Thursday, June 15, 2006

Sustainable Cities


We are increasingly becomming a species that lives in cities. The folks over at have a nice review of the 2006 Sustainable Cities listing put together by SustainLane.

SustainaLane released its 2006 sustainability rankings of the US’ fifty largest cities, and the results show that a handful of American cities are positioning themselves as models of sustainable urban development. Portland, Oregon took top honors again, followed by San Francisco and Seattle â€" no surprises there. Completing the top ten list were: 4. Philadelphia 5. Chicago 6. Oakland, Calif. 7. New York 8. Boston 9. Denver 10. Minneapolis.

Once we got past the top three, we began to do a little head-scratching. Top 10 cities Philadelphia and New York made another top 10 list this year: the top 10 most polluted cities as ranked by the American Lung Association. In the next tier, we found that Albuquerque, Tuscon, Phoenix and Los Angeles all made the top 25, and Las Vegas was close behind at #27. Given all of these cities’ reputations for massive amounts of sprawl and water consumption, their placement seemed… well… interesting. Looking at SustainLane’s very thorough overview of its methodology gave us a better sense of how and why some cities fared as well as they did.

From the SustainLane website:

How does SustainLane define sustainability? The SustainLane US City Rankings focus on healthy regional economic development, vibrant communities and quality of life measurements. Our viewpoint of sustainable practices is weighted toward ideas borrowed from our natural systems and implemented in our cities, particularly those geared toward the revitalization of our economy and public health. SustainLane also wants to celebrate the inspirational leaders showing us the way to a better future.

Specifically, we take a look at some of the newer areas generating exciting economic growth opportunities, including the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Environmental & Energy Design) building certification, the fastest growing construction category in the United States. There are several high-rise office building planned in New York City pursuing LEED’s highest (gold and platinum) standards, including the 2.1-million-square foot 56-story Bank of America Tower in Manhattan. With each such LEED project come new technologies, products and services, which benefit the local economy of that metropolitan area, displacing less sustainable industries. Unsustainable enterprises will soon become dinosaurs if they do not quickly learn to adopt more sustainable practices. LEED standards will soon be expanded to include community planning and the residential market, and SustainLane will be right there following these developments, providing measures of success, implementation stories and shared learning opportunities.

Another exciting trend is the national explosion of farmers markets, which according to the US Dept. of Agriculture grew at a clip of 106% from 1994 through 2004. Farmers markets generate $888 million in yearly revenue across the United States (USDA 2005 estimate), and work to bring the consumer in direct contact with those that grow their food. This trend quickens the movement to understanding the complex connections between our daily lifestyles and consumptive habits (the food we prepare and eat every day). As communities become more knowledgeable about sustainability issues, daily individual practices change, and this citizen engagement in turn helps cities move closer to becoming cleaner and more productive environments.

We think Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco (#1 overall in our study) got it right when he told us. Sustainability is important not only for protecting citizens health and ensuring a great quality of life here in San Francisco, but also for boosting the local economy with jobs and services in everything from clean technologies to fresh food and green building products.

Sustainability concerns are driving the development of renewable energy for buildings and clean fuels for vehicles. In Berkeley, California, 200 city trucks burn 100% biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil. Meanwhile, other cities are examining and deploying alternative fuels from corn and agricultural byproducts in vehicle fleets numbering in the thousands, significantly cutting US dependence on increasingly costly fossil fuel sources and reducing local air pollution.

In addition to air and water quality, local food, LEED buildings, renewable energy/climate, and green fleets, SustainLane looked at waste diversion rates. These programs now include not only recycling but also highly innovative composting systems linking city restaurants with regional farmers and vineyards. And, we analyzed planning, zoning, and land use, which impact everything from the availability of recreation opportunities to how much people are dependent, or not dependent, on driving everywhere for everything.

Two final categories, city innovation and knowledgebase, examined how well cities are developing everything from new financial and behavioral incentives, to communications and information management processes and technologies.

It is interesting to note that Detroit ranked second to last in the 2005 survey and in the top 50 in the 2006 survey. While we (Archiopolis Architects) have designed over a dozen new renewable energy systems in the Detroit area over the last year, I don’t think just that would account for such a jump in the rankings.

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