Portland, Oregon is the most sustainable city and has earned the top distinction since SustainLane began ranking the 50 greenest large U.S. cities in 2005.
One of my best friends will be moving to Portland in the next few months. Gee, I’ll miss her, but that’s for another article. When I mentioned to my environmental planner husband that these friends would be moving to Portland, he lit up. Like the true urban planner that he is, he proceeded to tell me why he would like to visit them in the greenest city in the U.S.
What makes a sustainable city? According to James Elsen, of SustainLane, these are the 9 questions they ask when deciding the greenest cities:
Transit: What options do you have?
Leadership in affordable and convenient public transit will pay dividends for a city, having positive impacts on childhood asthma rates, traffic congestion and associated stress, fuel consumption, and greenhouse gases.
Energy Use: How sustainable are your energy options? Does your city have a co-generation plan? Wind or solar sources?
With the multi-trillion-dollar global energy prize going to the new technologies of wind, wave, solar, geothermal, and other renewables, this is a very exciting area of sustainability.
Water Quality and Usage: Does your water come from a renewable source and can you drink it?
Fluoride, heavy metals, bacteria … it’s enough to drive you to drink. We’re seeing the results of 100 years of industrial and agricultural practices, and the residues of those practices in our water table, rivers, and lakes.
Air Quality: How well can you breathe?
Cities like Chicago still struggle to control the belching smokestacks of the nearby industrial centers. Coal-fired power plants — with their outputs of mercury and CO2, among other nasties — still produce 53 percent of the nation’s power. Cars, trucks, ships, and trains … the means with which we move our food, goods, materials, and people are at the root of dirty air.
Green Building: How many green real estate projects are planned or built in your city?
These construction projects cost 10 to 15 percent more than conventional development, but with their lower energy usage, reduced water consumption, and daylighting and airflow that provide for greater health and well-being of occupants, it’s a great investment with a three-year payback cycle. When you add in leadership from government agencies for green-lighting building permits and saved fees, it’s easy to see why places like Atlanta and Portland are teeming with LEED-certified projects.
Traffic Congestion: How much bumper-to-bumper action is in your town?
Road rage, wasted time, needless expense on fuel, vehicle trips, and road maintenance: none is routinely measured when a city is evaluating congestion projects. Citizens must take responsibility here and reduce the time they spend in cars.
Land Use: Do you have access to parks? Does development happen on untrammeled land or in “recycled” places?
It’s not surprising that green cities should have lots of green space – an urban forest acts as a natural air filter, and the closer you are to nature, the less you have to drive or take other transportation to get to it. But a sustainable city should also be thinking about growth boundaries, trying to concentrate development, compact infrastructure, complete urban infill projects — in other words, building in those forgotten or dilapidated pockets inside city limits.
Housing Availability and Affordability: Can your grandkids live there, too?
Most people don’t realize that affordable housing is a tenet of green cities, but think about it: Sustainability implies activity today is still plausible in the next generations. Diversity, a hallmark of a thriving city center, is being squashed in great cities like San Francisco, where sky-high housing prices are creating a deeply segregated population based on economic means. Your grandkids should be able to afford to live in your neighborhood, too, and live close to jobs, services, green space (which many people want these days, causing prices to soar) – all that requires a mix of housing types and prices.
Government initiatives: What are your leaders doing to make sure your city becomes a greener, healthier, happier place?
It’s all about leadership. We need our leaders to step up and show strength in putting together long-term plans that favor sustainable development. We also need citizen leadership to rally communities and foster greater teamwork in the march toward the future. Together, we can change how and where we live.
To find out how green your city is, click here.
Ronnie Citron-Fink lives in New York with her husband, two children (when they come home to the nest), two dogs and a cat. Ronnie is a teacher and a writer. She has been a contributing writer for Family Fun magazine. She currently writes articles about education and home design. Her writings are in four books including Family Fun Home and Some Delights of the Hudson Valley.