Really. We tried.

This week’s New Yorker ran a truly excellent article (available only in the print version) by David Owen, on the acme of eco-friendly communities: Manhattan.

Most people think of the concrete-encased island as an environmental distopia. They’re mistaken. Manhattanites use a fraction of the gasoline and far less electricity, have fewer and smaller personal possessions, and take up less physical space, than do residents of any other city in the United States. One telling statistic: eighty-two percent of Manhattan residents travel to work on foot, bicycle, or public transit. In metropolitan Portland—widely considered to be America’s “smart growth” mecca—about four out of five communters drive to work alone.

In the words of Sierra Club transportation consultant John Holtzclaw: “Anyplace that has such tall buildings and heavy traffic is obviously an environmental disaster—except that it isn’t.”

So why do so few people equate urban living with an environmentally sound lifestyle? The problem is one of optics: we’ve become accustomed to thinking that living green is synonymous with seeing green. Broad lawns, houses nestled in the woods, lovely trees to look at: those are the things that signal a lifestyle in touch with nature.

But in the modern world, environmental impacts generally rise with the amount of greenery that surrounds you. Living in a modern house on a secluded country lane or a spacious suburb forces you to drive more. Basic goods and services are out of reach without a lengthy car ride. And if you have a typical suburban house, you use more energy to heat your spacious home, and heat that escapes from your house is wasted—unlike an apartment building, where your waste heat can heat someone else’s home.

The moral: when you think of green living, don’t think of living amid greenery. Think of Manhattan.