The World’s Greenest Cities

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It is rare that wide-scale environmental consensus congeals into policy through the legislative process, but that is exactly what happened in the case of Eugene, Oregon. An ordinary city with a seemingly ordinary municipal government, in truth, Eugene is anything but. In 2006, the city government adopted the ambitious vision of creating one of the greenest cities in the world. The city’s first step was to prepare a plan to reduce Eugene’s greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of twenty. This was the objective of the 20x’21 plan, so named because the goal was to reduce annual emissions to six tons of CO2 per resident. If the plan succeeded, Eugene would become the first city in the world with such a low emissions rate. At the same time, the costs of producing electricity from renewable sources have quickly decreased. Renewables are used through a variety of channels and forms for city electricity needs, from traditional power purchase agreements with commercial providers, self-production with grid and off-grid solar photovoltaics (PV) and local geothermal and hydropower plants, and community solar gardens.

Importance of Green Cities

People flock to cities not just for jobs, but also for the amenities. Cities such as New York City, Tokyo, London, or Los Angeles attract people from all corners of the world. They are unparalleled for the sheer number and diversity of things to do, the diners and restaurants, and lively neighborhoods. Amenities like health care and libraries, at their best, the cultural institutions appeal not only to city residents but to people living in the surrounding region. All of these elements are what urbanists and designers refer to as “quality of place,” even though they are difficult to quantify. If a city has a good quality of place, that means that it is worth the relatively high price, and affluence is a natural result.

Why are green cities important? Ensuring the vitality and livability of cities around the world is a challenge increasingly being addressed by urban planners, designers, and city residents themselves. The global population living in urban areas is expected to nearly double by 2025 and, according to the United Nations, it will increase from 49% to 60% by 2025. The greatest urban growth in the next 20 years will occur in Africa and Asia in cities with little experience in managing urban growth. This demographic shift will have a significant impact because cities are not only growing in size, but are also increasing in density. A study by the UNECE showed that the urban population is growing by 1.4 million inhabitants per week. Tall buildings are symbols of urban vitality and also constitute a response to the continuing world urbanization and demographic growth.

Criteria for Green Cities

A greener city keeps the nature around it, showcases public greens through gardens, parks, and other facilities, and takes into account air and water quality. Highly dense areas with many vehicle trips can greatly enhance pollution and congestion compared with less dense, less trafficked rural and suburban environments. Planning for safety, public utility, and quality of life gains importance with these denser conditions. Throughout history, cities have tended to be safer than rural regions. Political organization favors cities, and larger populations help provide an economy of scale that is favorable for the provision of public safety, such as a functional police force. Greener, more beautiful, well-landscaped cities tend to have less crime, and with the noise control and air pollution benefits, the quality of life moves predictably up, attracting more citizens and non-commercial development. Some political unit transformation may be needed when devising urban noise or air quality management systems. Recognition of the economic reality that external costs such as noise and air impacts are relieved with less dense, more rural areas should not imply large, uninhabited buffer zones around cities, or fee systems should include a significant non-discriminatory portion. If management is needed, management becomes possible at the national level, as it is done in Canada. Inter-city treaties are much less costly to enforce if cities are in charge. Public works and infrastructure funding might flow more readily from a similar national, and certainly international (EU), agency. A solution to this potential problem could take the form of a national agency dedicated to the responsible discharge of local external impacts (bureaucracy likes to grow in perpetuity). If user-based fees are collected (possibly as an excise or sales tax or as a daily charge, based on equivalency with the urban use of pollution-heavy activities), funds might build up quickly for more efficient automobile manufacturing standards (think of your old Ford Fiesta or Chevy Chevette) and for the introduction of fuel cells and other technologies.

Sustainable Transportation

To minimize energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, cities should promote development patterns that allow for the advantages of high-density human settlement, such as research-based and employment centers, retail sites, and public services. Stress mixed land use, urban compactness, and so-called smart growth, which means growing at a controlled rate. These cities should also facilitate and promote the use of green technologies and environmentally friendly practices. For example, they should encourage cycling with public bicycle-sharing programs that give each citizen access to a bicycle for a nominal annual charge and then charge for excessive use. “Soft technology” infrastructure enhancement ideas include increasing the use of sun and wind protection in urban architecture and using rooftop gardens and solar collectors to decrease energy use.

Intelligent activities promote a less car-dependent lifestyle, with higher shares of the population that walk, cycle, and use mass transit. Successful initiatives include improvements to a city’s public transit system, with buses, trams, and rail-based transportation, as well as strolling and cycling. To make the urban environment safer, more convenient, efficient, and attractive, there are pedestrianization and traffic-calming programs. All urban areas are physically connected by public transit, with the busiest being served most. High-speed rail should link different cities in the region.

Challenges and Solutions

Ignoring various successful approaches for creating a sustainable city could affect the capacity to provide enduring prosperity, happiness, and well-being for existing and future residents of cities. For example, addressing one or two dimensions of urban policy may help lift some of the urban poor out of poverty, yet fall far short of providing a high quality of life for most city residents. Using an integrated approach recognizes that the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of urban development are interconnected. Interconnected problems are able to breed interconnected solutions; those solutions are more likely to be economically and politically feasible to implement if economic, social, and political (i.e. triple bottom line) goals have been considered together.

A sustainable city draws on a variety of methodologies of sustainability to carry out its mission. A city can create its own unique “sustainable city” framework using a systems approach to incorporate and integrate a wide array of complementary social, economic, and environmental objectives, which distinguishes the capacity to respond to demand for triple-bottom line solutions. The variety of strengths and weaknesses of different bodies, along with the different processes for creating a “sustainable” city, can be used to illustrate how best practices that are tied to unique bodies of existing institutions. You can choose “sustainable” approaches, or you can argue why and how new institutions and bodies are necessary. Due to these different bodies of knowledge, it is possible to come up with as many different unique frameworks that have strengths and weaknesses.

Balancing Development with Sustainability

Eco-cities do not necessarily have to be less populous or economically poorer than their traditionally built counterparts, but, by their very nature, they must be somewhat flexible in dealing with new business models, new approaches to learning and awareness, and to the spreading and breaking down of their benefits across the whole of society. Moreover, eco-cities must be geared to finding new equilibrium between the built and natural environment if they are to enjoy any real longevity. Balancing sustainable development with overall resident wellbeing and satisfaction is critical. Ensuring that a significant and concentrated population has a vested interest in sustainability, and the growth and development of their eco-city, can be vital both to the success of a sustainability framework and to helping city leadership distribute “benefits” between the world of people and their world of nature. That suggests that equity and security must be key elements in designing successful eco-cities.

However, it must be noted that these cities are not just going through the motions, the status of greenest city being a mere point of prestige, but striving to make substantive environmental improvements. And these are most certainly desirable goals. As a sign of the future, cities are becoming the innovators of a newer, cleaner, and healthier way of living: the crucibles whose hard-fought lessons will eventually be adopted and improved upon by the societies in which they function. The world’s greenest cities are those places where our greatest shared dreams are being most effectively put into action.

Over the past decade, a number of cities have implemented sustainable urbanism measures and achieved remarkable environmental achievements. Indeed, today more than a few of the world’s urban areas can lay claim to either being the greenest in the world or some of the greenest cities. With the bar constantly being lifted, new benchmarks being set for environmental achievement, innovative and ambitious cities must act quickly to maintain their green credentials.