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As we look for eco-friendly locations, we often focus on countries with bold sustainability goals and initiatives. There are, however, many cities in these countries that take a green policy stance. It’s easier to see how a world without fossil fuels, vehicle reliance, and waste management can work on this smaller, city-scale.
We’ve rounded up some of the most sustainable cities in the world. These are cities that have low Co2 emissions, renewable energy sources, building standards, efficient transportation, sustainable waste management, good air quality, and plenty of green space.
Some of these cities have been committed to sustainability for decades. Others have recently become more conscious and have taken measures to meet their goals.
Here are 9 of the world’s most eco-friendly cities from every continent.
…for planning to be the world’s first carbon-neutral city
Named the most eco-friendly city in 2021, Copenhagen is set to be carbon-neutral by 2025. The city is one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities, with 62% of residents using a bike as their primary method of transportation. Public transport in Copenhagen is also green: hydrogen-powered taxis and electric buses. Copenhagen’s strict building practices mean most architecture is efficient. Plus, more than half of the waste in Copenhagen is recycled.
… for 50+ years of sustainable planning
The city of Freiburg has long been regarded as the best city in terms of sustainable urban development for decades. The “gateway to the Black Forest,” Freiburg has made eco-friendly planning decisions since the 1970s, and you can tell. Freiburg has twice as many bikes as cars and makes it easy to cycle everywhere – something they planned intentionally after the war. The new buildings in the city follow aggressive eco-friendly designs.
And if you’ve ever wondered what an eco-friendly oasis looks like, visit the neighborhood of Vauban in Freiburg. With rooftop gardens, food-sharing pantries, organic waste digesters, conflict workshops, co-op supermarkets, and virtually no cars. Vauban is as eco-friendly as it gets.
… for 100% renewable energy
Reykjavik is almost 100% powered by renewable energy, most of this coming from hydropower and the rest from geothermal power, thanks to Iceland’s initiatives. The city is committed to green transportation methods with hydrogen buses and walking and biking routes – there’s also free parking for electric vehicles. The city plans to have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
San Francisco, USA
… for planning to make landfills obsolete
San Francisco has focused on becoming eco-friendly and is now one of the greenest cities in the US. The city has banned plastic bags and water bottles, and 77% of garbage is recycled in San Francisco. They hope to ban landfills by 2030 completely. The city is easy to navigate without a car, with excellent public transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian walkways. San Francisco is committed to renewable energy. City buildings use solar panels, and many residents use renewable energy to power their homes.
… for lowest greenhouse gas emissions in North America
Vancouver has been named the world’s greenest city multiple times, with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any major North American city. Eco-friendly housing and public transportation, bike lanes, and easy-to-walking paths lower their carbon footprint. Vancouver has one of the highest recycling rates in the world at 60%. The city also emphasizes local food and supports nearby farmers.
… for recycling and eco-friendly transportation
Curitiba is one of the larger cities on the list, but they’ve set themselves apart with their focus on eco-friendly urban planning. It’s easy to get around the city with highly efficient public transportation, bike, and pedestrian lanes. In fact, the city won the 2010 Sustainable Transport Award for having the best sustainable public transportation in the world. The fields around Curitiba used to prevent flooding are “mowed” by grazing sheep, and the sheep’s manure and wool are used for the city and farms. The city has planted 1.5 million trees throughout the region, and its recycling program is one of the most efficient in the world. Over 70% of all garbage is recycled in Curitiba.
Cape Town, South Africa
… for increasing renewable energy and sustainable transportation
Harnessing their own natural resources, Cape Town uses wind farms to power some of the city. The city has invested in cleaner public transport and bike and pedestrian lanes. They’re also retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy-efficient. Cape Town’s focus on sustainable food includes substantial initiatives supporting and promoting local farms and produce. Considered the greenest city in Africa, the city is proactively planning for growth with sustainable housing and plenty of green space – it still has a while to go, though.
… for water reclamation and green spaces
The Sustainable Singapore Green Plan has focused on eco-friendly initiatives since 1972. The city focuses on more green space, less pollution, better transportation, and using its resources effectively. The many green spaces and trees are one of the highest for such a deeply populous area. The city aims to create a garden city with thousands of green roofs. Singapore also recycles 40% of its water with its water reclamation system. Singapore still has a long way to go before fully committing to green initiatives. It is nevertheless considered Asia’s most eco-friendly city.
Wellington, New Zealand
… for increasing biodiversity
The capital of New Zealand is a metropolis that is often on the list of green cities in the world. In 2021, it was named the number one city for environmental security by The Economist. This is thanks to Wellington’s focus on sustainable urban planning and its preservation (and increase) of native biodiversity. With low greenhouse gas and air pollution, the city is focused on sustainable buildings, low carbon transportation, waste reduction, and sustainable food systems to reach its carbon-neutral goals.
There you have it: 9 sustainable cities from 6 continents. Which city surprised you the most?