Who’s the greenest of them all?

Hint: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

TIME.com: What’s the greenest place in America? If you answered something like the granola-crunchy, Rocky Mountain-high town of Boulder, you’d be wrong. If you guessed the sea breezes and warm sunlight of Santa Barbara, you’d be wrong again. The greenest place in America is almost devoid of nature — the buildings outnumber the trees — and the air isn’t all that great. But what it has is density and efficiency — the twin qualities that ultimately define green in the global warming era. Applying those standards, the greenest place in America is New York City — specifically, the overcrowded, overpriced and sometimes overwrought island of Manhattan, which has a per-capita greenhouse gas footprint less than 30% that of the national average.

It’s that density — the sheer number of people living in such a small area, often literally on top of each other — that makes Manhattan, and New York City as a whole, so green. Manhattan’s population density is 800 times the national average. Density comes with negatives, certainly — small living spaces, air pollution, lots and lots of concrete — but it also enables amazing efficiencies. More than 80% of Manhattanites travel to work by public transit, by bike or on foot — compared to an average of about 8% everywhere else in the country. The vertical apartment buildings that Manhattanites live in are far more energy-efficient than single-dwelling housing in the suburbs. “Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams,” wrote David Owen in his 2009 book Green Metropolis. “But in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of environmental responsibility.” (See the top 10 green buildings of 2011.)

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