Next year will mark 20 years since the birth of the modern sustainability movement.

 

Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the philosophy of sustaining our limited economic and natural resources has permeated every aspect of government policy. At the local level, it begins with the creation of sustainable cities.

 

Also known as green communities, eco-villages or sustainable development projects, sustainable cities across the globe are tackling a host of issues, including urban sprawl, recycling, watershed planning, energy conservation and pollution prevention.

 

Projects range from increasing reliance on renewable energy to improving public transit and access to healthy food and clean water.

 

More people

With more people living in urban areas than rural as of last year, cities are increasingly considering sustainable practices to keep up with the demand for employment, education, health care, energy and social services.

 

The need is especially pronounced in poorer, urban areas, where slums are a growing concern, says Christopher Williams, director of the New York office of Un-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme.

 

The plethora of organizations worldwide created in the past two decade to address sustainability is matched by their success stories of cities that have transformed their quality of life. The progressive cities of varying sizes are taking a long-term approach to community problems, specifically environmental, economic and social issues.

 

Roots in a movement

While sustainability may trace its roots to the environmental movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the financial recession of the last five years has increased its popularity as the most practical solution to societal challenges and climate change.

 

Unlike the federal government, local municipalities are required to balance their budgets and sustainability initiatives help them maximize their dollars after major cutbacks, says Martin Chavez, executive director of the US office of the Local Governments for Sustainability, an international association of municipalities committed to sustainable development.

 

“Spoiling the environment for short-term revenue gain is penny wise and pound foolish,” Chavez says. “Cities that embrace the principals of sustainability will emerge from economic difficulty more quickly and have a stronger foundation for the next decade.”

 

In Europe

European cities seem to be leading the world in sustainability, Chavez says. Copenhagen, for instance, integrated sustainability across all aspects of planning. Denmark’s capital and largest city justifies long-term costs and benefits while balancing its carbon footprint with its energy usage. The city also is effective at retaining its young adult population, which might otherwise leave for better opportunities overseas, he says.

 

In the United States, the much smaller Grand Rapids, Mich., experienced a downtown revitalization that attracted a medical school and medical facility, boosting the inner-city employment base. A Grand River cleanup and purification effort improved water quality and encouraged outdoor activity, such as walking, along the riverbanks.

 

Citing other examples, Chavez points to Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. They are among the cities embracing the concept of food sourcing to provide low-income families access to higher quality foods at affordable rates. Food sourcing not only targets the obesity epidemic, but benefits the agriculture business.

 

Overseas, Paris has operated a public bicycle rental program for 10 years and New Delhi converted all its taxis to natural compressed gas, Chavez says.

 

Still in infancy

Despite such progress, the sustainability movement is still in its infancy. For example, there aren’t a lot of tools to measure the success of sustainable cities in terms of energy efficiency, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and other reported benefits. But change continues.

 

A new community index allowing cities to compare notes on sustainable practices is being developed by the Local Governments for Sustainability, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Center for American Progress and the National League of Cities.

 

Responding to disaster

Natural disasters such as those in New Orleans and Japan also help guide improvements.

 

“Resilience can make limited dollars have a higher priority for expenditures,” Chavez says.

 

In response to Hurricane Katrina, Miami and Norfolk raised their seawalls. “If you have a good water conservation policy, it’s better than finding out you have an extended drought and need to have one.”

 

All eyes are now on Japan and its resilience after the recent earthquake and tsunami.

 

Chavez predicts the country’s strong sustainable practices will help it ride out the storm. And that’s a standard other sustainable cities can emulate.

 

Know more about sustainable cities? Leave us a note in the comments below.

 

See also:

Global green cities