In New Study, San Francisco Tops List of Greenest Cities in the U.S. and Canada


A new comprehensive study commissioned by Siemens and conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit compared 27 of the most populous U.S. and Canadian cities on environmental performance over nine categories, including CO2 emissions, energy, land use, buildings, transport, water, waste, air quality and environmental governance. The study found that San Francisco is the “greenest” of the big cities in U.S. and Canada. Other cities in the top ten (in descending order): Vancouver, New York, Seattle, Denver, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Toronto, and Minneapolis.

Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens, said the report shows that cities are at the forefront of efforts to become more sustainable. “Despite the fact that we do not have a federal climate policy in the United States—and no federal carbon standard—21 of the 27 cities in the index have already set their own carbon reduction targets. Cities are creating comprehensive sustainability plans, utilizing current technology and proving everyday that we don’t have to wait to create a more sustainable future.”

Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit conclude that the best performing cities have “comprehensive sustainability plans that encompass every aspect of creating a greener future including transportation, land use, energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, and water.”

An advisory group including some high-profile thinkers on sustainable urban development, including Harvard University’s Andreas Georgoulias (Zofnass Program for Sustainable Transportation) and landscape architect Gareth Doherty (“Ecological Urbanism“), Rich Kassel from NRDC, Tom Wright from the Regional Plan Association, Don Chen at Ford Foundation, NYU’s Rae Zimmerman, and Mark Allen Hughes at University of Pennsylvania helped create the nine catgories used for evaluation, which were based in 31 individual indicators — “16 of which are quantitative (e.g. consumption of water and electricity per capita, recycling rate, and use of public transportation) and 15 qualitative (e.g. CO2 reduction targets, efficiency standards and incentives for buildings, and environmental governance).”

The report compares performance across cities but also provides some in-depth profiles on the 27 cities, with details on their strengths and weaknesses.

Some general conclusions about the top-ranking cities:

  • “There is a correlation between how cities perform in the U.S. and Canada Green City Index and their income (as measured by GDP per capita). Wealthier cities can afford better projects – environmental or otherwise.”
  • “In the U.S., cities on both coasts, such as San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Boston, rank at the top. Part of this is economic: these are also some of the wealthiest cities. The strength of the east coast cities, however, tells an important story about how local governments have successfully integrated environmental programs into broader development strategies to simultaneously revitalize their economies and make urban areas more livable.”
  • “Confronted with the long-term decline in the manufacturing economy, cities have introduced sustainability efforts in an attempt to increase their competitive advantage, thereby
    attracting jobs and stimulating economic growth.”

Areas where U.S. and Canadian cities excel in comparison with Europe, Africa, and Asia:

  • “Water infrastructure, recycling levels and environmental governance mechanisms are comparable to the best cities the Green City Indexes have evaluated around the world. For example, the average leakage rate, 13%, is lower than in any other continent and 26% of waste is recycled, compared with 28% for the 15 richest cities in Europe.”
  • “Americans and Canadians are also innovating in the area of urban sustainability, as the exemplar projects show. For Americans in particular, though, with their long tradition of private sector and non-governmental organization (NGO) activity, this innovation is not always through government institutions.”

Findings on CO2 emissions:

  • “On average, residents of all Index cities emit 14.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita annually. The difference between U.S. and Canadian cities is large, with the former emitting 16 metric tons per person and the latter only about half that much, at 8.1 metric tons.”
  • “On the policy side, 26 of the 27 U.S. and Canada Index cities measure carbon dioxide emissions to some extent, and 21 out of 27 have set a carbon reduction target seperate to any national target.”

Findings on energy use:

  • “Most cities have only partial or even no policies to promote the use of green energy in homes or businesses through subsides or tax breaks. Projects to increase locally produced energy are also typically underdeveloped. Only three cities – Denver, Orlando and Toronto – score full marks in these areas.”

Findings on land use:

  • “U.S. and Canada Index cities have large amounts of green space – although often this is combined with low population density. Consistent with this, they tend to have good policies on parks and trees but are less active in containing urban sprawl.”
  • “On average 12% of the area of Index cities is green space.”
  • Some cities are able to mix higher density with maintaining parkland: New York and San Francisco are the two highest density cities, but 20% and 17% of their areas are green spaces, respectively. More often, though, low-density cities tend to have more space for parks and other green areas.”
  • “All but one city has at least some policy to sustain and improve the quantity and quality of green space, and two thirds have active tree planting programs. The latter can be quite large: MillionTreesNYC seeks to plant and care for a million trees over the next decade.”

Findings on green buildings:

  • “Most cities are encouraging residents to have more energy efficient buildings, but are not requiring energy audits in which buildings are inspected for energy usage. Moreover, widespread regulations on the energy efficiency of new structures are not leading to a large number of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings.”
  • “All but a handful of cities provide residents with energy efficiency education and incentives to retrofit, as did European cities with comparable incomes.”
  • “All but four cities regulate energy consumption for new buildings.”
  • “Less common in the U.S. and Canada, however, are comprehensive requirements for energy audits: just three Index cities require such audits.”

Findings on transportation:

  • “Policies to promote green transportation are widespread in U.S. and Canada Index cities, but these have little effect in practice. Although many U.S. cities have ambitious goals to expand public transport, strained city budgets have prevented them from investing sufficiently in these infrastructure projects. Both U.S. and Canadian cities also face a cultural battle, with most citizens seeing no need to get out of their cars.”
  • “All but three cities provide at least some support for the use of public transport, and all but one encourage the public to use green means of getting around, as well as providing green public transport vehicles. The presence of most of these policies is as widespread as in the wealthier cities of Europe.”
  • “Even more common than in Europe are incentives for efficient car use (all but two cities have such incentives) and road traffic management measures (all but one have them).”

Findings on water:

  • “U.S. and Canadian cities have efficient water infrastructure and robust policies regarding water conservation. Nevertheless, their water consumption is far higher than in Asia, Latin America or Europe.”
  • “Residents of Index cities use an average of 155 gallons of water per person per day, although the range is very wide, with the best performer, New York, at 69 gallons per person per day, consuming less than one quarter of the Index city with the highest water consumption.”

Findings on waste:

  • “Index cities have robust waste policies and do very well in terms of recycling when compared with global figures.”
  • “Nine out of 27 cities get full marks in all waste policy areas and only one city scores no points.”
  • “On average 26% of waste is recycled in all cities in the Index, compared with 28% in the wealthier European cities.”
  • “Two cities, San Francisco, at 77%, and Los Angeles, at 62%, recycle a higher amount of waste than any city in the European or German Green City Index except one, Leipzig, at 81%. Two other cities recycle over half of their waste –Vancouver, at 55%, and Seattle, at 51%.

Findings on air:

  • “Air quality is an area of strong policy focus in Index cities, and denser cities have had some success in reducing particulate matter and nitrogen oxides emissions.”
  • “All but three cities have some form of air quality policy and 20 Index cities even score full marks for this measure.”

Findings on environmental governance:

  • “In their efforts to manage environmental governance, U.S. and Canada Index cities are comparable to those of the high-income European cities. This, along with other areas of strong policy, suggests that environmental performance in the U.S. and Canada Index cities should improve.”
  • “The vast majority of cities have environmental strategies – at least to some degree. In particular, every city has some type of environmental contact point, all but one have an environmental authority, and all but two have an environmental plan endorsed by the mayor.”

The report also presents a set of “exemplar projects.” In one category, land use, NYC’s MillionTrees campaign was highlighted as a success story, along with Washington, D.C.’s CapitalSpace, San Francisco’s Victory Garden project (see earlier post), Denver’s South Platte River revitalization and brownfield redevelopment initiatives (see earlier post), and Vancouver’s EcoDensity Charter, a program for reducing sprawl, among others. 

In each city profile, cities are ranked on how well they do in each of the nine categories. For example, Washington, D.C., which ranked 8th overall, got top marks among all cities for its smart environmental governance, as well as 3rd on green buildings.

The report points out that the district’s leadership is unified around the “city’s overall environmental strategy, called the Climate of Opportunity.” The city also offers a “baseline review, continuous reporting and strong targets.” District environmental policymakers actively reach out to communities and request “input into its environmental policies through public notices and hearings.” The D.C. govenment has also asked local residents and businesses to actually go beyond providing feedback and help craft the city’s overall environmental strategy. “Furthermore the city has a dedicated environmental department, the District Department of the Environment.”

The district’s green building performance may also get a futher boost with the upcoming opening of a new district green building and sustainable site learning center aimed at design and building professionals.

Read the report

Image credit: Dolores Park, San Francisco / Something for the Eyes. Randy Calderone

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