The 5 most sustainable cities in the world

When we think about environmentally sustainable cities we rarely think of a big, urban locations.

With their suffocating car exhaust fumes, densely populated streets, and distinct lack of vast, open green spaces, they seem more likely to be the playground of litterbugs than the environmentally conscious.

But while it’s typically true that large cities tend not to be especially environmentally friendly, quite a number of metropolitan cities, right around the world, are working hard to change our perceptions of what it means to be green, by striving to become one of the world’s most sustainable cities.

From using renewable energy to cutting back on emissions, here are five of the greenest, most sustainable cities in the world.

Oslo, Norway

More than two-thirds of Oslo is covered by protected forest, waterways and agricultural land, so it’s one of the more typical ‘green’ cities, in that there is actually a lot of greenery in Oslo. But not content to sit back on its grassy laurels, Oslo is also a pioneer in sustainable living practices, using intelligent lighting that adjusts depending on traffic conditions and weather; bio-methane from waste to power mass transit and heating; and an ‘eco-certification’ program that involves all 43,000 employers of the city, to name just a few.

In 2010, the city also announced its plans to cut carbon emissions by 50 percent by the year 2030; it’s transportation system becoming a key focus for achieving those goals. To reduce the number of petrol-fueled vehicles on the roads, Oslo implemented car and bike sharing schemes, and installed over 400 electric-vehicle charging stations all over the city. By 2011, more than 1700 EV cars graced Oslo’s roads, encouraged by free parking, toll immunity, and access to lanes traditionally reserved for public transport.

Meanwhile, 80 percent of the city’s heating system is currently powered renewable energy, mainly biomass and residual waste, which, annually, saves the carbon emissions equal to 60,000 cars on the road. The goal for the next decade is to expand this system so that Oslo’s heating is powered entirely by renewable sources.

Curitiba, Brazil

Back in the early 1970s, Curitiba set out to develop a long-term urban plan that would not only encourage future growth, but also encourage green spaces and a clean environment. Only non-polluters are allowed to reside within Curitiba’s city limits which has translated to more than ninety percent of the city’s residents recycling two-thirds of their garbage on a daily basis (a huge feat considering it’s also home to some of the region’s poorest communities). To encourage residents to recycle, the city initiated an innovative recycling program, allowing people to exchange garbage for transit tokens or fresh produce.

The city has also planted over 1.2 million trees and created a network of 28 parks and forests. Where once there was only 1 square metre of green space per person, now there is over 52 square metres per person. The city also instituted one of the world’s most enviable rapid transport systems, which operates in concentric circles of the city’s commercial corridors, is inexpensive, and operates on a pre-pay basis to speed up the boarding and loading of buses. A model of efficiency, it has subsequently been adopted by other cities, including on the most congested in the world – Los Angeles in California.

New York City, USA

This may come as a surprise to some, but New York City is the greenest city in America, per capita. It was once thought that a city like Burlington, which is in the state of Vermont, was the greenest city in America, due to its abundant trees, farms, backyard compost heaps, and environmentally aware citizens that were spread thinly across the city. But while spreading people across the countryside might make them look green, it actually increases the damage they do to the environment – people use more electricity to power their homes, and they drive more.

What makes New York so green, on the other hand, is what seems, to most people, to be an ecological nightmare: its extreme compactness. But because New Yorkers are so close to their daily destinations, it achieves what most aspiring green cities could only dream of: reduces its residents’ need for motor vehicles, makes efficient use of public transport, and restores walking as a viable way to get around the city. In fact, just 23 percent of Manhattan residents own a car; car ownership in the rest of the US and most other cities in the world is more than 97 percent.

New York’s population density also reduces energy and water use, limits the consumption of all kinds of goods, and reduces the ownership of wasteful appliances (bread and hotdog makers, anyone?). As a result, New Yorkers have the smallest carbon footrprint in all of the United States: just 7.1 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases per person per year, or less than 30 percent of the national average. In 2009, the city went a step further and put a green building initiative in place to encourage environmentally sustainable building designs.

Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver is another city, like Oslo, with a dream of becoming the greenest city in the world; except Vancouver wants to achieve it by 2020. As a world leader in hydroelectric power – which makes up 90 percent of its supply – as well as regularly tapping into renewables like wind, solar and wave, they are certainly well on track for their 2020 deadline.

Like Oslo and New York, Vancouver’s impressive public transport system, bike lanes, and ride sharing programs, have enabled the city to claim the honour of having the lowest per capita carbon emissions of any major city on the continent, which they also aim to decrease by an additional 33 percent by 2020.

They’ve also enacted strict green building codes, which stipulates that all new developments must be carbon neutral, while also working to improve the energy efficiency of the city’s existing structures by 20 percent.

Copenhagen, Denmark

The shining, green jewel, and site of the 2009 climate change talks, is Denmark’s capital, which also has the distinction of being one of the most sustainable cities in the world. More than a third of the city’s 1.2 million residents regular cycle to work via more than 349 kilometres of dedicated bike lanes and cycle ways – city officials hope the increase that number to 50 percent by closing down major roads to cars and developing an additional 70 kilometres of bike lanes.

Denmark is also home to the world’s largest wind turbine industry, and is a leader in wind production, which supplies roughly 19 percent of the country’s power needs. There’s also a new offshore wind farm planned, which will supply an additional four percent of the country’s energy.

Finally, as part of Copenhagen’s goal to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025, city officials have instituted a mandatory green roof policy, requiring all new developments to incorporate some level of vegetation into their building designs, while ‘pocket parks’ – parks that are half the size of a football field – are being installed around Copenhagen so that 90 percent of all residents will be able to walk to a green space in less than 15 minutes.

How can we become one of the world’s most sustainable cities?

Even if you don’t live in Australia’s Solar City, you can still take a leaf or two out New York’s or Oslo’s or Copenhagen’s (recycled) book by making the most your big, hustley, bustley city has to offer by walking more and using more public transport. Or better yet, onya bike!

For more inspiring green stories or for tips and tricks on how to reduce your energy consumption, continue reading our blog.

Share this post

The latest from our blog

The latest from our blog