EarthTalk: What is the ‘green cities’ movement?

Since 1970s, loose association of conservation-minded urban areas has grown up worldwide.

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    The skyline in Curitiba, Brazil, is accentuated by green spaces with extensive gardens and free-flowing waterfalls in a park near the city's botanical gardens.
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Q: What is the “green cities” movement?
John Moulton, Greenwich, Conn.

A: A loose association of cities focused on sustainability, the “green cities” movement encompasses thousands of urban areas around the world all striving to lessen their environmental impacts by reducing waste, recycling more, cutting emissions, increasing housing density while expanding open space, and encouraging the development of sustainable local businesses.

Perhaps the archetypal green city is Curitiba, Brazil. When architect and urban planner Jamie Lerner became mayor in 1972, he closed six blocks of the city’s central business district to cars, delighting residents and business owners alike. Today the car-free zone is three times larger and is the heart of this bustling metropolis. Mayor Lerner also put in place a high-tech bus system, greatly reducing traffic and pollution; the move also encouraged density around transit hubs, thereby preserving open space in other areas. Today, three-quarters of the city’s 2.2 million residents use the bus daily.

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Another green cities leader is Rekjavík, Iceland, where hydrogen-powered buses ply the streets and renewable energy sources – geothermal and hydropower – provide the city’s heat and electricity. Other green cities include: London; Copenhagen, Denmark; Sydney, New South Wales; Barcelona, Spain; Bogotá, Colombia; Bangkok, Thailand; Malmo, Swe­­den; Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador; and Kampala, Uganda.

Green cities abound in North America, too. In 2005, Portland, Ore., became the first US city to meet CO2 reduction goals set forth in the landmark Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement forged to mitigate the threat of global warming. Seattle also committed to meeting Kyoto’s goals and has persuaded 590 other US cities to do the same under the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Vancouver, British Columbia, draws 90 percent of its power from renewable sources while its metro area boasts some 200 parks and more than 18 miles of accessible waterfront.

San Francisco is a leader in green building, energy efficiency, and alternative energy. Chicago has invested hundreds of millions revitalizing parks and neighborhoods. But many would argue that New York City – with its densely packed housing, reliance on mass transit and walking, and recent green policy moves by Mayor Michael Bloomberg – may be the greenest of all.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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