Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when in 1970, 20 million Americans marched in the streets demanding environmental accountability from government and corporations. That first day, in which it is estimated 10,000 elementary and high schools, and 2,000 colleges participated, launched a global movement in more than 140 countries and helped inspire some of the environmental regulations that we enjoy today.
Back in 1988, the first piece I ever had published was a letter to the editor of my local newspaper bemoaning the state of the environment and the challenges my generation was being left to solve. Sadly, we have not solved very much. If there is any silver lining to the COVID-19 outbreak—and you’d have to look hard—it is that the toll humanity takes on the planet has slowed as we stay home.
We’ve all seen those otherworldly, seemingly Photoshopped images of a clear Los Angeles skyline. Or perhaps we’ve witnessed more bees this spring. In my hometown of Vancouver on Canada’s West Coast, Orca pods are being reported far up the industrialized inlet as shipping and factory work has plummeted. Mount Baker, the volcanic snow-capped sentinel that looms over Vancouver and northern Washington state, has never been clearer or more vibrant.
Earlier this month, readings by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) show that China’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion have dropped by 25% because of measures taken to contain COVID-19.
Cities—responsible for more than 75% of global CO2 emissions according to the UN, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributors—have slowed their pollution. As of last month, nitrogen dioxide dropped by 54% in Paris, while Madrid, Milan and Rome saw a drop of nearly 50%, according to scientists from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.
Of course as the urbanization of the planet only accelerates, cities will be fundamental to our collective stepping back from the precipice of irreparable environmental damage.
As countries dither on Paris Agreement commitments, it’s cities—more than 1,200 of them to date—that have signed on to the Climate Emergency Declaration and global adoption of the Green New Deal. Organizations like C40, a network of almost 100 large cities, are years ahead of their countries both in planning and implementation.
This 50th anniversary of Earth Day was a chance for Resonance to use our Best Cities methodology to examine the 50 most visited cities in the world (based on the total number of Tripadvisor reviews) to surface the planet’s greenest large cities based on a series of criteria that seem particularly relevant as we think about the meaning of density and the future of urban planning in the context of the coronavirus and government mandated social distancing. To find out which cities are leading the way towards a greener future, we collected nine data points to create our ranking:
- Percentage of public green spaces
- Percentage of total energy needs from renewable energy
- Percentage of population who use public transportation to go to work
- Level of air pollution
- Per capita water consumption
- Availability of city-wide recycling
- Availability of city-wide composting
- Number of farmer’s markets
As we researched our data points amidst the COVID-19 firehose of news and scientific discovery, it became clear that the global spread of the coronavirus is intricately intertwined with the climate crisis and how we should be thinking about the future of our cities.
A relatively under-the-radar Harvard University study released in recent weeks titled “A National Study on Long Term Exposure to Air Pollution and COVID-19 Mortality in the United States” really crystallized the green city advantage. According to researchers, “the majority of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution.”
As such, a city’s PM10 Concentration (µg/m3) results and the percentage of population who use public transportation to go to work become vital metrics, given that many cities are looking to cut down on emissions by building green transportation systems.
Given that landfills are some of the greatest producers of methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s an estimated 35 times more potent than carbon dioxide, a city’s availability of city-wide recycling and composting programs matters, which we also included. We also measured the percentage of total energy needs from renewable energy to ensure that cities are walking the talk with budgetary commitment.
The fact that the transportation sector—airplanes, boats, trucks and cars—was responsible for 15% of global emissions as of 2017 and has only grown from there, resulted in our measurement of the number of quality farmers markets as a proxy of regionally produced food.
Additionally, an increasing number of doctors and scientists are pointing to the fact that COVID-19 infection is heavily—although not entirely—weighted to people with preexisting medical conditions. Obesity and the car-dependent, inert lifestyle—and city design—that so often causes it, is one of these. Therefore, the percentage of public green spaces and a city’s Walk Score was measured to spotlight the cities where walking was a legitimate option for mobility. Of course this metric did double-duty for citizen health and fitness, as well as keeping polluting cars off the road.
Here are the 10 cities that performed the best in this analysis that may help lead the way as we think about best practices for cities in the future.
#1 VIENNA, AUSTRIA
The birthplace of modernism has a bounty of fresh ideas about mobility and public parks. But the commitment comes from a history of methodical city planning that has given the world everything from the English garden-inspired City Park (opened in 1862) to an actual national park just outside of town (Nationalpark Donau Auen). Vienna is also the European benchmark for public transit, with almost half of the city’s population holding an annual transit pass—and using it religiously.
#2 MUNICH, GERMANY
One of the world’s most walkable cities also boasts an enviable—and most-used—transit system. Recent mobility infrastructure investments like the the sparkling U-Bahn rapid transit system will only lower car ownership in the land of BMW in the future. Small wonder, then, that the city has some of the best air to be breathed in an urban center anywhere.
#3 BERLIN, GERMANY
With an abundance of open, public spaces and city parks, Berlin is made for walking. Berliners are also incredibly mindful of their impact on the planet, using among the least water per capita in Europe and opting for public transit use whenever it’s too unpleasant to walk the historic streets.
#4 MADRID, SPAIN
With an abundance of green space in its urban core, Madrid is a massive urban center with room to stretch out. But Spain’s capital city doesn’t just boast green space, it boasts architecturally endowed green space, by royally commissioned designers like Francesco Sabatini, the Italian architect behind the Puerta de Alcalá and his eponymous botanical gardens. The city is also incredibly accommodating to pedestrians, with recent (but long overdue) big-budget projects like making the central Gran Vía boulevard far safer and pleasant to stroll.
#5 SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL
This megapolis may not seem like a place that has any business being in the middle of a green urban destination ranking. But with the largest population of Italian descendants outside Italy, the largest community of people of Japanese descent and a large Arab community fueled mostly by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants, culinary delights—and the bounty of farmers markets that supplies them—top the planet. Given its massive energy needs, the city is also among the largest users of renewable energy globally.
#6 MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM
Flat and compact, Manchester is a pedestrian gem with a fascinating streetscape that blends history and the arts, with plenty of drinking, eating and dancing options to keep hedonists well satisfied. The multitude of revelry options could explain the citizenry-wide adoption of public transport and some of Europe’s widest use. The city’s culinary pride is also responsible for plenty of farmers markets and a palpable commitment to food security.
#7 LISBON, PORTUGAL
The Portuguese capital is a tactile, multi-sensory experience best explored on foot with no particular agenda, allowing a few of the 2,799 hours of sunshine a year—the most of any European capital—to warm your sense of discovery. The city also boasts some of Europe’s largest number of farmers markets, as well as ambitious recycling and composting programs.
The dream of a city in a park is Singapore’s reality. The nine-year-old Gardens by the Bay, consisting of several hundred acres of cultivated parkland on reclaimed urban land in downtown Singapore, is a mini Central Park. The 18 solar-powered “supertrees”—each between 80 and 160 feet tall—are now city icons. But a city that takes care of its citizenry the way Singapore does (there’s an affordable housing policy that Protects 80% of locals) isn’t content with green space for aesthetics only. City leaders—obsessed with demographic forecasting and city resiliency—are evolving the copious parklands into ‘therapeutic gardens’ designed for the elderly.
#9 AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
With its urban grid distilled for pedestrian discovery and generously seasoned with storybook architecture that spans centuries, Amsterdam has always been about discovery by foot or by bike. That the entire dreamy streetscape is lined with waterways and all manner of watercraft just adds to the city’s otherworldliness. The fact that its widely loved public transport system involves, you know, boats, just adds to its appeal for locals and residents alike.
#10 WASHINGTON, D.C., USA
The U.S. capital has always been an underrated green oasis, peppered with public plazas and parks. Meanwhile, the massive Wharf, a $2.5-billion mixed-use development has given Washington, D.C. fresh office, residential, marina and retail space, as well as parks and public spaces, across an approximate half mile of the Potomac riverfront. Given that the area is already home to more than 20 restaurants—paired with the culinary accolades given of late to D.C.’s already-burgeoning food scene, the city also boasts a surprising amount of farmers markets.
These cities provide plenty of best practices that other cities—regardless of size—can implement as they recalibrate from COVID-19 by implementing solutions in ways that may have been unthinkable (or at least politically unfavourable) two months ago. Infrastructure stimulus can be directed towards retrogrades of shuttered buildings, “pocket parks” on unused lots and any of the low-carbon initiatives already underway in earnest in city members of groups like the C40 Cities Group and others.
COVID-19 and, more broadly, the climate emergency are two horrific realities gripping our daily lives. Tackling both simultaneously on a rapidly urbanizing planet is not a choice. It’s the only way forward for the cities of the future.
1. Percentage of public green spaces (Source: World Cities Forum, Eurostat, National data sources)
2. Percentage of total energy needs from renewable energy (Source: UN Habitat, Eurostat, US Energy Information Administration, National data sources)
3. Percentage of population who use public transportation to go to work (Source: Eurostat, American Community Survey, National data sources)
4. PM10 Concentration (µg/m3) (Source: UN Habitat, US Environmental Protection Agency, World Health Organization, National data sources)
5. Water consumption (litres) per capita per day (Source: International Water Association, National data sources)
6. Walk Score (Walk Score)
7. Availability of city-wide recycling program (Source: National data sources)
8. Availability of city-wide composting program (Source: National data sources)
9. Number of quality farmers markets (Google Maps)