Is living in an apartment better for the environment?


3 apartment buildings

It’s hard to think of apartment life in the city being a “green” option. When it comes to eco-friendly living we so often think of people living in rural locations. But the green truth when you compare living in an apartment to living in the suburbs might surprise you.

Living in an apartment can actually be more eco-friendly than living in a suburban house for three key reasons.

  • Household energy use is lower in high-density locations,
  • Transportation energy use is lower,
  • Less infrastructure is needed for services like wastewater treatment and recycling.

So what exactly does this mean and is living in an apartment always a greener choice? Let’s dig in and get the green details!

Why Living in an Apartment May Be a More Eco-Friendly Choice?

Whether you are downsizing because your kids have moved out, or are moving to a new city because of a job change, you may be trying to decide between living in a city apartment or buying a house in the suburbs. If green living is a priority for you there are a lot of reasons that the apartment might win out.

You might be surprised to find out the New York State has one of the lowest per capita energy consumptions of any state in the country. I know I was pretty shocked to hear this. You can find out the exact stats and see just where your state comes in as far as energy consumption here at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Website.

So what’s the deal? Just think about New York City. There are tons of cars on the NYC streets, there are so many lights on day and night. How is it possible that the people of New York City consume less energy per capita than say the people in Topeka.

You’re right in thinking that the state of New York is one of the highest energy consumption states in the country. It is. BUT when you take into account the high population of the state you find that the per capita energy use is pretty darn low.

A key reason is for this low energy use is the simple fact that a lot of the people in New York live in apartments.

When houses are connected by a common wall or multiple common walls, as in an apartment or rowhouse, less energy is needed to heat and cool them because there are fewer wall surfaces exposed to the outside elements. So there is less heat loss. This is especially helpful in saving energy in cold weather climates.

The other reason that New York scores so well as far as using less energy per capita is that so many people use public transportation.

More than 50% of New York City workers use public transit. When you look statewide the number falls to about 25%. BUT according to the EIA that’s still 5 times more use of public transportation than the U.S. average.

Part of the reason the public transportation system is so well used is because of the high density. There are enough people living close enough together to make it worthwhile to have multiple subway lines and stops, frequent buses, etc. that will actually take you where you need to go at the time you need to get there.

This doesn’t work as well in smaller towns where the population lives further apart in low-density neighborhoods. In many towns and cities in the U.S. there aren’t useful (or sometimes any) public transportations options available.

“People who live and/or work in compact neighborhoods with a walkable street grid and easy access to public transit, jobs, stores, and services are more likely to have several transportation options to meet their everyday needs.

As a result, they can choose to drive less, which reduces their emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants compared to people who live and work in places that are not location efficient.”

EPA – Smart Growth

When you have many apartment buildings close together you are much more likely to have good public transport options that people will actually use and that makes for a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

But you don’t have to live in New York City for apartment life to be a greener choice.

When you live in an apartment building in any city there is less infrastructure needed. When you look at things like power lines, roads, water pipes, and sewage lines it takes a lot more of them to service suburban houses.

“suburban development required roughly eight times more ‘infrastructure network length’ per person than the downtown high rises.”

City Lab – When Density Isn’t Greener

That makes good sense. When buildings and resources are closer together you don’t need as much energy to move people or things between them. Whether that’s getting to work or school, going grocery shopping, delivering water and energy, or dealing with trash and recycling.

So How Much Energy is Saved?

To see an example of how much energy can be saved by living in an apartment take a look at this graphic courtesy of the EIA.

Household Energy Use Graph

The biggest savings occur in apartment buildings with 5 or more units. Even when the building is older and likely less energy efficient overall, for example, from the 1970s you still do better in a multi-family dwelling than in a single-family dwelling.

Apartment living room with couch, table, lamp and desk

Size Matters

It’s important to note that apartments are usually smaller in size than single-family homes. The average single-family home in the U.S. is between 1700 and 2000 square feet depending on the region and the age of your home. It’s difficult to be more exact.

Brand new homes average about 2600 square feet. But many people live in homes that are 30 or more years old. So taking that into account you can figure somewhere between 1700 and 2000 square feet.

The average square footage of an apartment is about 889 square feet. A little smaller in Seattle a little larger in the Southeast area of the U.S. But regardless of exact numbers it’s apparent that there’s just a lot more space to heat in say an 1800 s.f. house than there is in a 900 s.f. apartment.

Not only does it take more energy to heat and cool the house that has nearly twice the square footage. It also takes more resources to build it. That impacts the overall carbon footprint of the house as well.

Apartment buildings with palm trees

When Apartment Living Isn’t Greener

When doing this research I came across a really interesting study that gave an example of when living in an apartment isn’t more eco-friendly.

The study was done comparing 249 households in four different Chicago high-rise apartments downtown and 73 single-family homes in Oak Park, which is outside the downtown area, but still in Chicago.

The surprising results of the study showed that the highrise apartment residents actually consumed 27% more energy than their nearby suburbanites.

Here are two of the reasons:

Common areas in apartments like shared hallways, elevators, common rooms like gyms and lobbies added to the total energy use.

Interestingly, too, the apartment dwellers tended to be young professionals without kids or empty nesters. The suburban houses were home to families with kids. When you think about transportation, it costs less energy per capita to drive around in a mini-van full of kids than it does to drive solo.

So lifestyle really does come into play when you are determining how “green” a choice apartment living is, as is the case with so many of our decisions about how we can best live an eco-friendly life.

So if you are trying to live green but crave city life and apartment living – go ahead and give it a try! It’s entirely possible to live green in an apartment and maybe even easier than living green in a house!

Resources Used in this Article:

https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=11731

https://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/smart-location-mapping

https://www.citylab.com/design/2017/12/when-density-isnt-greener/548384/

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