From offering plentiful bike paths and thriving farmers’ markets to ensuring cleaner air, a city’s environmental efforts don’t just help the planet – they benefit residents too.
According to the Siemens Green City Index, an ongoing project researched by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the world’s greenest cities score high marks in CO2 emissions, transportation options, water and waste management, and overall environmental governance.
Different urban areas have different sustainability strengths, so we talked to residents in the top-ranked cities across the globe to find out what living in them is like.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Compared to other cities of its size, Vancouver scored incredibly well in C02 emissions and air quality, due in part to the city’s emphasis on promoting green energy and its use of hydropower. Vancouver has vowed to reduce emissions by 33% by 2020.
That commitment doesn’t surprise resident Lorne Craig, who moved to the city from Calgary in 1985 and writes the Green Briefs blog. “Vancouver has been home to a deeper green counter-culture since the 1960s and is recognized worldwide as the birthplace of Greenpeace,” he said. “Mountains tower over the city. It reminds everyone here that we are part of something bigger and more beautiful.”
As other cities continued building freeways that promoted driving and sprawl, Vancouver remained committed to urban living, as evidenced by the development of Granville Island, a pedestrian-friendly peninsula where residents frequent large public market and art studios.
Plenty of other Vancouver neighbourhoods are eco-friendly too. A large network of bike routes makes cycling around town easy, especially West 10th Avenue, where people regularly cruise on bikes, electric scooters and even unicycles. Craig said the neighbourhoods of Commercial Drive and Strathcona, both east of downtown, are “more left-wing green” – meaning, more politically active – while Kitsilano to the west and the Main Street neighbourhood to the south of downtown are “more the Prius type of green” – wealthier, with a more laid-back approach to activism.
Of all the cities on the South American Siemens Index, only Curitiba scores above average in the green rankings. After building one of the planet’s first large-scale, rapid-transit bus systems in the 1960s and developing a world-leading recycling program in the 1980s, the southern Brazilian city continues to be environmentally forward-thinking. In fact, the heavy use of public transportation means Curitiba has one of the highest air qualities in the index.
However, the city could use some revitalization, according to resident Stephen Green, who moved to Curitiba 15 years ago from London and writes the city lifestyle blog Head of the Heard. While Curitiba plans to build a metro system and an additional 300km in bike routes, the projects are expensive and the city needs more funding to complete them. Still, compared to other cities in the region, “Curitiba is excellent,” Green said.
Green lives in Merces, a traditional city-centre neighbourhood that’s popular with older residents. “We have a good market on Sundays, decent public transport links and the biggest park in the city is close by,” he said. Farmers’ markets move around the city, helping residents find local organic produce.
Though fellow Scandinavian cities Oslo and Stockholm trail close behind, Copenhagen consistently ranks as Europe’s greenest city. Almost all of the residents live within 350m of public transportation and more than 50% regularly use a bicycle to commute. As a result, Copenhagen has extremely low C02 emissions for a city its size.
While the entire city is bike-friendly, the districts of Nørrebro in the northwest and Frederiksberg in the west are especially committed to cycling, said Copenhagen native Mia Kristine Jessen Petersen. “They've spent a lot of money creating “Den Grønne Sti [the Green Path], a 9km-long path for walking and biking,” she said. “The Green Path is made to help cyclists get through the city fast and easy in beautiful scenery. But 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.” Grønne Sti ends in Valby, 4km outside of downtown, a district popular with families who live there for its plentiful parks, schools and safe streets.
In addition to their love of cycling, Copenhagen residents are passionate about recycling and composting, as well as conserving electricity and heat. “Danes see nature as a sacred haven,” Petersen said. “We do whatever we can to take care of the nature we have in the cities and to get more.”
San Francisco, California
San Francisco ranks as North America’s greenest city in the index. The city has a long history of environmental consciousness stretching back to the founding of the Sierra Club environmental group in the 19th Century. San Francisco has a 77% recycling rate, one of the highest in the world, made possible through city mandates requiring the separation of recyclable and compostable materials from regular garbage.
“We are surrounded by stunning natural beauty, and we have a history of progressiveness and open-mindedness,” said Donna Sky, who moved to the city from Costa Rica nine years ago and founded the locally produced hummus company Love & Hummus. Local farms also contribute: Many residents care where and how their food is produced and strive to eat food produced nearby.
To that end, many neighbourhoods have their own farmers’ markets, each with a distinctive character. North of the Panhandle – NoPa for short – has a market that’s open throughout the year, whereas the Mission and central Haight-Ashbury (famous for its hippie culture and Victorian houses) have seasonal markets.
All three neighbourhoods are also bike-friendly due to their flat topography, said Jarie Bolander, a long-time Bay Area resident and past president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association. “Each of these neighbourhoods has its own unique vibe,” he said. “NOPA is primarily young professionals and civically minded, while the Haight is a healthy mix of aging hippies and hipsters.”
Cape Town, South Africa
South Africa’s second-largest city is making some of the biggest environmental strides in Africa, in part by pushing for more energy conservation and a greater use of renewable resources. In 2008, Cape Town started using energy from the country’s first commercial wind farm and now aims to get 10% of its energy from renewable resources by 2020.
These efforts are transforming life in the city. “More bike routes are becoming available, farmers markets are very popular, and chefs definitely place a premium on sourcing ingredients and produce locally,” said resident Sarah Khan, who moved to Cape Town from New York City in 2013 and writes The South AfriKhan blog. Still, she believes the city could do more to improve public transportation and prevent the electricity shortages that are becoming increasingly common.
Locals tend to have an “outdoorsy nature” and aren’t afraid to hop on a bike to get around. "The most bike-friendly areas to live within the city are definitely Seapoint and Greenpoint, where there is great cycle infrastructure," said Leonie Mervis, the founder and director of urban cycling campaign Bicycle Cape Town. Though the city centre itself doesn't have as many dedicated cycling routes, bikes are allowed for free on the My CiTi rapid bus service, making the city easy to get around in without a car.
Mervis lives in Hout Bay, a neighbourhood 20km south of the central business district that’s home to many creative types and environmentally conscious residents. "Many people living in our community have solar energy systems and grow their own vegetables," Mervis said. "We also have an environmental committee that works to support green initiatives and rehabilitate and care for the surrounding open space system."