10 Amazing Green Cities

The cities on our list may not be as sparkly, but they’re a whole lot greener than the Emerald City.

Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While it’s debatable whether Oz’s Emerald City meets the criteria for being an amazing “green” city, many real cities around the world make the grade on lists compiled annually by experts. Model cities are ranked by a combination of criteria, including urban planning and environmental statistics. Experts look at energy sources, consumption and emissions, as well as transportation options and habits. Most lists also assess green living markers, such as public parks, recycling habits, green jobs, and sustainable buildings.

It’s uniquely challenging for urban areas to be green. They have a high volume of people, traffic congestion, trash, and air pollution, to name just a few obstacles. Seventy-five percent of the planet’s energy is consumed by the world’s cities [source: ThomasNet Industrial Newsroom]. As such, green cities have to strike a balance of managing their current needs without compromising the city’s (and environment’s) future.

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How Green Cities Were Born

In the 1990s, industrialized countries around the world joined together to make progress against global warming and climate change. Together they drafted and approved the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement aims to reduce the effects of climate change through the reduction of six recognized greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.

Nations that joined the pact in 1997 agreed to the goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent below their reported 1990 levels [source: BBC]. Some methods for meeting the reduced emissions levels include the adoption of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, sustainable agricultural practices, and the promotion of energy efficiency.

Now, let’s look at ten amazing cities known around the world not only for their adoption of green practices but also for their green innovation and leadership.

10: Freiburg, Germany

For many cities, the question of ecologizing infrastructure means tearing down the old and bringing in the new — a costly and sometimes bewildering prospect. But after World War II, Freiburg was one of many German cities that were able to find the good in the aftermath of destruction. With a local community full of educators and professionals, Freiburg rebuilt itself on sustainable principles during the post-war period.

Freiburg continues to rank as a green city, with a particularly German flair for engineering and planning, social cooperation and profit. From cycling incentives to solar paneling, the city has continually rebuilt itself as greenly as possible. Plans to build a nuclear plant in the nearby countryside were derailed by protests in the mid-1970s, and the city promotes alternatives to classic transportation, like trams and pedestrian walkways.

By creating a situation in which citizens are committed stakeholders — as is the case with most of the cities on this list — the green movement is a natural part of daily life. Some districts are created and supported by multiple-family flats, designed and built by the families that live there along environmental principles. The latest development is the “passive house,” which uses ingenious ducting and insulation to remove the need for heating and air conditioning of any kind. Costing 10 percent more to build at the outset, the passive house construction reduces energy loss and bills by 90 percent [source: Purvis].

9: Barcelona, Spain

Though Barcelona is a city steeped in history and filled with traditional architecture, the mindset of the city is completely modern when it comes to green living.

©iStockphoto.com/vito elefante

Barcelona’s shining achievement in ecology and urban design, the Eixample District, was planned as far back as 1859. The design of this garden-city oasis, which spans 520 city blocks, continues to grow and inspire urban planners the world over. The city has continued to think outside the box when it comes to urban planning, using the 1992 Olympic Games as a pretense to revitalize neglected inner city areas.

On top of its innovative transportation system, which runs on electric power, bio-diesel, and ethanol, Barcelona is famous for its recycling initiative. Taking an already successful plan to the next level, local officials recently began providing color-coded bins and bags to make recycling even easier for its citizens. In 2006, more than one-third of the city’s total waste was recycled.

8: Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne had a memorable 13-year drought between 1997 and 2009, so water conservation is a major responsibility in any city planning project. However, the green building doesn’t end there. In 2002, 2020 was named as Melbourne’s target year for net zero carbon emissions. Also in 2002, the United Nations hosted a conference in the Australian city, drafting and eventually adopting the “Melbourne Principles”:

1. Provide a long-term vision for cities based on: sustainability; intergenerational, social, economic and political equity; and their individuality.

2. Achieve long-term economic and social security.

3. Recognize the intrinsic value of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and protect and restore them.

4. Enable communities to minimize their ecological footprint.

5. Build on the characteristics of ecosystems in the development and nurturing of healthy and sustainable cities.

6. Recognize and build on the distinctive characteristics of cities, including their human and cultural values, history and natural systems.

7. Empower people and foster participation.

8. Expand and enable cooperative networks to work towards a common, sustainable future.

9. Promote sustainable production and consumption, through appropriate use of environmentally sound technologies and effective demand management.

10. Enable continual improvement, based on accountability, transparency and good governance.

The Melbourne Convention + Visitors Bureau (MCVB) has spearheaded a movement of eco-conscious event planning. The MCVB assists event planners by providing them with contacts for green hotels and venues, and even offers a carbon calculator so visitors planning conventions or conferences can determine the carbon footprint and offsets of their gathering.

7: Bogotá, Colombia

Though it’s a bustling city, every February 1st, Bogotá goes without the use of cars.

©iStockphoto.com/Jerry Koch

Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, is still justly lauded for the many initiatives and creative problem-solving ideas he made popular during his time in office. A Duke University graduate in economics and a lover of capitalism, Peñalosa nonetheless created change based on a philosophy of “hedonics”. Essentially, he brought about change through planning around human happiness, rather than economic growth.

For example, Peñalosa was offered a huge endowment for roads, but instead used this money to set up a bus system. He revitalized green spaces by overhauling the bike paths in the city, saying, “A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen on a $30,000 car” [source: Montgomery]. He also prioritized children when urban planning, explaining that a city successful for children would be successful for everyone.

Each February 1st, El Dia Sin Carro (Car-Free Day) wipes all engine sounds and exhaust from the city. In fact, a lot of Peñalosa’s anti-auto ideas came from his belief that commutes, not work itself, are what depress the work force in Bogotá. He raised gas taxes, diminished rush hour traffic, and eventually boosted school enrollment by a staggering 30 percent [source: Montgomery]. Perhaps there’s something to the science of happiness, after all.

6: Curitiba, Brazil

Curitiba contractors get tax incentives when their projects include green areas, but the urban ecological concern goes a lot deeper than that. The city built lakes and parks not only for its citizens’ enjoyment, but in order to solve the problem of ongoing floods. Made up of almost 30 parks and urban forests, Curitiba has managed in just 30 years to increase the green space average from one square meter per citizen to 52, and continues to improve.

Curitiba’s urban planner and former mayor, Jamie Lerner, sees cities as a solution rather than the problem. The population at large has planted 1.5 million trees along the city’s highways since the green program began in earnest, and property taxes can be removed altogether for landowners that maintain 70 to 100 percent native forest as part of their land [source: Gnatek].

A program designed in 1991 to incentivize recycling gives low-income families a way to earn bus tickets and food, by gathering and recycling the city’s reusable waste. Seventy percent of Curitiba’s waste is now recycled by its citizens using this plan, including the equivalent of 1,200 trees per day in paper recycling. The program results in about 44 tons of food per month going to the 7,000 citizens that need it most.

5: Malmo, Sweden

Malmö, Sweden is made up of environmentally conscious neighborhoods.

Anders Blomqvist/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Malmö is home to about 344,000 people, making it the fastest growing city in Sweden. It lies in the Southern province of Skane and is composed of canals, beaches, parks, and blocks that still retain the look and feel of the Middle Ages. But it’s not the Middle Age aesthetic that lands it on this list. Rather, it’s Malmö’s innovative use of renewable resources and its goal to become a leading eco-city.

Sweden is a leader in green electricity solutions as most of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear and hydropower. Cities such as Malmö are contributing to the greening of Sweden with plans to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. To help meet their aggressive targets, neighborhoods across Malmö are transforming into sustainable, eco-friendly enclaves; of particular note are the areas of Western Harbour and Augustenborg.

Western Harbour, a former shipyard now densely urban, runs on 100-percent renewable energy from sun, wind and hydropower, as well as biofuels generated from organic waste. Its buildings are constructed with sustainable materials and designed to be energy efficient, and its streets are pedestrian and cycle friendly. Makes sense, since 40 percent of commuters and 30 percent of all travelers commute by bike [source: PV Upscale].

Augustenborg, a district that’s been going green over the past decade, is known for its green roofing — botanical roof gardens that reduce runoff and add insulation and vegetation to an urban neighborhood. Augustenborg is also home to the world’s first emissions-free electric street trains, as well as more than a dozen recycling houses processing about 70 percent of collected waste [source: Ekostaden.com].

4: Copenhagen, Denmark

A view of Copenhagen, Denmark from the Tivoli Gardens.

Scott R. Barbour/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The 1.4 million people living in Copenhagen are known for eschewing cars for bikes or the metro system, but green transportation is only part of the city’s eco-friendly urban plan. In 2006, Copenhagen won the European Environmental Award for its clean waterways and leadership in environmental planning.

What led to its prestige? Water and windmills. The city is lauded for its efforts to keep its harbor waters safe and clean. Local officials invested in a water quality warning system to monitor pollution levels. Meanwhile, windmills supply 46 percent of Denmark’s electricity.

3: Portland, Ore.

The Portland skyline is backed by Mount Hood.

Chuck Pefley/Stone/Getty Images

Portland lies on the banks of the Willamette River in the Pacific Northwest and is home to more than 640,000 people. It’s been a model of sustainable living for decades, smartly mixing urban and outdoor spaces, so its greenness is hardly new.

Since its 1903 “Report to the Portland Park Board,” Portland has been inspiring cities across the United States and the world to embrace green space in their urban planning. Portland was the first city in the United States to enact a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and was a founding member of the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign.

Today Portland has roughly 37,000 acres of green space available for biking, hiking, and running trails. Moreover, it has enacted an urban-growth boundary to contain the urban landscape and protect 25 million acres of forest and farms [source: Grist]. And they aren’t resting on their laurels, either. Looking ahead, Portland has set ambitious energy goals. By 2050, the city plans to meet 100 percent of its energy needs with renewable resources.

2: Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver is big on using emerging technologies.

joSon/Stone/Getty Images

Vancouver is a coastal city, home to more than 675,000 people, and was named the world’s most livable city by the Economist magazine. It’s proven to be not only the most livable, but also Canada’s model city for using renewable energy sources.

Vancouver recently completed the Greenest City Action Plan, which aimed to address 18 environmental focuses for green living within the city. Next up, they plan to cut Vancouver’s carbon pollution in half by 2030, as part of their Climate Emergency Action Plan.

Additionally as part of its energy-efficient plans, Vancouver hasn’t been shy with implementing emerging technologies. Solar-powered trash compactors have sprung up around the city, each the size equivalent to a normal trashcan but able to hold five times the waste (which puts fewer emissions-spewing garbage trucks on the roads).

1: Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland has colorful rooftops and a green plan for power.

Gavin Hellier/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Reykjavik is the smallest amazing green city on our list, with only about 140,000 people living in the city and roughly 335,000 people in the entire country of Iceland. But its impact on the world has been impressive.

Iceland plans to unplug itself from all dependence on fossil fuels by 2050 to become a hydrogen economy. Already, Reykjavik (and all of Iceland) gets energy for heat, hot water and electricity entirely from hydropower and geothermal resources — both of which are renewable and free of greenhouse gas emissions. Some vehicles even run on hydrogen, including city buses.

These ten amazing cities are only a snapshot of the greener world sprouting up around us. Many other cities are also working to reduce their energy consumption, adopt environmentally friendly urban development practices, and embrace green living lifestyles.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • How Carbon Footprints Work
  • How Green Building Works
  • How Green Pavement Works
  • How Recycling Works
  • How Sustainable Communities Work
  • How Urban Planning Works
  • What is the urban heat island effect?
  • Is a zero-carbon, zero-waste, zero-car city on the horizon?
  • What is a green roof?

More Great Links

  • Planet Green Copenhagen City Guide
  • TreeHugger Guide to Bicycling in Portland
  • ICLEI Worldwide – Local Governments for Sustainability
  • UN-Habitat: United Nations Human Settlements Programme
  • WorldChanging

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  • Arabe, Katrina C. “The World’s Greenest Cities.” Industrial Market Trends. ThomasNet Industrial Newsroom. 2004. http://news.thomasnet.com/IMT/archives/2004/06/the_worlds_gree.html
  • “Best Places to Retire: Portland, Oregon.” U.S. News & World Report. 2007. http://www.usnews.com/listings/retirement/oregon/portland
  • Brand, Peter Charles and Thomas, Michael J. “Urban environmentalism: global change and the mediation of local conflict.” London: Routledge, 2005.
  • “Cities Around the World Are ‘Going Green’.” Voice of America. 2008. http://www.voanews.com/specialenglish/archive/2008-03/2008-03-18-voa1.cfm?CFID=28639882&CFTOKEN=47612768
  • “Copenhagen Receives European Environmental Award.” DHI Group. 2006. http://www.dhigroup.com/News/NewsArchive/2006/CopenhagenReceivesEuropeanEnvironmentalAward.aspx
  • “Driving Down Carbon Dioxide.” Progressive Policy Institute. 2003. http://www.ppionline.org/ppi_ci.cfm?knlgAreaID=116&subsecID=900039&contentID=252224
  • Ekostaden.com. http://www.ekostaden.com/
  • Frankel, John. “Iceland harnesses green energy for heat, power.” MSNBC. 2006. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12601052/
  • Gnatek, Tim. “Curitiba’s Urban Experiment”. Frontline/World, December 2003. (Dec. 19, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/fellows/brazil1203/
  • “High tech to low, world’s green methods are many.” CNN. 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/07/02/ecocities/
  • Jones, Lisa. “A Tale Of Two Mayors: The improbable story of how Bogota, Colombia, became somewhere you might actually want to live”. Grist, April 2002. (Dec. 19, 2011) http://www.grist.org/article/of5
  • Kipen, Nicki. “New York, Portland and Chicago are among the greenest US cities.” City Mayors. 2006. http://www.citymayors.com/environment/us_greencities.html
  • “Kyoto Protocol.” BBC Weather Centre. http://www.bbc.co.uk/climate/policies/kyoto.shtml
  • Laylin, Tafline. “Planning the Sustainable City: Lessons from Bogota, Colombia”. Green Prophet.com, June 2010 (Dec. 19, 2011) http://www.greenprophet.com/2010/06/oscar-edmundo-diaz/
  • Levesque, Dawn R. “Ecotourism in Spain”. USA Today. 2011. (Dec.19, 2011) http://traveltips.usatoday.com/ecotourism-spain-18528.html
  • “Methodology of Study: US City Sustainability Ranking.” SustainLane. 2006. http://www.sustainlane.com/us-city-rankings/methodology.jsp
  • Montgomery, Charles. “Bogota’s Urban Happiness Movement”. Globe & Mail, April 2009. (Dec. 19, 2011) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/article766908.ece
  • O’Hare, Michael. “Frieburg: Green City – Success Factors”. Cities For People.net, June 2009. (Dec. 19, 2011) http://www.citiesforpeople.net/freiburg-green-city-%E2%80%93-success-factors
  • Peter, Laurence. “Green Living takes root in Sweden.” BBC News. 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5413960.stm
  • “Portland: A Role Model for the Nation.” SustainLane. 2006. http://www.sustainlane.com/us-city-rankings/portland.jsp
  • Potter, Ned. “Climate Concerns Shape the Cities of Tomorrow.” ABC News. 2008. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/GadgetGuide/Story?id=4954102&page=1
  • Purvis, Andrew. “Is this the greenest city in the world?” The Observer, March 2008. (Dec. 19, 2011) http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/mar/23/freiburg.germany.greenest.city
  • “Royal, Copenhagen.” Grist Magazine. 2001. http://www.grist.org/news/daily/2001/05/07/copenhagen/
  • Svoboda, Elizabeth. “America’s 50 Greenest Cities.” Popular Science. 2008. http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2008-02/americas-50-greenest-cities?page=1#
  • “The City of Malmö, Sweden.” PV Upscale. 2008. http://www.pvupscale.org/IMG/pdf/Malmo_case-study_bg.pdf
  • United Nations Environment Programme. Division of Technology, Industry and Economics. Integrative Management Series, No.1. (Dec. 20, 2011) http://www.thunderbay.ca/Assets/Earthwise+Assets/docs/4189.pdf
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. http://unfccc.int/
  • “Vancouver tops list of world’s most livable cities.” British Columbia-Canada Place. http://www.bccanadaplace.gov.bc.ca/Content/Live%20in%20BC/Live%20Stories.asp?ItemID=16851
  • “Vancouver’s Revival of the Solar Trash Compactor.” ICLEI: International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. 2008. http://www.iclei.org/index.php?id=1505&no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=3049&tx_ttnews=983&cHash=f19da38c9e
  • Vella, Matt. “Rise of the Carbon-Neutral City.” Business Week. 2008. http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/feb2008/id20080211_503795.htm

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