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The Surprising Ways Cities Work to Clean the Environment

Municipal programs and urban design offer cities multiple, perhaps surprising ways, to clean the environment.
Devin Partida | March 28, 2021, 11am PDT
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Igor Starkov

For a number of cities around the world, the environment has become priority number one. Growing awareness of how cities contribute to emissions and damage the environment has city planners and municipal officials rethinking how they should run cities.

This change in perspective has led to many new green policies in cities of all sizes. In some cases, these programs work quietly in the background—sometimes without city residents even noticing them.

These are five surprising ways that cities have used municipal programs and urban design to clean up the environment.

1. Vancouver, Canada: Green Waste Management That Reduces Reliance on Landfills

In 2014, according to city officials, Vancouver's emissions were at a record low of just 4.4 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. That's around a third of the emissions produced in either Seattle or Portland—two similarly sized cities also in the Pacific Northwest.

Vancouver owes its success to a combination of good green policies and eco-friendly urban design strategy. But part of what makes the city’s approach to sustainable management unique is good waste management strategy.

For example, the city runs a curbside organics collection service, which gathers organic waste—like lawn trimmings and food scraps—that's then turned into various compost products. These products are then sold to local farmers and gardeners.

The city has also adopted policies to cut down on single-use items—like plastic bags and utensils—as well as municipal programs that teach residents what they can and can't recycle.

Right now, Vancouver is aiming for a goal of zero waste in landfills by 2040. With these programs, the city may be on track, without much of an impact on daily life.

2. Jakarta, Indonesia: Smart Lights That Cut Down on Energy Waste

Jakarta is one of a growing number of smart cities. These are cities that use internet-connected devices to collect data and manage essential utilities. One of the city's biggest smart projects is a system of internet-connected streetlights, coordinated by a central management system.

According to one report, this light management system may be able to help the city reduce the city’s streetlight power consumption, which generates 2.3 million tons of CO2 annually, by up to 40%.

The city is saving energy in two ways. First, it's working to replace older, less-efficient lighting tech—like sodium and mercury lamps—with highly efficient LEDs. Secondly, it's using a central light management system to automatically control lighting and reduce energy waste.

The system also allows for remote monitoring of the city's entire streetlight system—meaning officials will get instant updates on faulty lights and outages. This means the city won't have to use maintenance vehicles to check up on street lights, helping reduce city fuel consumption.

In the future, sensors installed on these streetlights could also help city officials track municipal air quality—providing environmental data that's become increasingly important to businesses and urban planners around the world.

3. Reykjavík, Iceland: Sustainable Power From Underground Springs

In Iceland, around 99.9% of power is generated by renewables—primarily hydroelectric dams and geothermal energy systems that draw warmth from deep underground.

It may come as no surprise, then, that Reykjavík, the island nation’s capital city, is home to one of the world's largest and most complex geothermal heating systems.

Since 1930, Reykjavík has used natural hot water drawn from underground springs to heat the city's homes and commercial buildings. Today, the city uses an increasingly sophisticated geothermal infrastructure to provide power to the city—reducing CO2 emissions by an estimated 2.5 million to 4 million tons every year.

In the future, the city is likely to expand its use of geothermal energy further and potentially tap into volcanoes for power. Several Icelandic geothermal companies have constructed experimental "supercritical" wells that use the heat and pressure generated by volcano reservoirs.

These supercritical geothermal wells are still mostly experimental, but they represent the cutting edge of renewable energy production for cities and could soon reshape how Reykjavík keeps the lights on.

Like other leaders in eco-friendly urban design, Reykjavík's use of green energy is also complemented by several other unique city programs. Dense urban development, energy-efficient building design standards, and citywide public transportation all help keep emissions low.

4. Freiburg’s Vauban District, Germany: The "Fused Grid" That Makes Walking Easy and Keeps Cars Out

For much of recent history, Freiburg's Vauban district was a French military base. When troops left in 1992, residents moved back into the area—and given the opportunity to rebuild the city, they chose a unique approach to urban design.

Residents in Vauban primarily live in cooperatively-owned apartment buildings outfitted with rooftop solar panels that cover most of the district’s energy needs. Additional power is provided by a nearby high-efficiency biomass and gas cogeneration plant.

Local design practices help keep energy needs low. Homes in the district are built with timber framing, heavy insulation, and sealed windows to keep the weather out and heat in.

Studies of transportation within the district found that cycling is the primary mode of transportation for residents. Many in the district are also skipping auto ownership altogether as a result of the district's high walkability. As of 2009, around 70% of households in the district didn't own a car.

The district’s design both facilitates walking and also subtly discourages the use of cars, helping push drivers to roads outside residential areas.

The district uses what’s called a "fused grid" approach to street layout—one with a combination of large, grid-like roads and smaller residential streets that end in cul-de-sacs—along with another design strategy called "filtered permeability."

Filtered permeability is the use of subtle urban design to encourage drivers to turn away from dense urban areas with high levels of foot traffic. Features like reduced speed limits, narrow streets, tight turns, and pedestrian-only paths help steer cars away from neighborhoods towards high-capacity urban roads.

Together, these strategies help keep heavy traffic out of neighborhoods without disrupting traffic flow—making it both safer and more enjoyable to bike or walk through the district.

While most cities probably won't get the opportunity to build inner-city neighborhoods from scratch, the Vauban district offers a valuable example of how highly walkable design is possible for modern cities and how it can have seriously positive environmental benefits.

5. Madrid, Spain: Moving People With Sustainable Taxis

Even with districts like Vauban, however, most cities are likely stuck with cars—meaning they need to find ways to make road travel more sustainable.

Madrid, the capital of Spain, is solving this problem by making its taxi industry more sustainable. For example, the city recently became home to the world’s largest fleet of all-electric taxis. The city's electric taxi fleet, made up of 110 cars, was specially manufactured by Nissan for Madrid.

City officials are also helping taxi owners who rely on gas-powered vehicles make the switch to EVs, hybrids, or high-efficiency vehicles.

In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials extended a line of aid to Madrid's ailing taxi sector, offering money to taxi drivers willing to replace polluting vehicles with new, eco-friendly cars. Future programs are likely to help drivers make similar transitions.

The city is already a leader in eco-friendly taxi services. Soon, it may offer the world's first example of what a 100% sustainable taxi sector can look like.

How New City Programs Are Protecting the Environment

Cities are taking bold new steps to protect the environment—and, in many cases, are finding ways to implement green policies that many residents don't even notice in daily life.

Eco-friendly taxis, walkable urban design, and smart street lights are all examples of how new green policies can work quietly in the background to cut down on emissions and reduce pollution.

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