The 10 Cities That Are Leading The Way In Urban Sustainability

Cities are the laboratories where the most innovative ideas for surviving in the future can be tested. These 10–from New York to Tokyo to Bogota–were just awarded City Climate Leadership Awards for their work.

With a few exceptions, national governments aren’t going to make a big dent in climate change and associated environmental problems. They’re too big, slow, and in many cases, don’t even want to acknowledge a problem that’s so politically inconvenient. Over the past half decade or so, it has become increasingly apparent that cities are leading the way–and ultimately, have the greatest chance at boosting our chances for survival in the face of declining resources and rising seas.


This week, Siemens and C40 (the Cities Climate Leadership Group), announced the 10 winners of the inaugural City Climate Leadership Awards, given to municipalities around the world that have demonstrated “excellence in urban sustainability and leadership in the fight against climate change.” Below, the winners.

Bogota: Urban Transportation

This city took the Urban Transportation award for its ultra-efficient bus and taxi fleets. Bogota’s Bus Rapid Transit system, launched in 2000, shuttles over 70% of the city’s 7.1 million person population. Future goals include replacing all of the city’s diesel fleet with hybrid and electric buses, electrifying the entire the taxi fleet, and adding a new metro line.

Melbourne: Energy Efficient Built Environment

Melbourne won in the Energy Efficient Built Environment category for a sustainable buildings program that gives building managers and owners financing for energy and water retrofits.


Copenhagen: Carbon Measurement & Planning

Copenhagen scooped up the Carbon Measurement & Planning award for its ambitious 2025 Climate Plan–an attempt to make the city completely carbon neutral by 2025. If it succeeds in cutting emissions to 400,000 tons, Copenhagen will be the first carbon neutral capital city in the world.

Mexico City: Air Quality

This Mexico City building eats smog.

It may not be the first city that pops into your head when you think about clean air (it was at one point the most polluted city in the world), but Mexico City took the Air Quality award for ProAire, a program that has dramatically cut CO2 emissions and air pollution over the last 20 years through everything from vehicle emissions reductions to containment of urban sprawl. It’s proof that a solid plan can significantly improve air quality.

Munich: Green Energy

Munich received the Green Energy award for its initiative to power the city completely using renewable sources by 2025. So far, the city is 37% of the way there–in 2015, wind projects will cause that number to climb to 80%.


Rio de Janeiro: Sustainable Communities

The Morar Carioca Program (an urban revitalization plan) is behind Rio’s win in the Sustainable Communities category. The program aims to “formalize” and re-urbanize all of Rio’s favelas by 2020, with a combination of better landscaping, infrastructure, educational tools, and more–a move that will help with health and wellness for the 20% of the city population that lives in these settlements.

New York: Adaptation & Resilience

Read more about New York’s $20 billion resilience plan here.

New York City won in the Adaptation & Resilience category for its now-famous post-Sandy action plan, dubbed A Stronger, More Resilient New York. The program consists of 250 ambitious infrastructure resilience initiatives across a number of categories, including transportation, telecommunications, parks, insurance, and buildings.

San Francisco: Waste Management

San Francisco took the Waste Management award for an incredibly effective 11-year-old zero waste program, which now sees 80% of all trash diverted from landfills. By 2020, the city hopes to bring that up to 100%–a goal that, as a resident, seems quite possible.


Singapore: Intelligent City Infrastructure

Singapore is the Intelligent City Infrastructure recipient–an award given for its Intelligent Transport System, which is made up of an amalgam of smart transportation initiatives, like real-time traffic data from GPS-equipped taxis and an electronic road toll collection system. The result: Singapore has lower congestion rates than most cities.

Tokyo: Finance & Economic Development

Tokyo won in the Finance & Economic Development category, for its launch of the world’s first cap and trade program in 2010. Today, the program has 1,100 participating facilities, which have cut emissions by a total of 13% in the city and prevented over 7 million tons of CO2 from being released.

Take all of the best qualities of these municipalities–effective road management, cap and trade, sustainable energy, excellent public transportation, a zero waste program, and so on–and you have an urbanist’s dream city. That dream city may not be a reality yet, but the first step to creating one (or many) is learning from cities that already excel in specific areas. Because, while the United States may have a hard time adapting resilience lessons from Japan, New York City might be much more willing to learn from Tokyo.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more