Learning from Green Cities
By Evan Bianchi
The entire world is currently grappling with the existential threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19), a pandemic that spread quickly and that gave the world limited time to prepare for. As a result, the majority of the world is currently under some form of lockdown orders, and there is no sign that everyday life will completely return to normal anytime soon, if ever. Putting aside any arguments concerning what world leaders knew when and how quickly they should have acted, COVID-19 took the entire world by surprise, and as a result, we are unprepared with no cure or vaccine expected for at least a year. However, the coronavirus is not the largest existential threat that we face; climate change is. A key difference between the threat of climate change and the threat of COVID-19 is that we have known about climate change and had real solutions to fight it for decades, and as a result, we can apply these solutions today in cities around the globe. As horrible as the coronavirus is and the effect that it has had on our entire society, it might be just the reset needed to enact green solutions and bolster the hurting economy with environmentally friendly jobs. As proof that this can be accomplished, here is a list of 5 of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world, whose eco-friendly lifestyles and programs can and should be enacted in our local communities.
Copenhagen, Denmark: Europe’s Most Sustainable City
Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark, has consistently ranked among the top three most environmentally friendly cities in the world and is frequently ranked #1. Hailed as “Europe’s Green Capital,” Copenhagen holds this title due to its commitment to green living and sustainability. Copenhagen aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2025, an undertaking that they plan to achieve through the continuation of eco-friendly habits and the institution of new environmentally focused infrastructure and policies. Biking has become a part of the culture in Copenhagen, with the total number of bikes outnumbering the total number of cars. Over 50% of the population currently uses bikes as their main mode of transportation, and Copenhagen aims to raise that percentage by 2025 to 75% of all trips made on foot, bike, or public transportation. Biking has been enabled by the construction of the Green Cycle Routes—a network consisting of about 58km (over 36 miles) of green active travel routes that provide bike and pedestrian-friendly trails. They were made to help cyclists travel through the city faster while still enjoying the beautiful scenery. As described by Copenhagen native Mia Kristine Jessen Petersen: “The path isn't just a path; it’s also filled with parks, playgrounds, benches, and different terrain, so the scenery shifts at every turn.” The benefits of these trails and their promotion of biking are twofold, as the city can cut down on carbon emissions and simultaneously increase public health. In addition to biking, much has been done to increase the prominence of public transportation, further reducing the reliance on cars. Almost all residents of Copenhagen live within 350 meters of public transportation, which is approximately three and a half city blocks. Additionally, by the end of 2019, all buses in Copenhagen transitioned to electric engines.
Additional beneficial projects in Copenhagen:
Starting in 2010, Copenhagen has been integrating green roofs into their infrastructure and continues to construct sustainable drainage systems, recycle rainwater, and design effective drainage systems.
Renewable energy features such as solar panels are becoming increasingly common in the newest buildings in Copenhagen.
Government policies have mandated that commercial and residential buildings are to reduce electricity consumption by 20 percent and 10 percent respectively and to decrease total heat consumption by 20 percent by 2025.
New buildings must be constructed according to Low Energy Class ratings and are required to be near net-zero energy buildings.
The Municipality of Copenhagen is leading an initiative to plant 100,000 new trees by the end of 2025.
Copenhagen upholds one of the world’s strongest quality assurance tests for clean tap water.
Additionally, years of substantial investment in sewage treatment have improved water quality in the harbor to the extent that the inner harbor can be used for swimming with facilities in several locations.
In 2001, a large offshore wind farm was built. Lying just off the coast of Copenhagen at Middelgrunden, it produces around 4% of the city’s energy.
Amsterdam, Netherlands: The City of Bikes
Also known as the city of bikes, Amsterdam contains more bikes than people, and, unsurprisingly, biking is the main mode of transportation. Similar to Copenhagen, urban planners have worked to create bike and pedestrian lanes, to encourage traveling by foot or bike. However, for people who are unable to bike, the authorities are trying to reduce the emissions by introducing electric vehicles, which can be charged at over 300 charging points situated throughout the city. Public policy also ensures that local farms are supported so that the population within the city has access to sustainably farmed, organic foods.
Stockholm, Sweden: Europe's Green Capital
Stockholm is one of the most eco-friendly cities in the EU and, in 2010, was the first to be awarded the European Green Capital Award. Stockholm aims to be completely fossil fuel-free by 2050 and already has a well-laid system that keeps the city running without using massive fossil fuel reserves. For example, Stockholm has biofuel conversion plants that produce biofuel from sewage as a part of Stockholm’s Grow Smarter Project. The city also has a project that uses waste heat, heat produced by machines, or other processes that release heat as a byproduct of doing work. Any heat produced by data centers, shops, and stadiums will be redirected so that it provides heating for the residents of Stockholm. Additionally, more homeowners are installing solar panels on their roofs and are growing their own fruits and vegetables. Those without homegrown food purchase from local farmers’ markets, which in turn cycles money back into the local economy.
Vancouver, Canada: North America's Greenest
Vancouver is one of the most eco-friendly cities in North America, emitting the smallest amount of CO2. With the formation of the Green City Action Team (GCAT), the government has been working to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world. In 2010, the city began to boisterously promote cycling and went on to build separate lanes for cyclists. The city is also actively increasing its number of charging ports to encourage people to use electric vehicles. Additionally, several waste management projects have started in Vancouver to further decrease waste, water and air contamination within the city.
Curitiba, Brazil: The Green Capital of Brazil
Curitiba is proudly called the “Green Capital of Brazil,” a name it earned for its world-leading recycling program that transforms 70% of its waste into reusable energy and products. Of all the cities on the South American Siemens Index, only Curitiba scores above average in the green rankings. Curitiba also has a robust public transportation system that helps commuters to travel throughout the city without depending on personal vehicles. Developed in the 1960s, the rapid-transit bus system allows for the heavy use of public transportation. Consequently, Curitiba has one of the best air quality ratings on the index. Curitiba also employs an incentive program that exchanges recyclable and exchangeable items with tokens, snacks, sweets, and cash. This initiative alone feeds almost 7,000 impoverished citizens.
Solutions that can be implemented in your community
Massive planting of broad-leaf shade trees along all public highways and on all rights of way.
Amend zoning ordinances to require or increase tree planting with all private development.
Green parking lots:
Amend zoning ordinances to require parking lots be Green Parking Lots. Green parking lots are buffered by rain gardens that collect runoff so that trash and chemicals do not enter rivers and streams (see Copenhagen, Denmark). They may also contain broad-leaf shade trees.
Sunlight-reflective coating: Require parking lots and roads to have a light reflective coating on the asphalt to reflect (rather than absorb) the sun’s rays. If the application of sunlight-reflective coatings was done throughout an entire city, the overall temperature in the city would decrease, causing less reliance on air-conditioning. Require all house roofs to be similarly coated.
Install LED light bulbs (95% of the energy in LEDs is converted into light and only 5% is wasted as heat) to save energy in all light sources such as streetlights, traffic lights, and in-office lights.
Install movement sensors with automatic switches on lights in all municipal buildings.
Install solar panels (see Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden) on municipal and government buildings and provide incentive programs, including tax reductions, for homeowners.
Visit Energysage.com to learn about the solar tax credit offered by the federal government and to find out how much solar costs in your area.
Decrease the use of harmful chemicals:
End or decrease insect eradication programs to preserve bird and bat populations.
End municipal or private use of pesticides that damage life in streams.
Farmers’ markets & compost:
Support local farmers and home-grown food gardens.
Expand compost services to all residents.
Find options for paid, pick-up compost services and areas where you can drop off compost for free in your local community by visiting Litterless.com.
Provide incentive programs for recycling (see Curitiba, Brazil).
Ban single-use plastics, including plastic water bottles (implemented in San Francisco).
Provide incentives to increase the use of electric cars.
Supply accessible charging ports (see Amsterdam, Netherland) throughout cities to make it more convenient to use electric vehicles.
Visit Fueleconomy.gov to search for electric vehicles and the tax credits available for each of them
Complete Streets Programs: A Complete Streets approach keeps our streets safer by thoughtful design, construction, operation, and maintenance. A complete street may include sidewalks, bike lanes or paved recreational paths, special bus lanes, comfortable and accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crossing opportunities, median islands, accessible pedestrian signals, curb extensions, narrower travel lanes, roundabouts, and more.
Install and expand recreational trails that can also be used for commuting by bicycle (see Copenhagen, Denmark—Green Cycle Routes).
Install more traffic lights or stop signs where major roads meet commercial districts in neighborhoods and towns to create more walkable communities and business districts.
Make it easier for citizens to live without cars by promoting pedestrian, walking, and use of public transportation.
Make public transportation more accessible and use cleaner options to run public transit.