America’s Top 10 Green Cities
When you think of a ‘green’ environment, a city is probably the furthest thing from your mind. Noisy, dirty, smelly, over-flowing with trash and smelling of car-fumes, they’re a full-time, 24-hours-a-day, living, breathing eco nightmare. But fortunately these days some cities are making major efforts to clean up their act. They are focusing on clean air and water, renewable energy, promoting the use of public transport, providing parks and greenbelt land, encouraging farmer’s markets and community involvement. It doesn’t happen by accident and requires coherent planning and commitment at a city-wide level. There is no agreed, objective way of measuring which city is ‘greenest’. Different surveys using different criteria will produce different results. What we can say is that these 10 cities, in no particular order of merit, are all doing their best to be greener and making great progress.
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Think of Chicago and possibly ‘green’ isn’t the first thing that springs to mind, but with generous open space, public transportation and a commitment to renewable and sustainable energy, the ‘windy city’ earns a mention on many ‘green’ lists. All of the city’s nine museums and the Art Institute have been converted to run partially on solar power and close to one-third the residents use public transportation to get to work. The city aims to buy 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources this year and there are tax incentives available to homeowners who invest in older properties and retrofit them with energy efficient heating and cooling systems, as well as water-saving plumbing. Water quality on the city’s lakefront is rated as excellent which is good news for the many swimmers, boaters and sun bathers who head for the shore in the summer.
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Portland’s reputation as the countries ‘greenest’ city is their reward for good planning and hard work. It was the first U.S. city to have a plan to reduce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and now 44% of its energy comes from hydroelectric sources and solar power. Cycle lanes and buses help to keep residents out of their cars, with 13% relying on public transportation for their commute to work, 2% bicycling and 11% carpooling. As well as recycling glass, metal and plastics, Portland also composts yard waste and food scraps from businesses. Residents have over 92,000 acres of green space (over 10% of the total city area) to enjoy, ranging from waterfront areas to trails, athletic fields, parks and public gardens.
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Innovative thinking in Boston has produced plans for a plant that can turn 50,000 tons of grass and leaves into power and fertilizer. The facility would first separate out yard clippings and then bacteria feeding on the grass would make enough methane to power at least 1.5 megawatts’ worth of generators, while heat and agitation would hasten the breakdown of leaves and twigs into compost. They have won numerous awards for their efforts to encourage sustainability and have policies in place to promote green building in private and public developments, clean vehicle and fuel policies for municipal vehicles and greater energy efficiencies for city buildings. There’s no doubt that Boston takes its ‘greeness’ seriously.
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This gem nestling in the rockies has ‘green’ smarts as well as picturesque looks. The city is operating under a five-year ‘sustainable initiative’ plan that focuses on greenhouse gas reduction, water conservation and quality, waste reduction and increased recycling. As part of this initiative they have three solar installations under consideration and one of the nations largest hybrid municipal fleets. They are building the country’s biggest light rail system, serving the larger metropolitan region and with an anticipated half-million riders daily. With 17 green-certified public buildings and 73 in the process of certification their commitment to ‘greener building’ is clear. Surrounded by natural beauty, with clean water and access to skiing and hiking in the wilderness nearby, Denver is far removed from the smoky, dirty image that so many cities suffer from.
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Eugene, nicknamed “The Emerald City” for its lush green setting, is a south Willamette Valley haven between the Cascade and Coast amid Douglas fir forests. It boasts a thriving university and has a reputation for fostering alternative lifestyles and organic products. In the same way as Silicone Valley attracts computer entrepreneurs, Eugene seems to draw green industry and sustainable businesses. Alternative energy in the form of hydroelectric and wind power contribute over 85% of Eugene’s energy needs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly. A generous 15% of Eugene is green space, including athletic fields, city parks, public gardens, trails and waterfront. The city has over 2,500 acres of publicly owned wetlands, and its West Eugene Wetlands Program includes a mitigation bank, a native plant nursery, and protected wetlands.
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With historically high levels of unemployment and poverty, Oakland is now working hard to improve its environment and its opportunities by joining the green economy. It has partnered with neighboring cities, companies and universities to bring green industry to the region. The city has the most watts of solar power among large cities in Northern California, beating green neighbors San Francisco and San José. It gets about 17 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, including hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal and wind. The city’s Oil Independent Oakland Task Force, inspired by a national program in Sweden, aims to reduce Oakland’s oil consumption by 40 to 50 percent by 2020. Through the University of Berkeley, Oakland’s city government is studying how it can source 30 percent of its food locally, and the number of farmer’s markets in the city has already doubled. By 2020, its Zero Waste plan aims to reduce the amount of waste by a staggering 90 percent.
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In just twelve short years, with vision and determination, Santa Monica has turned itself green. Now three of every four of the city’s public works vehicles run on alternative fuel, making it among the largest such fleets in the country. All public buildings use renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions have been cut by nearly 10 percent. Interestingly, the city carried out a study analyzing the change in its ecological footprint, which tracked its use of the Earth’s resources in terms of water and land area. Results showed its use shrank by 5.7%, since 1990. To put that in perspective, the Earth’s total area of biologically productive land and fresh water sources is finite and must be shared among a growing population of more than 6 billion people. These finite resources provide about 4.5 acres per person but the U.S. average is a grossly disproportionate 24 acres per person. A Santa Monica resident’s ‘footprint’ is now almost 13% smaller than the American average, still way too high but a big improvement.
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The single fact that there are three bikes for every car in Madison speaks volumes for its commitment to a greener environment, that and the more than 100 miles of bike paths. This was the first city in the United States to offer curbside recycling and it gets a gets an impressive 97 percent participation rate, with over 265 tons of material ranging from broken washers to empty beer cans to grass clippings collected each week. A year-round farmer’s market (held indoors in the cold winter months) draws vendors and buyers from throughout the region and consequently organic and local-grown foods are readily available.
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To its undoubted old-world charm and tourist appeal, the city by the bay has now added impressive green credentials. With bus, subway and ferry services that reach throughout the Bay Area as well as fervent cyclists and devoted car poolers, San Francisco leads the way in getting people out of their cars. In fact, more than half the city’s residents use public or alternative transportation to get to work. Golden Gate Park, the newly-decommissioned Presidio, beaches, extensive bike paths and access to the Pacific and the Bay, all provide the city with an abundance of green space and recreational areas. San Francisco is also a leader in green building, with more than 20 building projects registered for official green certification. City residents are right behind the greening of their environment, voting to allow the city to sell $100 million in revenue bonds to support renewable energy.
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Think of Texas and, chances are, you get a mental picture of oil-wells and gas-guzzling cars so it may be surprising that Austin is consistently mentioned as one of America’s ‘greenest’ cities. In the wall-to-wall, 200-day-a-year sunshine Austin residents can enjoy its 205 parks, 14 nature preserves, and 25 greenbelts. Ambitious plans are in place to meet 20 percent of its energy needs with renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2020. There are laws protecting the region’s natural watershed from development and a recycling center that dates way back to 1970. Locally grown produce is available from a dozen outdoor farmer’s markets, city buses provide free rides on ‘high ozone’ days and there’s an innovative “pay-as-you-throw” trash collection program that rewards residents for being less wasteful.