How do cities become green? 10 best practices of green cities

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Will Vancouver be the world’s greenest city in 2020?

In 2012 the city of Vancouver, Canada announced their ambitious action plan to become the greenest city in the world by 2020.  Being born and raised in Vancouver, I grew up recycling and eating granola, and have seen the progress the city has made introducing bike lanes, water meters and new policies to conserve resources.

Vancouver, you have serious competition

There are “green” cities all over the world. While there is no universally accepted definition for what makes a city green,  most ranking systems include environmental impact per person, renewable energy generation, percentage of people using public transport, green spaces and recycling programs. None of these take into consideration the most important element, the people who live there.

On a recent trip to Portland I was blown away by how much more “green” it is than Vancouver (sorry Vancouver). In Portland, sustainability is embedded in everyone and everything in the city. It got me to thinking, how did Portland become an entire city of people who are so passionate about the environment?

How did Portland become a leading sustainable city ?

Was it a small movement that caught on? Did like minded people from all over move there? How can a city like Vancouver or any other city in the world create the same kind of collective consciousness in their citizens?

While looking for the answer, I found an interesting interview with Portland’s Sustainability Chief  discussing how Portland became a leader in sustainability. Here are a few insights:

  • Good urban planning is necessary
  • Being located in an area of natural beauty helps, people often feel more of a connection to their surroundings
  • It’s not just about saving the planet, going green drives revenue for a city, there is money to be made in sustainable manufacturing and services

Oregon has a history of being home to a vibrant activist community for more than 40 years, and was one of the first states in the US to require refundable deposits on cans and bottles.  Cities become green through small grassroots movements that become viral, combined with best practices of city government.

Best practices of green cities

Becoming a green city is more complicated than just good urban planning and stricter codes. Here are some best practices from the world’s most sustainable cities.

  1. Ambitious, well defined goals, and regular reporting of progress
  2. Electricity generation using renewable resources
  3. Strict building codes favouring green technology
  4. Investment in public transportation
  5. Efforts and policies to cut waste, reduce water consumption
  6. Increased density
  7. Encourage knowledge-based, creative economies
  8. Access to affordable, healthy food
  9. City government who leads by example
  10. Encourage grass roots efforts to engage citizens

A little competition is a good thing

We still have a long way to go to make our cities green, but the competition of cities vying for first place is a good thing. While San Francisco, Copenhagen, Bogotá, Reykjavik and Vancouver battle it out for the title of world’s greenest city, the result is decreased consumption of resources and increased awareness.

Tell me, what do you think is the most important element needed to transform a city into a green one?



  • Loving that Portland, OR is mentioned here as a leading sustainable city! Being from there originally, I have to agree that being around nature is a huge driver of community engagement. Cities can start small – think more recycling receptables in busy shopping districts – but it will need to be a collective effort amongst government officials, businesses, and residents to drive real change.

    • Meriah Jamieson

      11 years ago

      Nicki, you are lucky to be from Portland! I agree, small efforts can lead to big changes when coupled with forward thinking governments.

  • Great approach. People indeed have to be involved in the equation too.
    I firmly believe that not only governments and people, but also businesses can make a huge difference in transforming cities to green hotspots. Think of it, most of us work for (large) corporations. They have the capability to positively influence their employees and thus people in their cities, they should take the lead! What if they would encourage green doing in a way that it doesn’t stand out any more, but indeed just becomes part of daily life? I’m from Amsterdam, and here we bike everywhere, and businesses and brands supply branded bikes to consumers. Not in a loaner program, but really to own one, use it on a daily basis and spread brand awareness. Meriah, I am wondering how you feel about bicycles and this approach?

    • Meriah Jamieson

      11 years ago

      Amsterdam is great green city too, what has been done there with bikes is outstanding, and a model other cities can follow (with mild climates :). I fully believe there is money to be made in being sustainable, and it seems the companies that are supplying branded bikes have realized that. If they could calculate a return on investment on the bikes compared to increase in sales over time, it would make a good case for others to follow. Great point that big business needs to be involved to drive change, thanks for your comments!

  • The environment is a kind of system.We are trying to find the harmony with nature.
    The approach is so great that we could make the three-dimensional urban become true.

  • neha singh

    10 years ago

    we must try to change our lifestyle by reducing our greeds….i mean why to do show off.. we must carry short distances by our ownself without any vehicle….

  • Dharam g. koradiya

    10 years ago

    I think we have to increased ground water…..and reduced all pollution . By growing maximum trees .

  • Think global, act local… hopefully our leaders understand that this is a key governance issue.

  • Green lover

    6 years ago

    In my opinion a green city is where the flora or plants cover half of a city, with many kinds of plant and types of flower that arranged nicely and tidy. And clean from all type rubbishs with a systematic clean system.

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