While other countries across the globe have been adopting federal initiatives to go green, the U.S. has left this challenge, in large part, to local governments in large cities and small towns throughout the nation. Though not exhaustive, the examples listed below are outstanding showcase cities that offer glimpses for what cities of all sizes can do to make greener, more sustainable choices.
What Makes a City Green?
The thing about going green is that it’s not one single action that defines green for everyone. We all have different priorities and areas of concern for the sake of the planet. Some of the primary factors used to determine whether a city is doing its part to improve its impact on the planet are the following:
- Air quality.
- Availability of locally grown food.
- Bike/Walking trails and dedicated bicycle lanes.
- Clean transportation.
- Efficiency of recycling programs.
- Green spaces.
- LEED certified buildings.
- Reduction of carbon footprint.
- Renewable energy initiatives.
- Waste management.
- Water quality.
- Water conservation efforts.
Beyond these critical elements, green may very well be in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, there’s no universal criteria by which we can judge the value of one city’s green initiatives compared to another in terms of raw environmental impact. These cities, though, represent cities that are making real differences one initiative at a time.
One of the few cities where the government literally seems to bleed all things green. From the Grey to Green watershed initiative to the Green Streets program, and many points in between, the city of Portland is committed to going green. More importantly, they’re bringing the community, businesses and citizens alike, on board with them.
And, it’s working for everyone – especially the planet. In Portland, 25 percent of the workforce commutes via public transportation, carpool, or bicycle. The city has created 250 mile of bike paths, trails, and lanes, and eight percent of city residents use bicycles as their primary modes of transportation. Plastic shopping bags have been banned throughout the city in order to prevent pollution in waterways and elsewhere.
Portland also boasts exceptional water and air quality, and is home to nearly 40 farmers markets making locally grown food a snap for anyone interested in fresh foods throughout the growing season.
Starting with Green Seattle, which is a partnership between the city government, community groups, businesses, schools, and non-profit organizations, and moving on to the Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, it’s clear to see that the city of Seattle is another city that takes the planet seriously.
If that weren’t enough, the city has also launched an Equity and Environment Initiative (EEI), so that the people who experience the most environmental inequities are able to participate in the decision-making processes.
In 2009, the Natural Resources Defense Council designated Seattle as the greenest, most sustainable U.S. city with a population over 250,000. The NRDC used several categories to determine the top cities on the list including:
- Air quality
- Energy production and conservation
- Green building
- Green spaces
- Water quality
As of 2014 Seattle enjoyed the distinction of being one of the most energy-efficient cities in the U.S., utilizing hydroelectric power for 90 percent of the city’s electricity. The city also has adopted aggressive policies to encourage green energy and green building citywide, according to the Sustainable Cities Institute.
Many people are surprised to see Austin, Texas on this list of green cities, but there are many great reasons this city makes the grade. First and foremost is the city’s Office of Sustainability, which is dedicated to the mission of “Net zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” The city has even created its very own mobile app designed to encourage green thinking by the population.
Heavy investing in renewable energy may sound surprising in a state well-known for staunchly conservative politics and a love of all things oil. However, Time reports that Austin is a fairly liberal little corner of Texas, and has kept an open mind when it comes to renewable energy – especially by embracing wind power to the point that wind power installation in Texas surpasses all other states.
Other reasons Austin makes the list is for its water conservation efforts – even offering rebates for rainscaping and irrigation system improvements. The Seattle Times is taking notice, too, with an article applauding Austin efforts to go green with solar cells on parking lot roofs, a city hall built with recycled materials, and new requirements for energy efficiency in construction in which all homes are built to consume no more energy than it would produce over the course of a year with a rooftop solar system.
Chicago has a lot to offer in terms of planetary goodness. One of the things it’s most widely known and respected for is the nearly 2.5 million square feet of rooftop space sporting some degree of plant life in the city. In fact, Millennium Park is one of the largest green roofs in the world (at 25 acres in size), and Soldier Field is the first NFL stadium to be LEED certified.
For those interested in visiting the Windy City, there are seven hotels that have earned Green Seal Certification and Six that are LEED Certified.
The city has also undertaken an aggressive Sustainable Chicago Action Agenda in the mayor’s effort to make Chicago the “greenest city in the world.”
Perhaps it’s the fact that Burlington is the first in the U.S. to meet residential energy needs with 100 percent renewable energy that places Burlington, Vermont as one of the top green U.S. cities. The renewable energy comes with the combination of wind, solar, hydro powers, biomass, landfill gasses, and a few other types of renewable sources.
The city has also initiated the 10 percent challenge to residents and businesses in the area to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, according to Rodale’s Organic Life.
Large and small cities across the country are taking action and doing their part to make green changes. All cities can take one step at a time to make the planet a priority. These cities serve as shining examples of how to accomplish greener goals all cities should be proud to follow.
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