Posted by: jeb1 | April 19, 2011

Just How Green is Your City?

By Janet Kornblum, Special for USA TODAY 

If you want to know how green your city is, just look at your trash area. Is there one lonely can? Or are there multiple, colorful bins for different types of waste?

  •  With more than 90 neighborhoods, Portland, Oregon has bike trails, public transportation and green buildings. By Don Ryan, AP

    With more than 90 neighborhoods, Portland, Oregon has bike trails, public transportation and green buildings.

By Don Ryan, AP

With more than 90 neighborhoods, Portland, Oregon has bike trails, public transportation and green buildings.

So say the experts who are part of a national push to transform cities into bastions of green, reaping both environmental and economic benefits.

Of course, how your city deals with trash is just one small indicator of how green your city is. Your city’s “greenness” depends on a variety of factors, from how good its public transportation system is to how energy-efficient its buildings are.


How easy is it to get around without jumping into that SUV?

Transportation accounts for 29% of the energy consumption in the USA, according to 2009 statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That means that walking, riding your bike and taking public transportation can have a huge influence.

Green cities are those “with a transportation system that encourages multiple means of travel, that gets people out of cars,” says Paul McRandle, senior editor for the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Smarter Cities website. “That’s a big deal for health, the livability of a city and air quality.”

Jacob Ward of Popular Science says taking public transportation can make up for bad behavior, “even if you spend the rest of the day throwing away candy wrappers on the street and using Styrofoam cups.”

Chip Giller, founder and president of environmental website Grist, says, “Strong transit systems translate to the top green cities in the country.”

He also recommends looking up your address at It will give you a score based on how easy it is to walk to places close to your home.

Building efficiency

Industrial and commercial buildings accounted for 49% of America’s energy consumption, according to the 2009 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Buildings, McRandle says, “can be 50% or more of the city’s energy consumption.” That’s why it makes a big difference when buildings become LEED certified, which often requires instituting standards for old buildings and retrofitting new ones.

The U.S. Green Building Council developed LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.


The best indicator of whether your city is green may be the density of your living space. The denser, the better.

Compact environments, says McRandle, are “more sustainable. They encourage people to walk, to take buses and not to drive.”


Many organizations and publications issue lists ranking cities on a variety of green criteria.

Popular Science, for example, issued a list in 2008. Top cities were Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Boston. Portland, with its extensive bike trails, open space, public transportation and green buildings, often places high on these sorts of lists.

But what makes a city green is really a sum of many complex factors, says Alice Henly, lead researcher of the natural resources council’s Smarter Cities Project: “It’s not possible to classify a city as green or not because of one thing that they excel in.” That’s why the council is issuing a set of lists, looking at specific criteria for each factor.

For instance, its latest list features cities that are good at transportation. Tops among large cities: Boston, Chicago and New York.

What can you do?

What if your city isn’t on any lists and your walk score is the same as your shoe size? Experts say start small, then work with city leaders.

“A lot of this starts at the neighborhood level,” Giller says. Neighbors have worked together to put up traffic cones and even solar arrays in their areas, he says.

Henly agrees: “We really hope to provide people with motivation and information that allows them to improve their city and their region in a specific area.”

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