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.
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. These include urban planning and environmental statistics. They encompass energy sources, consumption and emissions, as well as transportation options and habits. Most lists also make note of green living (such as the availability of public parks, green jobs and sustainable buildings and green perspective (such as recycling).

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 world's energy is consumed by the world's cities [source: ThomasNet Industrial Newsroom]. Green cities have to strike a balance of managing their current needs without compromising the city's (and environment's) future.


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 have joined the pact since it was adopted in 1997 agree and are legally bound to the goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent below their reported 1990 levels by the period of 2008 to 2012 [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.

In this article, we'll look at five 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. A community of educators and professionals, the post-war period found Freiburg and Munster competing to rebuild along the most sustainable principles.

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 (on as many as 50 percent of the roofs in some districts), 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. In 1986, Freiburg was one of the first cities in Germany to adopt local energy production.


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.
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

The planning for Barcelona's shining achievement in ecology and urban design, the Eixample District, goes back as far as 1859. The human-centered design of this garden-city oasis, which spans 520 city blocks, continues to grow and change, and to inspire urban planners the world over.

More recently, the city was given an opportunity for an all-over makeover with the 1992 Olympic Games. By building reform into their construction plans, including the strategic placement of Olympic grounds in formerly neglected areas, the early-'90s coastal project came into play simultaneously with revitalization efforts in the inner city.


As well, transportation in and between Spain's major cities has helped to turn the once-deadly air in Barcelona into a standard-setting, continually improving ecological area. It's estimated that by 2020, 90 percent of all Spanish citizens will live within 31 miles (49.9 kilometers) of a high-speed rail station. That will cut down on commutes as well as regular urban and rural traffic, and will tie the whole of the country to its urban hearts. Public buses, both in the cities and outside, run on electric power, bio-diesel and ethanol.

Barcelona's also famous for its recycling initiative, with color-coded and ubiquitous bins everywhere throughout the city. Taking an already successful plan to the next level, planners more recently began streamlining the process by providing corresponding 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 has been in a drought since 1997, so water conservation is a major responsibility in any city planning project -- but 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. This principle is intended, in part, to keep away the fears of globalization and Cold War uniformity that some public works can raise.


2. Achieve long-term economic and social security. This principle applies to natural human rights, specifically the basics needed for a healthy life, such as clean water, shelter, food and sanitation.

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. The way natural ecosystems operate can often inspire the most long-term development options.

6. Recognize and build on the distinctive characteristics of cities, including their human and cultural values, history and natural systems. People are naturally more likely to follow through on initiatives which make sense within their culture.

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.
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" -- he brought about change through planning around human happiness, rather than economic growth.

For one example, Peñalosa was offered a huge endowment for roads, and instead he 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 promoted designing for children as a first priority, intuiting 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 altogether. 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 a city like his. "A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can't be both," he announced, raising gas taxes and, eventually, raising school enrollment by a staggering 30 percent, speeding up rush hour traffic by a factor of three, and dropping the murder rate by 40 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. As is the case with many cities on this list, the inspiration to take part in green planning can mobilize an entire community, and Curitiba is no exception. 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.
Malmö, Sweden is made up of environmentally conscious neighborhoods.
Anders Blomqvist/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Malmö is home to about 280,000 people, making it the third largest city in Sweden. It lies in the Southern province of Skane and is composed of canals, beaches, parks, harbor 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 -- 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 by 25 percent between 2008 and 2012, far exceeding the 5 percent goal set by the Kyoto Protocol.


To help meet this aggressive target, neighborhoods across Malmö are transforming into sustainable, eco-friendly enclaves; of particular note are the areas of Western Harbour, Sege Park 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 -- 40 percent of commuters and 30 percent of all travelers go by bike [source: PV Upscale].

Additionally, the restoration of the area of Sege Park, another eco-friendly transformation, will power the neighborhood with green energy sources including photovoltaics (solar electricity), wind power and biofuels.

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.
A view of Copenhagen, Denmark from the Tivoli Gardens.
Scott R. Barbour/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Some cities are finding innovative ways to include green space in their urban landscape. In 2000, the city of Chicago planted a garden in place of the black tar roofing on a city government building. Green roofing offers similar benefits to gardens and parks at ground level by helping to reduce urban heat islands. Green rooftops also add a layer of insulation to the building, keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, reducing the building's energy costs.

The 1.7 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 over the last 10 years to keep its harbor waters safe and clean. Officials invested in a water quality warning system to monitor pollution levels.

Additionally, Copenhagen is famous for its windmills. More than 5,600 windmills supply 10 percent of Denmark's electricity; and in 2001, Copenhagen opened the world's largest offshore windmill park. The new park is able to power about 32,000 homes in the city, supplying about 3 percent of the city's energy needs [source: Grist].

3: Portland, Ore.

The Portland skyline is backed by Mount Hood.
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 500,000 people. It's been a model of sustainable living for decades, smartly mixing urban and outdoor spaces.

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. Thirty years ago, Portland continued leading the way by demolishing a six-lane highway to develop a waterfront park in its place. Today Portland has roughly 92,000 acres of green space, including 74 miles (119 km) of biking, hiking and running trails, and has enacted an urban-growth boundary to contain the urban landscape and protect 25 million acres of forest and farms [source: Grist].


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. It has also held rank at the top of green city lists in the United States and in the world for several years [source: Progressive Policy Institute]. The city has 50 buildings that meet or exceed U.S. Green Building Council standards for sustainability, and its mix of commercial and residential areas is pedestrian and bike friendly -- roughly one-quarter of commuters bike to work [source: Popular Science].

Looking ahead, Portland has set ambitious energy goals. By 2010, the city plans to supply 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources, including innovative approaches such as solar-powered parking meters.

2: Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver is big on using emerging technologies.
Vancouver is big on using emerging technologies.
joSon/Stone/Getty Images

Vancouver is a coastal city, home to more than 560,000 people, and was named the world's most livable city by the Economist magazine. It's proved to be not only the most livable, but also Canada's model for using renewable energy sources.

Vancouver has an ambitious 100-year plan for clean and green living. The city already leads the world in hydroelectric energy, which currently makes up 90 percent of its power supply. It also plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to levels 20 percent lower than reported in 1990 during the formation of the Kyoto Protocol. Fossil fuels will be reduced with city investments in wind, solar, wave and tidal energy systems.


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.
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 115,000 people living in the city and roughly 300,000 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 three city buses.

These five amazing cities are only a snapshot of the greenification of urban areas around the world. Many others are also working to reduce their energy consumption, adopt environmentally friendly urban development practices and embrace green living lifestyles -- each greening the world one city at a time.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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