Cities of Virtue

Sometimes great ideas are born of desperation. For Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, that sense of urgency developed in the winter of 2004- 2005, when the annual snowfall failed to materialize in the neighboring Cascade Mountains. That's a serious issue in Seattle, where melting snow feeds the city's reservoirs in the springtime and swells the river that supplies its hydroelectric energy. Even though the United States had declined to participate with the other 141 parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, Nickels decided to "show the world there was intelligent life in the United States after all." His goal was to convince 141 mayors of U.S. cities to commit to making the cuts anyway. That was two years ago. So far he's enlisted 435. "These cities represent 61 million people," says Nickels. "That's equivalent to the population of France and larger than the United Kingdom."

American cities aren't the only ones clamoring to adapt to a warming world. Local governments on all continents are taking matters into their own hands, changing wasteful habits and realigning their policies with a new awareness of the environment. In China, the central government's emphasis on environmental stewardship is being felt in the provinces, but also bubbling up from citizens fed up with years of environmental neglect. Japan's long history of environmental stewardship is being channeled into a new appreciation of what it takes to get along in a warming world.

And then, of course, there's Europe, where finding a green city these days is almost as easy as opening a map. Urban centers like Nantes, Grenoble, Strasbourg, Manchester, Gothenburg and Munich have built networks of bike lanes and re-introduced tram systems they unwisely retired years ago. Towns and cities have even begun to vie for green bragging rights. Mayor Ken Livingstone, for instance, declared at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January that he wanted to make London "the undisputed world leader" in tackling climate change.

City officials are discovering that environmentally sound practices save money, reduce demands on overstretched utilities and make cities more pleasant places to live and work. "We're not talking about some broad international policy that doesn't trickle down," says Mayor Dan Coody of Fayetteville, Arkansas, which just hired its first "sustainability" director. "Cities are where the rubber meets the road."

Here are some cities rising to the challenge:

Long before anybody noticed that the Alpine snows were melting earlier and freakish weather events became fodder for the science pages of European newspapers, the German city of Freiburg put in bicycle paths, made 42 percent of land surrounding the city off-limits to development and imposed energy standards on new construction. Its latest move: encouraging residents to be energy-independent by giving tax breaks to renewable-energy companies and subsidizing the use of solar panels in new construction. This city of 200,000 now has 11,223 square meters of solar cells covering its rooftops, a fortyfold increase since 1996. The new Vauban district of 2,000 eco-homes, completed in 2006, includes 50 solar houses, each producing more energy than it consumes. In environmentalist circles, Freiburg is known as Europe's solar capital, an achievement Mayor Dieter Salomon attributes "above all to the commitment of the people."

China's leadership has embraced environmentalism in recent years, but Beijing is playing catch-up to the 1.8 million residents of Changshu, on China's east coast. Changshu was part of the ancient Wuyue civilization (AD 907-960), which revered the environment, an attitude current locals share. Recently city officials rejected building proposals for 16 plants in polluting industries such as cement, chemicals and electronics and have shut down factories that failed to meet emission standards. They've also welcomed zinc recycling and waste-to-energy projects.

Changshu is also benefiting directly from Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, which creates a market for greenhouse-gas emissions trading. Last December the 3F Zhonghao New Chemicals Material Co. signed a $530 million deal to reduce emissions of HFC-23, or trifluoromethane, a potent greenhouse gas. "When we heard that the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in February 2005, we decided to start this program," says project manager Cai Hui. Under the scheme, the World Bank will purchase emissions reductions at 3F's Changshu refrigerant factory; the Chinese government will spend 65 percent of the revenue on energy efficiency improvements, coal-mine renovation and other green initiatives.

Surrounded by Lake Biwa and orchards, the pastoral Japanese town of Aito has found the key to keeping green in its kitchens. Years ago, discarded tempura oil found its way into the lake, the largest in Japan, causing a pollution problem until surrounding towns began recycling their oil to make soap. In the late 1990s, Aito adapted this recycling practice by collecting used cooking oil from the residents and running it through a local plant to produce biodiesel fuel. The program has been a huge popular success. Whereas Japanese cities recycle on average less than 10 percent of their cooking oil, Aito's 5,700 residents recycle a whopping 70 percent, says Masatsugu Nomura, a local government official who runs Aito Eco Plaza, an agency that promotes recycling and clean energy programs. Ayako Fujii, an environmentalist and leader of the region's recycling campaign, calls Aito "the mecca" of Japan's recycling programs. "What was then a source of pollution has now been sought after as a source of clean energy," Ayako Fujii says. The program isn't an answer to Japan's energy problems—it only produces enough fuel to power the town's fleets of cars, trucks and buses. But it's a powerful indicator of how hard ordinary people will work for the green cause. "Our [recycling] project is a symbolic model that represents our whole range of efforts to go green," says Nomura.

By the swollen standards of the global megalopolis, Curitiba is a backwater. But this regional capital in Brazil's southern farm belt, population 1.7 million, has a stubborn habit of caring for the urban environment—a quality that has turned this one-time colonial outpost into one of the most livable places in the developing world.

While most big cities are symphonies in gray, Curitiba is arbored and tidy, with 54 square meters of greenery per resident—twice the amount prescribed by the World Health Organization. Its trash recycling and collection systems are models for Latin America. Urban planners from Bogotá to Beijing have copied the agile mass-transit system, which ferries 54 percent of all Curitibanos, including one of four car owners—unusual on a continent where progress was always measured by the tailpipe.

Instead of a budget-gobbling subway system, architect Jaime Lerner, who has served three terms as mayor of Curitiba, created the "surface metro." Passengers prepay their fares and file onto raised tubular steel and Plexiglas express bus platforms. Instead of climbing steps, they step straight into the bus, as they would a subway car, which halves transfer times. The system has led to fewer cars on the streets and less air pollution. "It does no good for a city in the name of global warming to demand that people leave their cars at home if there's no viable public transit," says Lerner, who heads an urban-planning consultancy. He also encouraged slum dwellers to swap bags of trash for groceries, eliminate unsightly mountains of trash and engage the poor as keepers of a greener city. "Energy-saving buildings are important. So are biofuels and recycling," says Lerner. "But the key to environmental sustainability is thinking of the city as a whole."