San Francisco has been ranked as the greenest city in North America

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Wealthy American cities
can afford to be greener

A report by the Economic Intelligence Unit and Siemens*

3 July 2011: San Francisco won the title of ‘greenest’ major city in North America, with Vancouver, New York City, Seattle and Denver completing the top five cities in the 2011 US & Canada Green City Index. The study of US and Canadian cities provides some important key findings. Notably, cities that performed best in the rankings are the ones that have comprehensive sustainability plans that encompass every aspect of creating a greener future including transportation, land use, energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, and water.

There is a correlation between how cities perform in the US and Canada Green City Index and their income (as measured by GDP per capita). Wealthier cities can afford better projects – environmental or otherwise. They are also more able to deploy well-financed departments with relevant expertise to introduce and monitor appropriate environmental policies. In the US, for example, municipal governments are able to set their own environmental priorities and budgets, and consequently wealthier cities are able to devote more resources to environmental topics. “A lot of environmental performance in the US is based on the individual actions of cities rather than a centrally regulated and monitored system,” says Andreas Georgoulias, a lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Uni- versity Graduate School of Design. A stronger local economy, therefore, enables cities to embark on projects and make environmental investments with higher costs and longer time horizons.

The greenest cities in North America
San Francisco
New York City
Los Angeles
Washington DC
St Louis
Source: EIU / Siemens

However, the link between income and overall Index scores is weaker in the US and Canada than it is in either Europe or Asia. Relatively low-income Vancouver, for example, ranks second overall, suggesting that other factors have a significant influence on the results. What might these factors be? There are a couple of possibilities.

First, there are differences in environmental priorities between US and Canadian cities. Canadians are more aligned with Europeans when it comes to carbon emissions and energy use. They are more willing than Americans to invest in emissions reductions and energy efficiency. On the other hand US cities prioritize different environmental areas like water and air quality.

A second important factor is that, in the US, environmental ambition is often wrapped up with other public policy goals such as economic development and poverty alleviation, especially in lower-income cities. As Mark Hughes, senior fellow at the PennDesign and TC Chan Center of the University of Pennsylvania, explains, urban planners and policymakers see environmental sustainability as part of a more cohesive attempt to address a range of problems. He presents the example of Philadelphia, which despite its high poverty rate does better than some more affluent cities in the Index in areas such as land use and environmental governance. In Philadelphia, he says, “sustainability is about poverty reduction not carbon reduction.” Across the US, he argues, “there are high- and low-income constituencies for sustainability.” In other words, this connection between sustainability and development means that lower- income cities will address environmental issues as part of a larger strategy to tackle poverty.

In the US, cities on both coasts, such as San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Boston, rank at the top. Part of this is economic: these are also some of the wealthiest cities. The strength of the east coast cities, however, tells an important story about how local governments have successfully integrated environmental programs into broader development strategies to simultaneously revitalize their economies and make urban areas more livable. Dr Hughes recalls that west coast cities used to have significantly better environ- mental records than those in the North-East. Cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, influenced by the US conservationist movement, which was born in the American west, were more concerned about the impact that urban growth had on the surrounding environment. The Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental organizations in the US, was founded in San Francisco in the 19th century, and the roots of Portland’s comprehensive land use policy can be traced to the start of the last century.

In the past decade, however, eastern and north- eastern cities have begun to address sustain- ability problems more vigorously. The catalyst has not been merely concern for the environment. Confronted with the long-term decline in the manufacturing economy, cities have introduced sustainability efforts in an attempt to increase their competitive advantage, thereby attracting jobs and stimulating economic growth. In particular, older cities have tried to revitalize urban infrastructure dating back well over a century, such as narrow streets, compact lots, and vertical commercial and residential buildings. Once viewed as unpleasant constraints on development, these are now regarded as the building blocks of a more sustainable urban environment – decreasing the cost of energy and transportation for businesses and citizens residing in the city.

The Index results illustrate how effective these integrated approaches can be: cities from both coasts have converged – a remarkable feat of catch-up for the easterners. There remain some differences in emphasis. New York and Boston, for example, now do particularly well on land use, which is a weaker area for west coast cities. West coast cities in contrast are trailblazers in recycling. Overall, though, the results are very similar.

This is more than just history – it suggests a way ahead for some of those cities ranked low in the Index. Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit share things in common beyond geographic proximity. These cities have seen their traditional sources of economic growth decline in recent decades, and have been confronted with formidable challenges, including population loss and shrinking city budgets. As with the high performers in the Index, environmental issues are just one part of a mix of sometimes difficult hurdles. The experience of their peers suggests, however, that the solution will likely need to be a holistic one that includes a consideration of sustainability as an integral element from the beginning, rather than as something to be considered once the economy is back on track.

Environmental problems in US and Canadian cities are well-documented: greenhouse gas emissions are high by any standard and urban sprawl remains a challenge. However, US and Canadian cities excel in several areas. Water infrastructure, recycling levels and environmental governance mechanisms are comparable to the best cities the Green City Indexes have evaluated around the world. For example, the average leakage rate, 13%, is lower than in any other continent and 26% of waste is recycled, compared with 28% for the 15 richest cities in Europe.

Americans and Canadians are also innovating in the area of urban sustainability, as the exemplar projects show. For Americans in particular, though, with their long tradition of private sector and non-governmental organization (NGO) activity, this innovation is not always through government institutions. For example, the Clinton Foundation – an American NGO – recently joined forces with C40 Cities, an organization of large global cities committed to combating climate change. Similarly, Dr Georgoulias of Harvard points to the Leadership in Energy and

Canadian cities have a reputation for being more environmentally conscious than US cities, but a first glance at the Index tells a different story. Vancouver, which is one of five Canadian cities in the Index, placed second overall, but the other four are clustered around the middle of the ranking. If wealth is taken into account, however, all of the Canadian cities punch well above their weight. Despite an average per capita GDP $7,000 lower than the average of the 22 US cities in the Index, Canadian cities rank nine to ten places higher than they would be expected to given their lower income. One factor in Canadian cities’ strong performance could be their robust environmental policies. Canadian cities have higher policy scores on average – at 78 points out of 100 overall, compared with 70 for American cities, which demonstrates the commitment they have made to improving environmental performance. Another factor could be cultural differences in attitudes towards willingness to accept environ- mental regulations, but here it is important to avoid over-simplification.

Canadians certainly have a long history of environmental activism – Greenpeace was born in Vancouver in 1970 – but the modern environmental movement in the US, especially in the west, also grew up in the 1960s and both countries have conservation movements reaching back over a century.

*More information on the U.S. and Canada Green City Index:

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