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NYC Sustainable Travel Guide: How to Visit New York Ethically

I moved to New York City nine years ago. Hailing from a pastoral Pennsylvania town, and having spent most of my life surrounded by apple orchards, pumpkin patches and people who make polite conversation, I was unprepared to take my first bite out of the Big Apple. Like all visitors, I was unceremoniously greeted by an onslaught of extremes; fashion statements that screamed, abject poverty, exorbitant wealth, unapologetic odors, and the utter absence of silence. I was sure the little island of Manhattan would sink beneath the crushing weight of all the garbage, that I’d never lay eyes on a fresh vegetable again, and that becoming a New-Yorker was about the most eco-unfriendly lifestyle I could adopt. Nearly a decade later, I’ll gladly admit my first impression was dead wrong. I’ve learned that New York is one of the world’s most sustainable cities! And although heavy tourism begets unsustainable consequences, many NYC residents rely on a thriving tourist economy to make a living. Tourists can help keep the Big Apple green by choosing to eat, shop and explore with sustainability in mind. So to help you visit New York in a fun and ethical way, I put together an NYC sustainable travel guide!

NYC sustainable dining
Photo from Mayanoki website

1. Sustainable Dining

Of all the great reasons to visit New York, its teeming restaurant scene easily takes the cake. Globally renowned as a foodie’s paradise, NYC is replete with restaurants that make sustainable dining delectable! Here are my top five favorites that strike a delightful balance of sustainability, flavor, and ambiance:

P.S. Kitchen 

This vegan restaurant is my favorite pre-show dinner spot in the Manhattan theater district, for both its delicious food and admirable mission. P.S. Kitchen is 100% not-for-profit and contributes to a more sustainable NYC food system by; creating jobs for marginalized people, donating 100% of their profits to sustainable charity organizations, and providing patrons with delicious plant-based dishes that are kind to the body and the earth.

Lighthouse

With a seasonal menu of local produce, a biodynamic wine and beer selection, onsite composting, and a diligent commitment to minimizing waste, this Brooklyn gem is the epitome of ethical, environmentally friendly cuisine. Lighthouse impressively repurposes every single item in use, from the napkins to the Oyster shells. If you don’t have time to trek out to Williamsburg (an ultra-hip neighborhood in north Brooklyn), check out their Manhattan outpost in Nolita!

Mayanoki

In my experience, seafood is one of the hardest fares to eat ethically. But at Mayanoki I don’t have to worry about the origin or quality of my sashimi! This sushi spot is the only one in NYC to be recognized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for its sustainability efforts. What’s more, the team at Mayanoki circumvents the opaque supply chain of seafood procurement by working directly with fishermen. This means all of their fish is traceable, they avoid sourcing exploited species from overfished areas, and pay ethical prices to the fishermen themselves. By partnering with ocean conservation organizations like James Beard Smart Catch, they hold themselves accountable to best practices when it comes to using the ocean’s precious resources.

The Ten Bells

This dimly-lit wine den on the lower east side captures my heart for its thoughtfully curated wine list that features small producers and biodynamic vineyards. Their regularly scheduled wine events with preeminent vintners encourage conversation and connection around responsible winemaking. The affordable, tapas-style menu allows the unique wines to take center stage.

Kobrick Coffee Co.

I know, I know, coffee doesn’t count as a dining option per se…but for me it’s even more important for basic functioning, especially while traveling! While any sustainability geek with a java habit knows that fair trade coffee is a must, it can definitely feel awkward to pepper busy baristas with detailed questions about sourcing. At Kobrick Coffee we can rest assured that every single bean is organic, fair trade certified, shade grown, and certified by the Rainforest Alliance. In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint while ensuring the livelihoods of coffee farmers, Kobrick recently launched the Canopy Tree Project, an initiative to increase sustainability in coffee farms around the globe. It’s also conveniently located in the meatpacking district – a worthy pit stop if you’re spending the day in Manhattan.

nyc sustainable shopping
Photo from Buffalo Exchange website

2.  Sustainable Shopping

I’m no Carrie Bradshaw, but to me, a trip to New York City would feel simply incomplete without at least one afternoon of shopping. For travelers who want to avoid overconsumption and limit environmental impact, NYC offers plenty of sustainable options! From upcycled homewares to thrifted threads, here are my top five haunts on the NYC sustainable shopping scene:

Brooklyn Flea

A not-so-hidden gem, the Brooklyn Flea lures New Yorkers in from all boroughs on the weekends. Here you can support local designers and craftsmen, browse vintage furniture, clothing, and antiques, and appreciate an impressive selection of rare jewelry, art, and crafts. The Flea also operates Smorgasburg, a giant outdoor food market that showcases Brooklyn’s artisanal food scene.

Thrift Shops

Buying gently used items is arguably the most sustainable choice you can make as a shopper, since it extends a product’s life cycle. With countless treasure troves chock-full of discarded gems, New York City has a thrift scene like no other. My personal favorites are Housing Works and Buffalo Exchange, both of which have multiple locations throughout the city.

Package-Free Shop 

For the past few years, Lauren Singer has been one of my personal role models for her super-sustainable and stylish lifestyle. She is the woman behind the popular zero-waste blog, Trash Is for Tossers (which I highly recommend). The Package Free Shop is a gorgeous, open, minimalistic space in Williamsburg that carefully curates sustainable housewares, beauty products and clothing from a variety of ethical brands. If you’re in the market for a sustainable souvenir, want to swap your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo alternative, or just need some lifestyle inspo, the Package-Free Shop is definitely worth a visit!

Zero Waste Daniel

Zero Waste Daniel is a clothing designer in Manhattan that uses pre-consumer waste (and other hard-to-recycle materials) sourced from New York City’s garment industry to create zero-waste line of genderless clothing and accessories. Absolutely nothing from this brand ends up in landfills. And although Daniel’s commitment to sustainability is quite serious, his clothing and accessories make wearing sustainable fashion fun!

NYC sustainable
Photo from Brooklyn Grange website

3. Urban Green Spaces

Despite its preponderance of asphalt, the concrete jungle offers some unforgettable urban greenspaces. Central Park (Manhattan) and Prospect Park (Brooklyn) are the most well-traveled options for enjoying some outdoor time. But you might also want to explore some of New York’s less touristy green enclaves. Of all the community gardens, urban farms, and parks NYC has to offer, here are five of my lesser-known favorites:

Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project

HKFP is a totally unassuming yet vibrant urban farm located on the roof of the Metro Baptist Church, smack dab in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen. For readers who are unfamiliar with the neighbrohood, Hell’s Kitchen is the last place you’d expect to see a thriving community agriculture project. It’s also one of the few urban farms in NYC that allows drop-in visitors on a regular basis. I love this place for its unpretentious vibe (they use kiddie pools as produce beds!) and for its mission to create a more food secure community through collaborative farming and education.

Brooklyn Grange

In contrast to the humble environs at HKFP, Brooklyn Grange is a massive enterprise. Its 5.6 acres of cultivated rooftop space include a produce garden, apiary, educational center, and events venue that boasts a jaw dropping waterfront view. In addition to supplying fresh, hyper-local produce to visitors and CSA members, the Brooklyn Grange offers urban farming and green roofing consultations to international clients and helps to spread the values of sustainability worldwide. If you’re visiting NYC in the summer or fall, I recommend signing up in advance for one of their regularly scheduled workshops on food, farming, wellness, or sustainability. They also host beautiful Sunday suppers and outdoor yoga classes during warmer months.

Snug Harbor

For travelers who want an off-beat adventure, I highly recommend visiting The Snug Harbor Botanical Gardens and Cultural Center on the northern tip of Staten Island. Though it sits just a ferry ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, Staten Island is NYC’s most untapped borough, making Snug Harbor a hidden gem for nature-loving tourists. Formerly a community for retired sailors, the 83 acre property boasts an enormous botanical garden and cultural center. Surrounded by cobblestone streets and Victorian homes, an abundant vegetable garden feeds locals through a CSA program. I love to pack a picnic lunch and spend the day here, wandering between the gardens, art exhibitions and historic buildings.

Governor's Island

From the bottom of Manhattan, Governor’s Island lies half a mile out into New York Harbor. This historic outpost is one of my favorite spots to relax in NYC because no cars are allowed! Visitors can only access the island via a free, seven minute ferry ride, which is honestly, half the fun. Walk the Great Promenade, a 2.2 mile loop along the New York Harbor with plenty of shady spots to sway in a hammock or stop for lunch as you revel in the views of New York’s famous bridges, lower Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty. It won’t take long to circle the island on foot or by bike, but you’ll likely stumble upon an art exhibit, concert or festival, which seem to randomly appear throughout the island!

6BC Botanical Garden

The East Village is one of NYC’s quintessential neighborhoods; full of quirky dives, unusual eats, performance spaces, and street art. This vibrant area is also peppered with peaceful community gardens. My favorite of which is 6BC – a green thumb’s paradise with solar power, compost, and a tranquil koi pond with a waterfall. The park also contains a rainwater catchment system that helps protect the local community from flooding after downpours. Perfect for a busy day downtown, this park provides a refreshing reprieve for visitors and locals who want to rest their sore feet!

sustainable NYC transit
Photo from Bike The Big Apple website

4. NYC Sustainable Transit

New York City’s iconic yellow taxi cabs and infamous subway system may be the most well-known ways to get around the city, but they aren’t the most sustainable options. Cars and buses are also becoming less necessary for tourists as New York City continues to improve its sustainable transportation infrastructure. For the most eco-friendly and enjoyable transit in NYC (besides walking of course), take the scenic routes with boats and bicycles!

NYC Ferry

Not to be confused with the Staten Island Ferry (which showcases the best free views of the Statue of Liberty), the NYC ferry system connects Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. It’s a convenient, scenic alternative to other modes of public transit. With an app that makes payment quick and easy, the NYC ferry has become my go-to ride between boroughs.

In my opinion, traveling by boat is the most luxurious and eco-friendly commute in New York.  For the price of a subway ticket, it’s also very economical! The ferries have bars, restrooms, and roof decks that offer views of the city you couldn’t otherwise see, so it always surprises me that more tourists don’t take advantage of this system.

Finally, boating from borough to borough is much more sustainable than driving, bussing, or cabbing because it alleviates traffic congestion and emits fewer greenhouse gasses. The NYC Ferry has also upped its green game by committing to a “respect our planet” policy!

Biking

For visitors who enjoy a more active commute, New York City boasts hundreds of miles of scenic greenways that are perfect for cycling.

If biking is physically accessible to you, take advantage of convenient services like Citi Bike, Bike Rent NYC and Unlimited Biking, all of which are conveniently located throughout the five boroughs.

Not only is biking a sustainable transit option, its also a great way to make the most of a short vacation. I suggest it to anyone who wants to visit New York because you can pack so much sightseeing into one day! For guided tour experiences, check out Brooklyn Bike Tours or Bike the Big Apple.

 

NYC sustainable stays
Photos from 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge website

5. Sustainable Stays

New York City is practically the USA headquarters for sustainable hotel alternatives like Airbnb, hostels, and couch surfing. But if you’re looking for a truly authentic hotel experience, you might consider one of three sustainable options:

  1. 1 Hotel brooklyn Bridge: Nestled in the a charming waterfront neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, this posh, Gold Leed Certified hotel is equipped with a rainwater reclamation system on the roof which irrigates the hotel’s waterfront park. The hotel purchases carbon offsets in addition to using LED lights and “smart” heating and cooling systems. Over half of the hotel is built from reclaimed and local materials and features helpful “extras” in every room. Think eco-friendly mattresses and filtered drinking water taps with recycled wine bottles to discourage single-use plastics . A rooftop garden also supplies seasonal produce to the onsite restaurants.
  2. Crosby Street Hotel: Tucked away in stylish Soho, this downtown mainstay is Gold Leed Certified and features a beautiful rooftop garden. The Crosby hotel is part of the Firmdale Hotels group, all of which are committed to the same sustainability policy.
  3. Pendry Manhattan West: In addition to its LEED certifications, the Pendry was designed using WELL standards, which evaluate and optimize buildings for maximal human wellbeing. The Pendry’s “green cleaning regimens” ensure that the air, water and surfaces are free of toxic contaminants. Its low-flow fixtures promote efficient water usage, while hyper-efficient heating and cooling systems limit overall electricity consumption.

For more tips on booking sustainable accommodations, check out our Guide to Green Hotels!

visit New York
Photos from Tenement Museum website

6. Museums

From the grungy graffiti scene in Bushwick to the marble-housed collections on Museum Mile, New York City has an overwhelming selection of museums, galleries, and art installations. Since many of them also support local communities with programming and educate visitors on social, cultural, or environmental issues, NYC’s museums make for ideal sustainable amusements. The Metropolitan Museum, the Moma, and the Natural History Museum are three tourist favorites, and rightfully so. But for eco-travelers looking to support less frequented institutions that advocate for cultural and environmental sustainability, these are my top six picks:

MOCA

The Museum of Chinese in America shares a 160-year-history of how people of Chinese descent in the United States have helped to shape American culture and infrastructure. Exhibitions aim to engage audiences in historical dialogue, encouraging people to view American history from a critical perspective and make meaningful connections between the past and the present.

Whitney Museum

If the Whitney isn’t already on your list for its lauded contemporary art collection, stop by to take a gander at it’s sustainability initiatives; including a green roof, beehives, recycled construction materials, outdoor plazas, and innovative use of natural and LED lighting to illuminate artwork with maximum efficiency.

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian, located in downtown Manhattan, is a component of the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum complex. The NMAI houses one of the world's most expansive collections of Native American artifacts and is committed to amplifying Native voices in its public content.

Arcadia Earth 

Arcadia Earth is an immersive, pop up museum that incorporates virtual and augmented reality experiences to educate patrons about climate change! Experiential artist, Valentino Vettori designed it to reignite the conversation around the most pressing environmental issues of our time and empower individual action to reimagine the way we interact with the world around us.

Tenement Museum

This Lower East Side institution is my favorite New York museum! With permanent indoor exhibitions and thought-provoking walking tours, I love how it celebrates our nation’s ongoing legacy of immigration. The museum itself is a former tenement house, which has preserved century-old personal belongings of its former inhabitants. Walking through the museum is like stepping into a time capsule, while taking one of the guided walking tours is like walking through a vivid daydream of what life was like in New York City from the 1860s to the 1930s.

Weeksville Heritage Center 

This multidisciplinary museum and cultural center is located in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant, formerly known as Weeksville. In the 1800’s Weeksville was one of the largest, independent, free black communities of the pre-Civil War era. Weeksville Heritage Center houses photos and artifacts found during a 1968 excavation, when local activists reclaimed this property and dubbed it a historic landmark. Since then, the center has showcased and celebrated black artists, academics and leaders while strengthening the local community with educational programming.

Madison Micucci

Madison Micucci

Madison Micucci is an actress, avid traveler, and sustainability enthusiast. She believes that one can never have enough plants and that wine is an all day beverage.

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