Cities Leading the Way to Sustainability

Until recently, the federal government wasn't what we would consider a friend of the environment. Fortunately, some cities have spent the last few years (or decades!) looking forward, and have worked hard to implement sustainable practices and policies.

Until recently, the federal government wasn't what we would consider a friend of the environment. Fortunately, some cities have spent the last few years (or decades!) looking forward, and have worked hard to implement sustainable practices and policies.

All of the cities discussed below have wide-reaching programs for improving their impact on the environment, including transportation, energy use, and water conservation. Here's what a few of the forward-thinking cities in this great country of ours have been up to.


Portland, Oregon

Long known as a mecca for green – both the leafy kind and the environmental kind – Portland reins supreme over many a list of America's greenest cities Why? Because they do it all. As the first city in the country to adopt a plan to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, Portland managed to reduce their emissions to 17% below 1990 levels by 2007 (when adjusted for population growth). With results like that, it’s hard to argue the City's green cred.

But that achievement only fueled Portland's fire to make further reductions. The City has set a goal for receiving 100% of the power used in municipal operations and facilities from renewable sources, and has retrofitted traffic signals with energy-sipping LEDs, saving 3% of emissions and $265,000 per year.

Portland also uses unique methods for implementing sustainable practices, including getting their citizens involved. For example, to eliminate the use of pesticides in parks, the City enlists volunteers to help staff with weeding. They have also implemented integrated pest management methods. After a successful three-year trial program at three parks, two additional parks have been added to the program. These simple changes, partnered with a little hard work, provide Portland’s citizens with tons of pesticide-free green space.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is working hard to green their city – their Climate Action Plan has set a goal for reducing carbon emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. Ambitious, considering the plan was just released last year.

To address the issue of energy use, the City is investing heavily in cogeneration, a method for creating electricity that also makes use of the heat generated in the process. Heat is a byproduct of electricity production that is usually just vented into the atmosphere. Cogeneration uses the heat from burning fuel to heat water, producing steam that in turn runs a turbine, producing additional electricity. Any additional heat can be used to heat the building housing the cogeneration system. This method is expected to supply 1.5 billion kilowatts of energy, enough for 25% of the increase in use in Chicago during 2000 – 2010.

In addition to addressing energy use, Chicago has launched many other initiatives, including a Green Office Challenge to motivate offices to reduce their eco-impact, and establishing drop off locations for expired or unused prescriptions. Oddly, many people flush their prescriptions, adversely affecting our water supply and wildlife

Boston, Massachusetts

Like Chicago, the City of Boston has specific goals for reducing its carbon footprint, and is tackling energy use as a means to meet those goals. Plans are in the works for a methane-fed power source, based on the grass clippings of Boston residents. The City has also announced its new Boston Buying Initiative, a program that will combine the energy purchasing power of small businesses. The initiative will not only reduce costs for small businesses struggling to make ends meet in this difficult economy, but will provide access to tools and resources to cut energy use, saving even more money and reducing their impact on the environment. Other initiatives focus on improving buildings and structures, transportation, and land and water use.

Austin, Texas

The City of Austin, known mostly for its music scene and as the home of the University of Texas, also sports a reputation as the most progressive of Texas cities. In regards to the environment, Austin sets the standards for the state – an important role, considering three of the country’s largest cities are in Texas (Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas).

If you’re at all familiar with Austin, then you likely know about Barton Springs Pool – an oasis of natural beauty and abundance that only adds to Austin’s uniqueness. Under threat from commercial development, efforts to protect not just the springs but all of Austin’s water supply are seen in many aspects of Austin’s plans for sustainability. For example, the Green Building Program includes many water-related requirements, including protecting native plants, minimizing water used for landscaping, and educating contractors on water conservation.

Other programs include "Dillo Dirt," (Texan translation: 'dillo is short for armadillo) a compost made from residents' landscaping trimmings and sewage sludge. A Heat Island Containment Policy provides incentives and requirements for reflective roofs and shade tree plantings, thus reducing the City's heat island effect (Austin certainly doesn’t need to be any hotter in the summer!)

San Francisco

Though California as a whole enjoys a reputation of leadership when it comes to environmental progress, many early steps are first taken in San Francisco. For example, San Fran was the first city to ban single-use plastic bags, a move that many other cities are following.

Perhaps surprisingly, San Francisco has also jumped into solar energy production with both feet. Turns out, solar panels work just fine in the fog…who knew? After a successful installation at Moscone Convention Center generated enough electricity to fully power it during events, the City started installations at many different municipal facilities. Residents, too, are joining the bandwagon. Check out this cool solar map to see all of the installations! San Francisco also focuses on broader issues like environmental justice (clean food, water, and air for all!), zero waste, and toxics reduction.

We’re thankful for the local leadership that has paved the way towards sustainable cities. With a new president and a new focus on greening our country, expect to see even more initiatives coming soon to your city!

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