You've no doubt heard about the “greening” of many American cities, in which mayors, neighborhoods, and citizens are adding more green space, comprehensive recycling service, emissions reduction and energy efficiency programs, bike trails, green buildings, alternative energy, gardens…you name it. The international group Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), which provides cities with the technical assistance to go green, reports growing steadily from its founding in 1990 until 2007, when membership suddenly doubled in a single year to more than a thousand governments worldwide; some 350 of those are in the US, and they’re not the usual suspects.

An increasingly diverse cross-section of American cities are taking bold steps and actually reshaping themselves in a new, lower carbon-emitting mold. We looked across the country and chose a handful of cities that are taking the most ground-breaking, innovative approaches to confronting climate change. We looked for initiatives that are practical, relatively easy to implement, and as easy to replicate. The unsung, forward-thinking locales on this list just might surprise you. 

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – That's right, our green tour starts in the rust belt. Steel town might be the 57th most populous city in the nation, but it ranks number eight in terms of green building (as measured by the amount of LEED-certified floor space in the city). The green building movement traces some of its roots back to this town, where the Green Building Alliance originally formed in the 90s with the help of local philanthropists led by the Heinz family. Local governments saw the writing on the green-built walls and encouraged the movement through zoning incentives that reward green building and investments in new green facilities for conventions and other public uses.

The South Bronx, New York – For most, the image of the Bronx (perhaps New York's grittiest borough) is anything but green. The non-profit Sustainable South Bronx set about to change that: quite literally it added more green to the cityscape.  The group runs twin initiatives to create green roofs throughout the city and  trains residents for green jobs – so far, they've given 70 workers new job skills to start 'planting' roofs and more. And with new tax credits in New York for green roofs, they're ready to tackle the potential 16,000 acres atop the city – that's an area bigger than Central Park.

Portland, Oregon – Captain of the team in the climate change battle in many ways, and most visibly through its love affair with bicycles. Bike lanes, bike-friendly policies, and other investments doubled the number of people on two skinny wheels cruising the Rose City in just six years – the city now sees 14,000 cyclists cross its four bike-friendly bridges each day. Employees here are  eight times more likely to bike to work.

Boulder, Colorado – This mountain Mecca was the first city to put a carbon tax in place when voters approved the measure back in 2006. Former Mayor Mark Ruzzin oversaw the implementation of programs that used funding from the tax, including the “Boulder Energy Brigade,” which sends volunteers door to door with free kits containing compact fluorescent bulbs, weather stripping, and other energy savers. He says Boulder “had some good success with this program in getting those kind of measures into homes and increasing awareness.” Building on that success, another program offers low or no cost energy audits to residents.

Eugene, Oregon - Mayor Kitty Piercy's government and the local community are teaming up to create a city that is carbon neutral with zero waste by 2020. “We have been working on a totally green fleet for city government, we use LED lighting, we have green building policies, we capture methane to use for energy here, we have an outstanding recycling reuse program,” Piercy boasts. Her 'Mayor's Climate Challenge' to local businesses and residents has helped energize this already green town towards hitting the 2020 goal.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Here brotherly love means sharing the fruits of brotherly labor.  Those in the know see the city as a leader in urban agriculture, keeping two dozen community gardens in trust to safeguard the land from development. But that's just a start – 465 community vegetable gardens and over a thousand flower gardens are maintained with the help of 618 families around the city. It's estimated that over $1.5 million pounds of food have been produced from Philadelphia's urban gardens.

Austin, Texas – A green leader going beyond the typical carbon-cutting policies by marketing, lobbying, and promoting one specific product: plug-in hybrids. The city and a few others are campaigning to convince consumers, government agencies and anyone else who will listen to purchase plug-in hybrids when they finally hit showroom floors in order to create  a market big enough to keep the vehicles from being shelved.

Sundry Notables - Road rage is a foreign concept in parts of Arlington County, Virginia – that's because about 40 percent of residents commute on public transit and another 10 percent or so hoof it, thanks to investments in transit service to Washington, D.C. and smart land-use planning around transit stops. Other cities and states like Texas, New Jersey and Klamath Falls, Oregon are also making big investments in tapping whatever renewable resources are available. Not all locations are ideal for wind or solar, but more communities are taking advantage of what they do have at their disposal. The Lone Star state has become a leader in wind power generation, unlikely Jersey has made an aggressive solar push and succeeded in doubling their sun-powered capacity in just two years, and Klamath Falls surveyed their options and tapped into the area's geothermal resources. Up next, look for Nevada to be transformed from the Silver State to the “Solar State.”

Story by Eric Mack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Green cities: Taking the fight to the streets
Green city initiatives are spreading across the nation.