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The 10 Emerging Sustainable Cities to Watch in 2012

Leon Kaye | Tuesday January 3rd, 2012 | 32 Comments
National Theater, Accra, Ghana, courtesy Wiki Commons

National Theater, Accra, Ghana, courtesy Wiki Commons

When “green,” “sustainable” or resilient cities come to mind, the usual suspects crop up: Portland, Amsterdam, San Francisco and even high-tech Abu Dhabi score plenty of attention. As more cities push their green agenda the way they promote business opportunities or local tourism, some cities are way ahead of others. Mayors now try to jockey themselves to the front of the sustainability beauty contest with some cities here in the United States showing far more success (Chicago) than others that miserably fail (Los Angeles). Around the world are many cities that have responsive government, vibrant passion at the grass roots level, or both.

Whether they benefit from visionary leaders, flourishing social enterprise, or commitment from community activists, the following 10 cities are well worth a visit to experience their transformation and resilience. If they are not in your travel plans anytime soon, track them from afar. The progress underway in these cities will inspire other mayors and civil societies to learn from their example.

Accra, Ghana: As more African cities seek to balance economic growth with sustainable development, Accra will attract more interest from inside out beyond Africa in the coming year. A joint Siemens and Economist Intelligence Units study recently ranked this leading African business center as a top green city on the continent. Accra benefits from scores of local NGOs and regional offices of leading international organizations. Local companies like MTN, Ghana’s largest telecommunications company, boast professionals that are building a corporate social responsibility culture in Accra.

Adelaide, Australia, courtesy Wiki Commons

Adelaide, Australia, courtesy Wiki Commons

Adelaide, Australia: 2011 was a punishing year for Australia with floods and drought. But Adelaide is hanging in there as its downtown becomes a hotbed of green building and clean energy. The city, which is in the early stages of a 30 year plan to improve its quality of life, has its critics who believe plenty of space in the center core could be retrofitted for commercial or residential use. Could Adelaide become more two-wheel friendly with its hosting of a bicycling conference later this month? Its integrated design strategy wraps up this June.

Belgrade, Serbia, courtesy Leon Kaye

Belgrade, Serbia, courtesy Leon Kaye

Belgrade, Serbia: Europeans in the know will argue that Serbia’s capital has the most exhilarating nightlife in Europe. But during the day, the city in the Balkans boasts vast swaths of nature in its inner core and along the outskirts. As Serbia creeps towards integration within the European Union, the city brims with activists that are challenging the status quo on everything from waste disposal to government transparency to developing a local market for sustainable agriculture. Organizations like Ecoist, the year-old Serbia Green Building Council and CRNPS have their work cut out for them. With 75 percent of Belgrade’s buildings constructed before 1980 municipal funding lacking and red tape a hurdle, those who want a role in transforming one of Europe’s most exciting capitals will need plenty of chutzpah to make a difference. The effort will be worth it.

Congresso Nacional, Brasilia, courtesy Wiki Commons

Congresso Nacional, Brasilia, courtesy Wiki Commons

Brasília, Brazil: Brazil’s planned capital has reached middle age, and Oscar Niemeyer’s creation still scores much praise and scorn. But as Brazil has elbowed its way to become the world’s sixth largest economy, the city of outlandish architecture and superquadras is now becoming more of a place to live, not a place to escape every weekend to Rio de Janeiro, the former capital. With organizations like URBENVIRON headquartered here, and projects big and small to follow more green building guidelines like that of LEED, look for Brasília to become a more of a model for sustainable development.

Detroit, MI, photo courtesy Leon Kaye

Detroit, MI, photo courtesy Leon Kaye

Detroit, Michigan: The year is off to a bad start with the announcement that light rail will not happen and the city is close to a takeover by a emergency financial manager. But young graduates and professionals who seek to reinvent themselves will find the area’s leading universities, low cost of living and local biodiversity ample reasons to plunk themselves in the Motor City. Never mind an overwhelmed local government, ignored buildings and automakers who are just now recovering from the crisis of a few years ago: Detroit’s contraction means the city’s citizens are already in the middle of redefining the urban and rural. Watch for urban farming, social enterprise and the creative arts to thrive.

Doha at night, courtesy Wiki Commons

Doha at night, courtesy Wiki Commons

Doha, Qatar: While oil and gas flow freely out of this tiny emirate, long term thinking also gushes in this city of 370,000. Since late 2010, Doha’s residents have been beaming with pride at their scoring of international events including the World Petroleum Congress, the COP 18 Summit this year and the 2022 World Cup. With the understanding that oil may eventually disappear but the sun shall always stick around, Doha has ramped up investment in solar technologies, green building and public transportation. Watch for Doha to grow as an innovation laboratory, and start tackling its carbon footprint–which leaves Qatar with the highest per capita rate of CO2 emissions in the world.

Zocalo, Mexico City, photo courtesy Leon Kaye

Zocalo, Mexico City, photo courtesy Leon Kaye

Mexico City: Latin America’s most populous area already has a strong foundation with an extensive public transportion system and plenty of open space in its core. The city already has an aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction plan underway, and Latin America’s largest rail project, Line 12, will be fully operational in April. Not everything is progressing smoothly: a move to close the city largest landfill to promote recycling resulted in huge piles of trash as a new trash collection system worked out some kinks. But as rapid urbanization across the globe creates more environmental and social headaches, look for Mexico City to soar as an example of how to house 20 million people.

Photo of a Naples cleanup, courtesy CleaNap

Photo of a Naples cleanup, courtesy CleaNap

Naples, Italy: While Rome is burning in political strife, Naples is turning a trash crisis into an opportunity. Activists are harnessing both new social media tools and old fashioned local organizing to clean up their city and create jobs. From guerrilla gardening to massive recycling campaigns and some fun thrown in, groups like CleaNap and Friarielli Ribelli will do nothing but ramp up their efforts this year. This year  will host its fair share of international events, including the UN’s World Urban Forum.

San Jose, courtesy Wiki Commons

San Jose, courtesy Wiki Commons

San Jose, California: San Francisco may be the mouth of the Bay Area, but San Jose is its brain. The real Silicon Valley is one-third of the way through its Green Vision Plan, and much work needs to be done by 2022. But with real green jobs in its bustling tech sector, a respectable light rail system and a willingness to experiment with infrastructure improvements, San Jose’s focus on sustainability will keep its one million residents in one of the greenest, cleanest and safest cities in the USA.

Namdaemun Market, Seoul, courtesy Leon Kaye

Namdaemun Market, Seoul, courtesy Leon Kaye

Seoul, Korea: Once a drab megapolis symptomatic of Korea’s rapid rise to the 13th largest economy in the world, Seoul is far more livable now than a decade ago. Additional open space, more bikes, new approaches towards waste diversion and most importantly, a thriving technology sector that most of us mortals can barely understand, have all redefined Seoul. The city will host the planning summit that will sort out final details for the COP 18. Visitors for that session and other global events in this city of 10 million will be smitten with a city that is ditching concrete and replacing it with green.

Beg to differ? Make the case for your city and why.

Leon Kaye, based in California, is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business. You can follow him on Twitter. He will explore the world of sustainability in the Middle East in February.


▼▼▼      32 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    Excellent list.  One problem with Naples – pretty likely to get sacked by Vesuvius in the next 50 years. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/giuseppe.avitabile Giuseppe Avitabile

      the only problem is that one you have in your brain… 

    • Richard

      Vesuvius is quite, let him sleep ;), the only thing who can plunder a city is not to believe in it.

  • Anonymous

    Hard to tell if it’s flattering or alarming that there aren’t as many U.S. cities on this list…

    • Leon Kaye

      It’s a list of 10. And there are 200 nations in the world. I think giving the US 20% representation was probably overdoing it! :)

      • https://www.wizness.com/ Marion Dupont

        Too bad there is not a single one in #China as well :(

        • Leon Kaye

          Why should there be? There are only 10 slots, and most of what is coming out of China is more PR than real work.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for calming us down, Leon!

    • Ladi

      Detroit is a U.S. city.

      • Ladi

        oopie, nevermind.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RJ6VOFKOACXMHJH5PWEYJUA3WE Nathan

          Detroit is doing a lot of good things right now. I found this article while reading about “the Green Garage” in Detroit, which is a small business incubator for sustainable companies. Check it out! http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/greencity112.aspx

  • http://twitter.com/Paul_Reynolds87 Paul Reynolds

    Great list! Interesting to see two African cities on the list well ahead of many western nations in this regard mostly out of necessity granted but it will benefit them more in the long run!

  • Leon Kaye

    Thank you for the comment. I tried looking at leadership and what was going on in the grass roots. LK

  • Phikl68

    Adelaide is certainly kicking some goals lately, but it has some major challenges facing it, not least of which is securing a sustainable water supply! Hobart is in my view a far more suitable candidate as Australia’s most sustainable city. Urban capacity, water supply, hydro-electricity, localized food production. Has some transport and economic challenges but these can be addressed.

    • Leon Kaye

      I take you’re from Hobart . . . ?

    • Nathan

      Adelaide has a major desal plant gradually coming online, and will be up to full capacity towards the end of 2012, which will go along way in covering future water supply needs.

  • Rosio Peñaloza

    Crisis en la Ciudad de México por basura. Bordo Poniente, http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/820112.html
    ¿Emerging Sustainable Cities to Watch in 2012?.

  • Rosio Peñaloza

    La Ciudad de México y el problema de la basura, deficiente planeación ambientalhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4dm65fLiyo

    • Leon Kaye

      We’re aware of the trash problem in DF, just as there is one in Naples. My point is cities that are beginning to tackle these problems and have a long term plan and vibrant grass roots networks.

  • http://twitter.com/IsabBernard Isabelle Bernard

    Accra is NOT a green city. The benefits of its developent goes mainly to foreign interests. It is more and more polluted. And MTN is advertising by painting their logo all over people’s houses. Since the tap water is not drinkable, people buy plastic “sachets” that are thrown all over the streets when finished. Plus the constant traffic caused by more and more cars is not green either.

    • Greengopost

      Read the headline. I said EMERGING. There’s a lot of good work going on at the grass roots tackling what you mentioned.

  • BobSchramm

    Having moved my family from Manhatten to the Almaden Valley in San Jose in 1992, I was amazed at the recycling and reselling of treated sewage to water the corporate lawns and waterscapes of the commercial districts near the bay.  The light rail was convenient and well used.  The city core was attractive and walkable, with growing downtown residential choices. The city and county administration was efficient, and although the cops all seemed to have PhD’s, i’m sure that wasn’t the case.  But there was only 1,000 of them for a city of a million.    I had to move to suburban Chicago in 1998, but I revisit San Jose often.  I miss it more each time I return.

    • Greengopost

      Thanks Bob. San Jose is a great place for many reasons and falls under the radar. LK

  • http://twitter.com/theofficialmrw Marcus White

    As far as Detroit.  No one has given me a good reason why NOT having a rail is a BAD thing.  We make it seem as though its the evils and that the city is going to hell because there’s not a light rail.  Furthermore, initiatives such as new biking routes in the city, urban farming, and tech initiatives could catapult the city into a more sustainable city.  Still have some years to get there though.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RJ6VOFKOACXMHJH5PWEYJUA3WE Nathan

      There are many reasons that a Woodward rail will benefit Detroit more than any bus system could, which is not to say that we also don’t still need Bus Rapid Transit on other roads and an improvement of service in general, both city and suburbs. 

      Light rail has many advantages over buses. The cost per passenger mile is lower. The potential for “game day shuttle” is a lot better as trains can add cars at peak times. a rail line is permanent, and the stops are much larger. You don’t have to look at what bus is coming to check the route number, because you already know where the train is headed. 

      We are on the verge of shutting down SMART and D-DOT and replacing all that mess with one authority that will manage Metro Detroit transit. The overhead and pension savings alone will be more than enough to operate a Woodward rail all the way from Hart Plaza to Pontiac. 

  • MGoBlueDetroit

    Thanks for including Detroit!  It is such an underrepresented city

  • Jay Miller

    Does Detroit have recycling bins, yet?  I live there and if you call Detroit “green” I’m scared for the planet.

  • Tysongersh

    @ Jay Miller Detroit is doing all sorts of amazing things. It is the perfect location for green entrepreneurship. @twitter-392854127:disqus 
    One organization, The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is building 500 raised bed community gardens and a co-op centered on sustainability right near downtown. 
    http://www.facebook.com/MichiganUrbanFarmingInitiative
    The Greening of Detroit is another huge green initiative doing amazing things in the city. 

    The point is, Detroit has tons and tons of unique green focused initiatives that make it a world class emerging green city

    • Leon Kaye

      Thanks for the reply. Some seem to think recycling is the one and only metric that makes for an emerging green city.

  • Tatjana

    Interesting
    to read about Doha in this context as I only associate Masdar with sustainable cities in the Gulf region.
    There are more and more signs that sustainable urban development becomes more
    important in that region (also the fact that foreign companies are involved: http://www.siemens.ae/sustainable-cities/sustainable-cities.html)
    which is very positive and raises hopes.

  • Fiona Woo

    One city to watch: Dubai. Counter-intuitive? Maybe at first glance, but Dubai is evidence of both what can and must be done. Its growth from a small trading port on the edge of the desert to a global city in just a few decades shows the power of visionary leadership. Far too many people prefer to dream of a global future filled with small-scale communities, but the truth is these will not attract the global majority.

    Last week the World Future Council held an expert hearing on regenerative urbanisation in Dubai, highlighting that the challenges of “future-proofing” Dubai into a sustainable – or indeed, regenerative – city are huge but not impossible. We’ve blogged about that here: http://power-to-the-people.net/2012/09/the-future-of-gulf-cities/ There are many starting points, and especially when looking at the potential for renewable energies there is no argument for not looking to the UAE to build regenerative cities.

    Adelaide’s energy efficiency and retrofitting of buildings is impressive indeed (as I blog about here: http://power-to-the-people.net/2012/06/5-cases-of-regenerative-urbanisation/). It would be interesting to see how it develops further.

  • http://twitter.com/AdvancedGT Adv. Global Trading

    Any relevant article on what are the top 10 sustainable cities at the moment. Good to see Qatar on there.