Amidst the global climate crisis, there is always a need and opportunity to build a greener future. Cities around the world are developing and enhancing sustainable practices and spreading environmental values to citizens in order to have a positive impact on the Earth. Let’s take a look at some of the most eco-friendly cities on all seven continents, what we can learn, and how these cities earned their sustainable status.
Antarctica does not have cities, as it is a ”natural reserve devoted to peace and science”. However, environmental changes as well as the development of the continent’s first zero emission research station can teach us something about the extent of human environmental impact and motivate a mindset that sustainable living is possible anywhere.
Antarctica (although uninhabitable due to extreme cold) is an important natural laboratory protected by the Antarctic Treaty which governs human activity in order to limit negative environmental impact. Regardless of this attempt to preserve the Antarctic region, global climate change caused by human action has increased the average air temperature of the Antarctic Peninsula by 3 degrees celsius in the last 50 years. Rising temperatures have caused ice shelf breakage which in turn causes glaciers behind these ice shelves to increase their flow-rate and add to sea-level rise as they melt amidst global warming. In fact, immediately following the recent conclusion of the hottest ten year period on record, the highest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was registered in February of 2020 as 18.3 degrees celsius (64.9 degrees fahrenheit) at the northernmost tip of the Peninsula, resulting in extensive melting of glaciers which has unfortunately become increasingly commonplace. The Antarctic continent functions as an indicator of impending global environmental changes and challenges as the temperature increase in the region is roughly ten times faster than the average in the rest of the world. However, this is simultaneously concerning as Antarctica experiences negative effects of climate change that will become progressively prevalent in the future.
In addition to serving as a reflection of the prospective world, the development of Antarctica’s first zero emission research station demonstrates the fact that sustainable living can be made possible anywhere in the world. The Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station is covered in solar panels above the snowy ground in order to absorb and convert the 24 hours of daylight in summer into electricity. Wind turbines penetrate beneath the snow into water which is subsequently filtered and reused on site at the research station to reduce waste. The Princess Elisabeth is also notable for its use of 100% renewable energy supplied by sun, wind, and frozen water. Not only the station, but also every piece of electrical equipment functions on renewable energy, and the need for conventional heating is mitigated by the nine layers of insulation protecting the station from the cold.
The continent of Antarctica, although dedicated to research and void of any cities or towns, is a unique example of the impact of the global climate crisis while also a hopeful emblem of the potential for humans to prioritize and implement sustainable development regardless of natural conditions.
Gabrovo, Bulgaria and Lappeenranta, Finland
The European Green Capital recognized the municipalities of Gabrovo, Bulgaria and Lappeenranta, Finland as the recipients of the European Green Leaf Award for 2021, which acknowledges “commitment to better environmental outcomes, with a particular accent on efforts that generate green growth and new jobs”. The European Green Leaf Award emphasizes three primary objectives including a cities’ demonstration of commitment to environmental values, the active development of citizens’ environmental education and awareness, and the ability of a city to act in the role of global ‘green ambassador’ in order to encourage cities around the world to progress towards sustainable advancement.
Located in central Bulgaria at the base of the Balkan Mountains, Gabrovo is recognized for its livability and dedication to positive environmental impact. The Technical University of Gabrovo is a leader in the research and development of energy-saving technologies and coordinates with city industries focused on environmental protection, sustainable transportation, preservation of natural green space, and clean technologies. The city even rewards residents who hand in obsolete appliances and electronics in exchange for vouchers providing discounts on energy-efficient models. Furthermore, 50% of Gabrovo’s territory is covered by beech tree ecosystems and 1,300 plant species which provide a scenic natural terrain that is enjoyed by hikers and adventurers alike. The municipality’s long-term vision is to become a benchmark for innovative and sustainable living through community involvement and the provision of eco-friendly and efficient public infrastructure including transportation, education, and cultural services which will enhance the lives of citizens.
Lappeenranta, Finland has taken an active role in reducing its environmental impact and making positive contributions to the climate. Lappeenranta University of Technology launched its Green Campus concept in 2011 which devises sustainable solutions to global challenges by demonstrating how science, technology, and business can integrate and create a more sustainable world. The Campus seeks to achieve carbon neutrality at the university by 2024. Lappeenranta as a city aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% compared to its 2007 level by 2030. The city incorporates environmental values in its functioning by developing waste treatment methods that have made the rate of recycling one of the highest in Finland at 90%, constructing wetlands for stormwater runoff management, and providing education regarding environmental issues and sustainable development within the curriculum of Green Flag schools. Cycling and walking have evolved into primary modes of transport as Lappeenranta was named Cycling City of the Year in 2015, 70% of district heating produced is carbon neutral, and all of the municipality’s residents live within 200 m. of green space.
Curitiba, Brazil, although initially intended to resemble the bustling capital city of Brasilia, has evolved into one of the most renowned sustainable cities in South America. The city has excelled at limiting carbon emissions and protecting biodiversity of the region, and while Curitiba has been a long-time cultural and economic center in Brazil, today it is regarded as one of the most innovative cities since the implementation of Mayor Jaime Lerner’s plan to create a sustainable city. One of the most impactful efforts in Curitiba is the bus rapid transit system, which uses express lanes for quick boarding and cheap tickets that has significantly decreased emissions. Furthermore, Curitiba has planted 1.5 million trees since the 1970’s in addition to building 28 parks. The urban city center has been intentionally surrounded by fields of grass to combat flooding and has mitigated the environmental expense of installing large dams. Curitiba also recycles roughly 70% of its waste as the result of a program which allows for the exchange of bus tokens, notebooks, and food in return for recycling. Moreover, Curitiba has prioritized environmental education with the city’s Free University for the Environment which empower’s city residents and teaches sustainability while “encouraging a culture of pride” around spreading knowledge to maintain the city’s green status.
Vancouver, Canada is renowned for having the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any major city in North America, functioning on 90% renewable energy due to the city’s supply of hydroelectric power. Vancouver’s Climate Action Team formed the Greenest City Action Plan with recommendations for carbon pricing, instructions for sustainable mass transit, building, and energy solutions, and targets for Vancouver to become a fully green economy. This Canadian metropolis is aiming to become the greenest city in the world and was the first major North American city to commit to the use of 100% renewable energy for production and consumption needs. The urban planning of Vancouver aligns with its sustainable mindset, as the city is designed based on the concept of eco-density which refers to constructing vertical energy-efficient buildings as opposed to urban sprawl with the goal of all buildings being carbon neutral by 2030. The focus on smart urban design extends itself into the realm of residents’ lifestyle as 92% of locals live within five minutes of public green space and biking and walking are encouraged through the implementation of over 279 miles of bike trails, widened sidewalks, and high-density city centers. Vancouver’s next goal is to have 66% of all trips made by walking, cycling, or public transit by 2040. Through innovation and sustainable urban design, Vancouver has become one of the greenest and most livable cities in North America, and it only hopes to become greener!
The Singapore Green Plan 2030 is exemplary of the island’s movement to advance sustainable development. The plan is composed of five initiatives: City in Nature, Sustainable Living, Energy Reset, Green Economy, and Resilient Future. These concepts combine to build sustainable homes for Singaporeans, use clean energy, reduce carbon emissions, create new green jobs, and enhance climate resilience. Singapore turns these ambitions into actions by becoming a center for green finance in Asia, introducing an Enterprise Sustainability Programme to encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices, increasing the use of solar power to generate 2GWp (gigawatt-peak), and doubling the number of electric vehicle charging stations. Additionally, in the coming years Singapore will plant one million more trees, reduce waste sent to landfill by 30%, make at least 20% of schools carbon-neutral, and have all newly-registered cars be cleaner-energy models in the interest of building a sustainable future. As a global business hub and leading economy in Asia, Singapore also plans to develop Green Finance by increasing the financial sector’s resilience to climate change, expanding green financial solutions, and leveraging innovation and technology for a cleaner world.
Rwanda, East-Central Africa
Rwanda has consistently valued the environment, climate change, and the development of sustainable resilience at the forefront of its policies and plans. Not only was Rwanda one of the first countries to ban the use of plastic bags, but in order to preserve its forests and wetlands, Rwandan citizens plant millions of trees each year. The country seeks to become a developed, climate-concerned nation characterized by a low-carbon economy by the year 2050. Rwanda first banned plastic bags in 2008 in favor of bags made from paper, cloth, banana leaves, and papyrus, and although this may seem like a small initiative, the ban helped the capital of Kigali earn the status of one of the cleanest cities in Africa by UN Habitat. Rwanda has also aimed to increase forest coverage to 30% and has incorporated a reforestation initiative in addition to sustainable measures in agroforestry and forest management which earned the nation the Future Policy Award from World Future in 2011. Due to its severe vulnerability to climate change, Rwanda has established the Green Fund, an investment stock which supports the growth of a green economy and a low-carbon social and economic path. Rwanda does succeed in having one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world, with residents individually generating less than 0.1 tons of carbon in 2017. In comparison, the average resident in the U.K produced 5.82 tons of carbon the same year. Rwanda’s commitment to prioritizing sustainable development has allowed the country to begin building an economy that can sustain the evolving climate crisis as well as create a socially responsible population for the country’s prosperity in the future.
Canberra has been ranked not merely among the most sustainable cities in Oceania, but among the most sustainable cities in the world. Based on an index analyzing energy, transportation infrastructure, affordability, pollution, air quality, CO2 emissions, and available green space, the UK company Uswitch determined that the capital was the world’s most sustainable city in 2021. Not only does Canberra utilize renewable energy sources including wind and solar power to sustain city development, but 86.6% of public transport infrastructure is green. Outside of Europe, Canberra is leading the way in achieving sourcing 100% of its electricity from renewable sources in its transition away from a fossil fuel based supply. The capital also demonstrated low pollution levels, scoring 13.89 on the pollution index meaning only 13.89 particles of air out of every 100 are polluted. The ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Government is committed to adapting city practices to minimize impact on the changing environment by implementing water-conserving technologies, increasing access to affordable and energy-efficient housing, seeking to reduce the urban heat island effect, encouraging the use of cycling and walking as primary modes of transport, and improving waste management and collection.
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Want to learn more?
European Green Leaf Award – European Commission
Gabrovo, Bulgaria: European Green Leaf 2021 Award Winner – Ecocities Emerging
Lappeenranta Green Reality – green and active Lappeenranta – Green Reality
European Green Leaf Winner 2021 – European Green Leaf Brochure
Sustainability in Curitiba, Brazil – The Borgen Project
Green City: Vancouver, Canada – Green City Times
A City of Green Possibilities – Green Plan
Five Ways Rwanda is Leading on Green Growth – World Economic Forum
Canberra Judged Most Sustainable City in the World – Smart Cities World
Canberra Revealed As World’s Most Sustainable City – Canberra Weekly
Canberra Named World’s Most Sustainable City – The Canberra Times