10 Things That Make a Great Green City

Wide expanse of green lawn in New York's Central Park with Manhattan's skyline in the distance under a clear blue sky
New York’s Central Park serves the same purpose for which it was developed in the 19th century, as a green retreat in the busy city.

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According to the United Nations, 55 percent of the world’s population lived in cities in 2018, and that number is expected to increase to 60 percent by 2030. The heavy concentration of residents makes cities massive contributors to overall levels of pollution and CO2 emissions, but also provides the opportunity to enact changes that can have a broad and deep impact. 

Cities can institute green initiatives like making the streets more pedestrian and cycle friendly; maintaining and improving parks and other green spaces; and expanding recycling and composting programs. The local population can support these efforts by doing their part to live sustainably and preserve their city’s natural resources.

Here are 10 things that make a great green city.

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Plentiful Parks

a walking path with several benches in the shade under large, green trees and small bushes at Vienna Stadtpark under a blue sky with white clouds on a summer day

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Parks are the "lungs of the city," architect Frederic Law Olmsted famously said about New York's Central Park. From the 500-year-old Giardino della Guastella in Milan to Vienna's Stadtpark, parks provide both a place for harried city residents to take a deep breath, relax, and connect with nature, and a cooling counter to the heat-island effect created by all that asphalt.

Public green space improve the quality of life of urban dwellers and serve as a buffer against flooding.

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Efficient Public Transportation

subway train at an outdoor station in Copenhagen next to a clean platform walkway with clear glass gates and a clock under an overhang

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Whether they're high-tech or humble, transit solutions that allow people to get around quickly and easily without a car are a key element to a green city. The most sustainable transit systems utilize clean technologies and reduce CO2 emissions.  

Some cities have sleek and shiny metro systems, while others provide bus-only lanes. The best public transit systems meet the needs of the population with reliable service and convenient routes.

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Quality Public Space

aerial view of a shopping area with wide, decorative tile walkways surrounding a green fountain at Strøget in Copenhagen

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Amid all the skyscrapers and busy roadways, a good green city has places that are built (or renovated) to human scale, places where people can safely walk and happily gather.

Whether it's New York's High Line, an old railway bed converted into an aerial walkway, or a popular pedestrian-only shopping area in Copenhagen, such places not only encourage getting around on foot, but reduce the need for large private dwellings by creating communal space for people to enjoy.

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Bike Lanes

two cyclists riding on a marked blue bike lane on the London cycle superhighway

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While the density of cities makes them great in theory for getting around by bike, heavy traffic (and angry drivers) can make cycling unpleasant and even dangerous without designated lanes.

The most bike-friendly cities create separated bike paths, provide safe parking, offer charging stations for e-bikes, institute bike-sharing programs, and allow cyclists to bring their bikes on buses and trains for longer trips.

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High-profile Green Buildings

The San Francisco Federal Building, an eighteen story concrete and metal "green" building under a bright blue sky with cars on the street in the foreground

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Showcase developments that seek to be the biggest, tallest, fill-in-the-blank-iest green buildings may get flak for their aesthetics or be seen simply as "window dressing" for governments and corporations seeking green credibility.

But as long as they're not all a city's doing, prominent, striking eco-friendly structures such as the San Francisco Federal Building or the green roof on Chicago's city hall provide very visible symbols of green intentions and draw attention to the latest technologies.

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Comprehensive Recycling and Composting Programs

Small child standing in front of three large bins labeled: landfill (red), recycling (blue), and compost (yellow).

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Yes, recycling is the classic individual environmental act, but it's not much good without an entity to provide conveniently placed bins and reliable collection.

The greenest city initiatives are going further than gathering cans and bottles, by adding electronics and food waste to the list of items recycled and composted, and by instituting larger-scale programs to recycle water for park and agriculture irrigation.

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Mixed-use and Infill Development

view across the blue water of the harbor of elbphilharmonie Hamburg on the right, a multi-use building completed in 2017, with several brick floors at the lower level and a modern glass tower above, next to new and old buildings in Hamburg's harbor,

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Good planning is key to a green city. While other metropolises sprawl further and further out, Hamburg, Germany has turned an obsolete harbor into a walkable mixed-use neighborhood with office, retail, entertainment, and residential space. Similarly, Atlanta’s Centennial Yards is bringing office, retail, and residential space to the city’s downtown area which already houses a multi-purpose arena and stadium.

Such projects recycle existing space that's already woven into the urban fabric, making them easy to get to and get around.

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Green Leadership

Low angle view of Capitol building in Washington D.C. against a clear blue sky

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Not every city official is going to be a "knight on a shining bicycle" as London Mayor Boris Johnson has been called. But government officials can be heroes in their own right for promoting wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, requiring solar installations on new and renovated buildings, and revitalizing city parks.

An active citizenry provides leadership from the ground up to prod or encourage politicians to develop great green projects.

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Smart Energy Policies

Twelve solar panels, six large and six small, placed on an angle, and three white wind turbines placed on a grass surface under clear blue sky

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Buying renewable energy and mandating efficiency measures are two ways a city can use its economic clout to help build a market for greener products while lowering its own environmental impact (and, often, operating costs). Norway’s sophisticated trash program allows the city’s waste to be burned and converted to energy to heat the city. 

Over 100 U.S. cities and counties have partnered with the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Cities certification program to institute actionable plans to reduce carbon emissions and create sustainable waste, transportation, energy, and water systems.

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Good Green Fun

Variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, including melons, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, and apples, on tables, in boxes, and in bags at a farmer's market

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Going green shouldn't be all work and no play. The best green cities celebrate their eco-friendly lifestyles with farmers' markets full of local tasty treats, bars and restaurants serving the best organic fare, intriguing exhibits by ecologically minded artists, and music festivals that offer bike valet parking and solar-powered stages.