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The 10 Emerging Sustainable Cities to Watch in 2012

Words by Leon Kaye

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: 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: 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.

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, 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, 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.

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.

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, 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.

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.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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