Building Sustainable Cities

The 227-city U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement is just the beginning.

3D futuristic green city.
3000ad / iStock

Sustainable practices are on the rise in cities all over the United States. The following is a list of towns leading the country in sustainable initiatives ranging from green building to social programs that provide living wages and affordable housing.

Once in place, sustainable measures are often extremely popular. For example, when light rail came to Salt Lake City and to Minneapolis, few predicted it'd have many users. Yet in both cities, the number of riders radically exceeded expectations. In Minneapolis the number of light rail riders increased by 58 percent, to 7.9 million users in 2005 alone.

And upping the sustainability of cities might just defeat global warming: "If you were to build much more compact cities with much less asphalt and cars and gasoline, you'll have a very large impact on climate change," said Ecocities author Richard Register. “It’s absolutely essential to start reshaping cities as soon as we can.”

Northwest: Portland, Oregon. Greenest builder

Back in the 1970s, the eco-friendly city demolished a freeway to make a riverfront park. Since then, it has continued getting greener. In 2002, the city adopted the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design standards and mandated that all new buildings be erected according to them. It now leads the nation in the number of green buildings per capita.

Midwest: Minneapolis, Minnesota. A 20/20 View on sustainability

In 2003, the City of Lakes began creating a sustainability plan with 24 indicators ranging from public health to water quality. The indicators include targets, among them one that reduces CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

Northeast: Burlington,Vermont. Affordable housing without heavy-handed government

Burlington responded to exploding housing costs in the early 1980s by creating the nonprofit Burlington Community Land Trust (BCLT) to give low-income residents the chance to own a home. The program was a huge success, and today BCLT controls 4 percent of Burlington's homes. Daniel Fireside writes in Dollars and Sense, "By looking at housing as a fundamental human right rather than a market good that goes to the highest bidder, and with shrewd political organizing in a hostile environment, housing advocates in Burlington have created a sustainable model for affordable housing that deserves to be emulated across the country."

South: Austin, Texas. Saving energy by the megawatt

According to a recent Sierra Club report, Austin has managed to conserve nearly 600 megawatts of energy since the 1980s. The city also puts a lot of green in its energy mix: within 15 years, it plans to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

Southwest: Boulder, Colorado. The open space maven.

Stunning greenways within the city provide paths for a huge number of cyclists. On the outskirts of Boulder a green belt serves not only to provide access to nature, wildlife habitat and water drainage but as a barrier against the sprawl with which the rest of Colorado's front range must contend.

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