Islands of Green

Ten projects that point the way to a cleaner urban future

The model green city of the future already exists, but you can’t yet find it on a map. It remains in pieces, scattered in urban areas around the world. As novelist William Gibson quipped, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” If you want to glimpse the future of the sustainable city today, these projects are good places to start.

According to data released in June, Portland, Oregon, is the first U.S. city to meet the Kyoto Protocol’s target of reducing carbon emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012, with seven years to spare. Contrary to President Bush’s contention that “Kyoto would have wrecked our economy,” Portland’s leaders say the city has benefited from better public transit, lower energy costs, more green space, and valuable expertise in energy efficiency and green building that is helping local firms win business around the globe. “People have looked at it the wrong way, as a drain,” Mayor Tom Potter told The New York Times. “Actually, it’s something that attracts people,” he said of the effort to lower emissions. “It’s economical; it makes sense in dollars.”

Los Angeles
This desert city that epitomizes car-dependent sprawl is dying of thirst under a layer of concrete. “The rainfall we lose to runoff could provide up to half the water Los Angeles needs,” says Andy Lipkis, head of the group TreePeople, in the Canadian ethical business magazine Corporate Knights (Winter 2005). Lipkis is working with the Los Angeles County government to transform the city from a sea of impermeable pavement into a porous tree-lined sieve that naturally captures, treats, and reuses rainfall. New street drains empty into gravel pits that recharge the water table and prevent flooding, while surface trees absorb floodwater, sequester carbon, and beautify the city.

Drawing on the region’s Amish and Dutch agricultural heritage, this Rust Belt metropolis puts every other U.S. city to shame in the category of local food systems, according to a recent ranking of America’s greenest cities by the group SustainLane. The Burgh boasts seven farmers’ markets, all of which accept food stamps, and a whopping 188 community gardens — one for every 3,000 inhabitants and almost four times as many as runner-up Seattle.

Bogota, Colombia
“Anything you do to make a city more friendly to cars makes it less friendly to people,” says Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Colombia’s capital city. In office from 1998 to 2001, Penalosa led a massive effort to transform Bogota’s infrastructure, including restricting car travel; building numerous parks, bikeways, and pedestrian zones; and creating a high-tech bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Inspired by the BRT in Curitiba, Brazil, Bogota’s BRT cost one-twentieth of an equivalent light rail system. Penalosa and the city used the savings to build new schools and libraries and extended the transit system into poorer outlying areas. In 2000, voters approved referenda declaring an annual car-free day and a ban on all private car traffic during rush hour by 2015.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Built around a cluster of forested hills too steep to develop, the city of Rio contains Tijuca National Park, a remarkably well preserved tract of rainforest that is rich in wildlife — richer, in fact, than anything within many miles of the city. Now the city government is working with the state and landowners to create wildlife corridors to bring some of the city’s biodiversity back out into the surrounding countryside.

Panjim, India
Developing countries hold tremendous potential to leapfrog developed nations’ less sustainable practices. One promising project is an innovative planning process in the Indian state of Goa called Goa 2100. Guided by the principles of “RUrbanism” (the sustainable integration of rural and urban communities), the project’s designers re-imagined Goa’s capital city of Panjim as a living organism “with cells, skeletal structures, circulatory systems, and skin as the metaphors and models for the buildings, neighborhoods, transportation systems, and the meeting points between city and rural or natural spaces.” According to their model, a network of linked cities on India’s west coast could sustainably support over 120 million people, “providing realistic alternatives to megacities like Mumbai.”

Groningen, Netherlands
The Netherlands has done more than any country to promote car-free zones in its cities and towns. Every Dutch city of over 50,000 people has a car-free shopping district, all new towns must incorporate amenities for pedestrians and cyclists, and employers must locate new facilities near transit stops. But the closest thing to a car-free utopia is the university town of Groningen, reports Jay Walljasper in E Magazine (March/April 2005). The city leads the way with 47 percent of all urban trips made by bike, 26 percent on foot, and just 23 percent by car.

Hamburg, Germany
If the cities of the future are going to be nontoxic and waste-free, shouldn’t that include art museums and galleries? RE-ART One (, which bills itself as the world’s first international exhibition of art made from recycled materials, is on display through September 30 at a former recycling plant in the German town of Sietland, near Hamburg. Pieces by 44 artists from 12 countries range from the practical (a messenger bag made from empty foil juice bags sewn together) to the surreal (a metal tree with books dangling from its branches).

Johannesburg, South Africa, & Peabody, England
If everyone lived the way Americans do, we’d need a total of five Earths to sustain ourselves. In an effort to reduce humanity’s ecological footprint, the British-based One Planet Living project is promoting large-scale residential developments around the globe that allow residents to use only their fair share of Earth’s resources. Demonstration OPL projects have been completed in Ivory Park Township, near Johannesburg, South Africa, and Peabody, England — home of the Beddington Zero-Energy Development (BedZED), the world’s largest sustainable housing project.

China’s New Cities
Already home to one-sixth of humanity, China is planning to build housing for 400 million people in the next 12 years. This will require raising a slew of new cities from scratch, and pioneering green architect William McDonough is helping the Chinese government to design seven of them. In a Newsweek interview (May 16, 2005), he explains how, to compensate for farmland lost to urbanization, “we’ll move farms onto rooftops. . . . The farmers can live downstairs. And when you look at the city from a distance, it will look like part of the landscape.”

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