When it comes to cities, sustainability is a pretty nebulous concept; there’s no checklist to determine whether a particular metropolis is doing enough to guarantee its green future. What isn’t up for debate, however, is the benefit that eco-conscious policies give to residents. During the last year, lockdown has shown us that access to nature and green spaces is vital to our mental health. With this in mind, here’s a guide to seven cities that are trying to lead the way, even if they still have a long way to go.
Dubai likes to tout its sustainability credentials, but those are almost exclusively tied to The Sustainable City, a 46-hectare property development that produces as much energy as it uses. And while that may be a model for the future, it doesn’t solve Dubai’s bigger problems. The fast-growing desert metropolis lacks natural resources—notably water—and its desalination plants, which make seawater potable, use immense quantities of fossil fuel and produce excess brine, which is harmful to marine life.
The French capital has set a goal of becoming Europe’s greenest city by 2030: A demanding target considering that the Paris metropolitan area has a population of 12 million and much of its infrastructure is centuries old. Still, thanks to the efforts of green-focused mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris is doing pretty well. Since she came into office in 2014, Hidalgo has created more than 900 miles of bike lanes, including 40 quickly converted from roads during last year’s first coronavirus lockdown. Starting in 2024, diesel cars will be banned from the city, and by 2030, gasoline-burning cars will be prohibited too.
Named Asia’s most sustainable city in 2018, Singapore deserves credit for implementing an unequivocal eco-building program: If any greenery on the ground is lost during construction, it has to be replaced in the sky with rooftop gardens. Further sustainability initiatives in this island city-state are likely to be motivated by necessity. The government has said it wants to send 30 percent less waste to Semakau, Singapore’s sole landfill, in order to lengthen its lifespan. If it fails to do so, Semakau could be completely full by 2035: a potentially catastrophic scenario.
Situated among mountains, rivers, lakes, and the ocean, Vancouver feels more intertwined with nature than many other cities. Thanks to a stringent carbon tax applied to home heating bills and at gas stations, it also boasts the lowest per-person greenhouse-gas emissions of any North American city. Since 2010, it’s planted more than 125,000 trees as part of a plan to supersize the city’s green spaces, and in 2019 it voted to ban single-use plastics, which will be implemented in January 2022 following a 12-month delay caused by the pandemic. It even has its own urban-planning philosophy, Vancouverism, which prizes large public spaces and an affordable, comprehensive public transport system.
3. San Francisco
In the U.S., San Francisco sets the bar for sustainability: It keeps 80 percent of its waste out of landfill sites, compared to just 20 percent in New York and 10 percent in Chicago. In 2007, the city banned plastic bags at grocery store checkouts; then in 2009, it made recycling and composting mandatory at home and in the workplace. The city has also improved its cycling infrastructure in recent years and is regularly voted one of America’s most walkable cities. At this stage, sustainability is baked into the San Fran way of life.
Back in 2010, Copenhagen pledged to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. This plan feels as ambitious as it is admirable, but the executive director of the city’s climate-program, Jørgen Abildgaard, said last year that the Danish city has just “20 percent to go to reach the target.” Tackling private road emissions is its largest remaining challenge because Copenhagen has already ensured that less than 2 percent of its waste goes into landfills. The rest is either recycled or converted into energy at CopenHill, an innovative waste-to-energy power plant that cleverly doubles as an outdoor sports center.
This small but super-progressive German city has carved out a reputation as a sustainability hotbed. In 1994, it erected the iconic Heliotrope, the world’s first building to capture more energy than it uses, all of which is entirely renewable, emissions-free, and carbon-neutral. Then in 2017, it made history again by building the New Town Hall, the world’s first public building to produce more energy than it uses. Freiburg also deserves credit for sharing its green knowledge: Madison, Wisc., is now planning a Sustainability Center based on Freiburg’s, while European sister city Padua has used Freiburg’s expertise to build Italy’s largest solar farm.