How to Live Sustainably in the City

It's possible to be connected to nature and have a sustainable lifestyle no matter where you live.

Jill has always dreamt of farm life, but she’s a city girl at heart. Living in Charlotte, NC, with her family, Jill still manages to pull off a sustainable, Earth-friendly lifestyle. 

Going off the grid, using clean energy, tending to a large garden, and taking care of chickens and goats — that’s the fantasy. In it, my kids are happy little farm helpers, spending all of their days outdoors, working hard and playing harder. They don’t know what a “Youtube” is, in this dream.

Unfortunately, the reality is that my kids definitely know what Youtube is, and I will probably never live on a farm of any sort.

We’re city people — for work reasons and preference reasons. We like being close to shops and parks and activities. We prefer public transportation to long car commutes, and I want my kids to grow up with the diversity and culture that a larger city has to offer.

Related: What the Cluck: The Joys of Keeping Backyard Chickens

Still, living sustainably and Earth-friendly is important to me. My daughter once asked me how strawberries are made, and seemed dubious that they actually grow from the ground. #CityKidProblems. (I swear she’s seen plants before.) I don’t have to wait until I’m on a farm out in the country to do something about it; living a greener lifestyle is absolutely possible in a rental apartment or townhouse. 

In some cases, living a more urban lifestyle can actually be better for Earth. For one, we have more options in choosing where we live, and what we’re close to. Right now I can easily walk to two different large shopping centers, a post office, two playgrounds, a pond, and an extensive city greenway path. We’ve chosen apartments for their proximity to a bus stop, or to be in biking distance to work.

For renters in particular, this can be a great benefit if you take the time to consider what is nearby, what you can walk or bike to. If your city has it, using public transportation and ride sharing is certainly an advantage over being on a farm out in the country.

Related: Why I am Raising a Minimalist

Using clean energy like wind or solar is tricky in a rental apartment, but easing your reliance on typical energy sources is still totally doable. First, make the switch to energy efficient LED or CFL light bulbs, if you haven’t already.

Second, solar power in an apartment is possible, just on a smaller scale. Several solar chargers for electronic devices and small appliances are on the market now that work pretty well for relatively cheap. I like these.

Also, a handful of states are offering solar communities, which are larger solar plants where participants can share the costs and benefits of solar energy without installing panels on their own property.

If you have the extra space (and money) there are portable solar kits that can be used to power larger appliances and household lighting, generator-style.

Gardening, too, is more challenging in an apartment, though certainly not impossible. You just have to think smaller by using containers.

Herbs grow well in small containers on windowsills and ledges, or even a sunny spot indoors. Plenty of veggies and some fruits can thrive in compact container gardens: Lettuce, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, beets, peas and beans, among others. Strawberries and blueberries and, depending on climate, lemons can grow in pots on your porch or balcony as well.

Look for community gardens to participate in, or start your own. And support your local farmers market if you have one, because at least someone is getting to live the farm life dream.

Small everyday changes make an impact, too. Use cold water to wash clothes, collect rainwater in buckets for your container garden, switch to cloth napkins and water-saving shower heads, pack lunches in reusable containers, line dry clothes, use cloth shopping bags and reusable water bottles. You can even compost without a yard, using worms!

Of course, try to recycle and reuse as much as you can—Or even better, buy and consume less. We once moved cross-country, selling and donating most of our stuff before we left, and I was surprised to find how little we actually needed to get by. That, to me, is one of the best advantages of renting smaller city apartments: by necessity we just don’t have much stuff. It doesn’t fit for one, and who wants to move it all anyway? It’s freeing, not feeling as if I have to pack a big house full of stuff I don’t really need.

Though my fantasy farm is a nice daydream, in reality it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have a herd of goats or the ability to grow most of our food. But given my unrealistic expectations of farming and my love of cities, it’s probably for the best. For now, I’ll appreciate the advantages of city and rental living, and continue to do my part, as we all should.

We all live on this planet; city, country, or otherwise.

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