Urban innovations

At their best, cities can be laboratories of innovation and progress. Here are examples of innovative programs from cities in North America examples that show the value of thinking holistically about environmental quality, economic development, and quality of life.


  • Nationally recognized green building program. Nine years ago, the City of Austin recognized the direct local environmental impacts associated with residential building. This realization and the need to protect dwindling natural resources prompted the city to establish the Green Building Program, now regarded as a national leader in environmental building practices. The program now provides incentives and technical assistance programs for all residential, commercial, and multifamily building projects. The city is leading by example by requiring all new municipal buildings to meet green standards. For the private sector, the Green Building Program is transforming the local building market by providing education, marketing and monetary incentives to develop both the demand side (the buying public) as well as the supply side (building professionals). The program is primarily funded through the municipal electric utility (Hear that, Cleveland Public Power?) and supplemented by the water utility, environmental, and solid waste departments.
  • Renewable energy. Austin Energy, the citys community-owned utility, not only helps to manage the Green Building Program but has also developed renewable energy sources for the cityincluding 59 local wind-turbines, four landfill methane gas recovery projects and three solar energy sites providing over 153 kilowatts of energy.
  • Watershed protection. The city has a Watershed Protection department that works on flood control, water quality protection, erosion control, maintenance, regulation and master planning.
  • Sustainable communities. The citys Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) was created in 1996 to incorporate economic prosperity, social justice, and ecological health into a program charged with protecting the long-term livability of Austin. SCI is a program within the city's Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Department, and staff report to the city's sustainability officer. The staff has worked with bond election issues, led the Sustainable Energy Task Force, ran sustainability workshops for city staff, assessed sustainability of city departments, consulted with city staff in neighborhood planning, air quality and smart growth initiatives, worked with regional sustainability initiatives, and led green economic development efforts.


  • City visioning. Chattanooga was one of the first U.S. cities to use a citizen visioning process to set specific, long-range goals to enrich the lives of residents and visitors. The city boasts one of the most productive affordable housing programs in the nation, and it is notable for leveraging development funds through effective public/private partnerships, with significant civic involvement on the part of private foundations.
  • Urban greenway. The city and county have developed an extensive greenway system, which includes five miles of constructed riverwalk beginning downtown and meandering through the historic art district and several parks.
  • Transportation innovation. The city uses and manufactures electric buses to provide passenger transportation throughout the downtown. The Advanced Vehicle Services (AVS) was founded to fulfill the transit authoritys order for non-polluting downtown transportation.


  • Energy. As part of its efforts to establish itself as a premier environmental city, Chicago has adopted a goal to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources within the next five years. This includes solar, wind, biomass, small hydropower, and tapping landfill gas.
  • Green amenities. Chicago has planted thousands of trees, created more than 100 miles of bike paths, installed solar panels on city museums, and built a rooftop garden on City Hall.
  • Green roofs. Chicago has passed legislation to reduce urban heat island effect by allowing only reflective roofs or living roofs covered with vegetation.

New York

  • Green building. The Mayors Office of Construction, Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Design and Construction have led a green building initiative for New York City. They have worked with a variety of academic and non-profit groups to create Environmentally Responsible Building Guidelines that use green building to add value to the citys many capital assets and add quality of life benefits for New Yorkers. The city has recently built several green municipal buildings and has invested in a hydrogen fuel cell to power a police station in Central Park. New York is also home to one of the worlds leading green skyscrapers in Times Square.


  • Regional planning. Portland participates in a multi-county regional government called Metro, which has established an urban growth boundary around the metropolitan area to contain sprawl and has promoted growth along transit corridors within the growth boundary.
  • Office of Sustainable Development. Based on principles of sustainability adopted in 1994, the Office of Sustainable Development finds solutions to improve environment, economic and social health. The office also includes divisions focusing on energy, solid waste and recycling, and green building.
  • Energy division. Conservation techniques have been used to cut the city government's energy bills by nearly $1.4 million per year. In the last 10 years the division has weatherized 20,000 apartments and 2,000 low-income homes. Now it is promoting renewable resources, such as solar and wind power.
  • Solid waste and recycling division. Portland has been ranked first among U.S. metropolitan areas for recycling with a waste recovery rate of 53.6 percent.
  • Green building division. The city has begun a G/Rated program, which includes a green building policy for city facilities and city-funded projects and numerous technical resources and information for building professionals and homeowners. The city also offers financial incentives for both residential and commercial green development.
  • Transportation. The citys Office of Transportation, Metro, and the Tri-Met transit agency have led the nation in linking transportation to land use and livability. Light rail transit, new trolley car lines downtown, a model transit mall, downtown free-ride zones, bicycle and pedestrian ways, 100 percent bike-accessible buses and rail, dedicated bus-ways, transit shelters with video monitors and next-bus information, and transit oriented development incentives have contributed to the national recognition of Portland as a leader in getting people out of cars.


  • Green municipal utilities. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has long led the nation in conservation practices. The district is currently a leader in solar generation with eight megawatts, support and investment in consumer conservation, programs to assist the installation of solar panels on the roofs of non-profits, and financial incentives for the installation of cool roofs to prevent urban heat island effect and reduce energy consumption.

San Francisco

  • Solar power. The most ambitious solar energy project in the country is being pursued in San Francisco. In November, voters will vote on two bond issues that will determine whether the city will install 10 to 20 megawatts of solar panels on the sunniest municipal buildings, parking lots, and reservoirs and whether the city will be able to contract for an additional 50 megawatts of solar power (100 football fields worth) from photovoltaic panels on homes and businesses.


  • Reducing global climate change. The City of Seattle has shown support for the Kyoto Protocol by adopting the Kyoto goal of a seven-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2010.
  • Energy savings. Seattle City Light, the citys public electric utility, has adopted a policy of zero net greenhouse gas emissions. City Light sold its share of a coal-fired steam plant and will fully mitigate emissions from its remaining fossil-fuel plant600,000 metric tons of CO2 each year. In addition, over the next decade, the utility will produce 100 average megawatts of power through energy efficiency and conservation and acquire another 100 average megawatts of non-hydro renewable energy.
  • Neighborhood projects. Seattle has developed the Neighborhood Power Project that helps communities save water and energy, promotes recycling and proper waste disposal, improves public safety, and provides city assistance for the implementation of neighborhood plans. Each year a different neighborhood is targeted to receive everything from home and business energy audits to tree plantings and street parties.
  • Transportation planning. Seattles Strategic Planning department is a national model for transportation planning, with successes including a city-wide bike lane and path network and traffic calming through the installation of hundreds of traffic circles on neighborhood streets. The department has also done extensive advanced planning and transit-oriented development in preparation for light rail.
  • Urban markets. Seattles Pike Place Public Market is the number-one tourist attraction in the state of Washington. The key to its success has been that it operates as a market for locals and thrives on its local personality. It is pedestrian-oriented, has limited parking, and is easily accessible by transit. Tourist marketing is prohibited, and it instead invests in educational classes and marketing to neighborhood residents.


  • Reducing global climate change. Toronto has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2005, and it has established the Toronto Atmospheric Fund with an endowment of $23 million from the sale of city property. The fund makes loans and grants to community groups, government organizations, and businesses for projects that reduce emissionsgreen building, bike trails, recovered landfill gas, renewable energy in Toronto parks, and efforts to mitigate urban heat island effect.
  • City environmental effort. The Toronto Environmental Plan is a comprehensive document containing 66 recommendations on land, air, water, governance, sustainability, energy, transportation, green economic development, education and monitoring.
    The plan was produced by an Environmental Task Force made up of city councilpersons, city staff, and representatives from environmental agencies, business, labor, school boards, universities and schools.
  • Reducing waste. Toronto has banned cardboard, fine paper, clean wood, concrete, rubble, scrap metal and drywall from its landfill.
  • Wind energy. Toronto is building three utility-scale wind turbines along the shore of Lake Ontario. The turbines will be the first to be built in a North American downtown setting. They will generate about 1,400 megawatt-hours of electricity per year (equivalent to the power used by about 250 homes).


  • Green building. Vancouvers Standing Committee on Planning and Environment unanimously approved funding for the development of LEED-BC (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, British Columbia). This is being done in collaboration with the province of British Columbias regional Green Building Program. The adoption of the LEED green building standards in the city will shape plans to create a model sustainable community and park at a former industrial site in the heart of the city.


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Portland: Integrating transportation, urban development, and street design to produce a livable city.



Civilizing Paris
In an attempt to civilize the city, Paris is closing roads to cars and building extra wide lanes for buses and bicycles. City officials hope the changes will reduce air and noise pollution. Pollution is blamed for 1,000 extra deaths in the city each year, and the campaign against cars is being portrayed as a public health issue. To fight against the hegemony of the car is thus a duty, says Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë.


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