height require rooftop solar systems for heat or electricity. This new policy undoubtedly contributed to new metric 15: Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Installations per Capita.

Including San Francisco, six of the top ten greenest cities are in California. It is posited that California’s green inclination is due to three main factors: the shifting of United States population to warmer climates of the South and West, the relatively small energy demand of California’s temperate climate, and differences in household demographics between California and other states.

These trends are difficult to replicate, and therefore do not provide much helpful information for other states attempting to improve their energy efficiency standards.

It is perhaps these tendencies inherent to California that allow for more dramatic increase in sustainability, moving their cities up the green ranks faster than, say, a place like New York City.

Despite the drop in overall rank, New York City was unsurprisingly still listed as number one for lowest percent of commuters who drive to work.

A little competition goes a long way

There is no definitive answer for why New York City dropped 13 spots on the Greenest Cities list between 2015 and 2016.

New york City Credit: Pexels

Though it may seem like a dramatic shift, New York City is still considered one of the top 20 greenest cities in the United States. And due to initiatives like the Green Infrastructure Plan and One City Built To Last, New York City is certainly aiming in the right direction.

Lists like WalletHub’s annual Greenest City ranking are useful for assessing the general climate of sustainability in cities across North America. And by pitting American cities against each other, the ranking certainly encourages cities to try to outdo each other to become the “greenest.”

And really, there’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to spur some positive change to make America’s cities greener and more sustainable.

If you are interested in learning more and becoming a part of the green building industry, check out our online LEED Exam Prep or our various industry training options.

Lists like WalletHub’s annual Greenest City ranking are useful for assessing the general climate of sustainability in cities across North America. And by pitting American cities against each other, the ranking certainly encourages cities to try to outdo each other to become the “greenest.”

And really, there’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to spur some positive change to make America’s cities greener and more sustainable.

If you are interested in learning more and becoming a part of the green building industry, check out our online LEED Exam Prep or our various industry training options.

CONTRIBUTING EXPERTS

imageDavid Clemen


Mary Mignone

Mary Mignone is a writer and editor for Poplar Network.

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