How can we build our homes and communities so that they co-exist harmoniously with Nature? What does it mean to create a sustainable house, a sustainable community, a sustainable city? For each additional day that we live, design and build unsustainably, we pull another fibre out of the fabric of Earth’s ecosystems.

Ten Ways to Green Up Your City

First published by Corporate Knights, 2006

1. Address Global Climate Change
This is the big one. If we don’t address global warming, we are heading into what Sir Nicholas Stern, former Chief Economist at the World Bank, says will be the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression or World War II – and that’s on top of disappearing icecaps, rising sea levels, and a third of the planet’s land turning into desert. Cities can provide the leadership that is otherwise lacking. In the USA, 328 US Mayors have signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, in which they commit their cities “to strive to meet or exceed the Kyoto Protocol target.” Boulder, Colorado, has introduced the world’s first municipal carbon tax, generating $1 million a year that will be used to fund home energy audits. What is your city doing?

2. Make Your City’s Buildings More Efficient
A quarter of our CO2 emissions are released through buildings, and we pay for every unit of energy that is wasted. Ramping up the building code to make new buildings more efficient is a start – but what about the existing housing stock? San Francisco found a solution in 1981, when it introduced a Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance. This raised the standard of efficiency by 15%, but it also applies every time a house is sold, or a building inspection needed. This is smart, since the cost can be included in the new owner’s mortgage.

3. Support Green Energy
How much wind, solar and other forms of green energy can your city develop? Calgary saves 20,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year with its wind-powered C-Trains, known as “Ride the Wind”. In Britain, the London Borough of Merton created the ground-breaking “Merton Rule” that all new non-residential developments must generate at least 10% of their energy needs from renewable energy. 19 other communities have adopted the rule, and it’s in the pipeline for 129 more. In Toronto, Wood Green Community Housing is installing 108 solar hot water systems, which will reduce their emissions by 53 tonnes a year.
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4. Support more Walking
Our legs really were made for walking, not just to dangle under a chair. Walking brings a city to life, since walking people stop and talk, which rarely happens in a car. Every community that was ever built, except in the last 100 years, was walkable. Today, its about generating compact lively centres with safe, wide sidewalks; slowing the traffic down to 30 kph when it passes through busy areas; and making sure schools, parks and recreation centres are built within walking distance of the people they serve.
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5. Support more Cycling
A friend who returned from Amsterdam recently said it was amazing to see how the bicycle had become the dominant mode of travel – and no-one was dressed in spandex. An investment in safe bike-lanes, long-distance bicycle trails, ample bicycle parking, and proper policing against bike theft will do wonders for the spirit of life, as well as reduce emissions. Victoria claims to be Canada’s cycling capital with 6% of commute trips being by bike – but that’s low compared to Swiss cities at 10%, Munich at 15%, Holland 25%; Davis California 20-30%, and Copenhagen at 36%. Yes, we have snow – but not during the summer. Quebec has built 3,600 km of off-road cycle routes, with 700 km more coming soon.
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6. Support more Transit
Transit and light rail are a necessary part of any civilized city. If only someone had stopped the auto-companies from buying up city tram-routes in the 1940s and ‘50s and tearing them up, to force more people to drive. We have to become very creative, to build a first class, city-wide transit service that everyone wants to use. In Boulder, Colorado, if a developer wants to build a new subdivision, he or she has to provide a free transit pass to the residents for the first three years – and if enough residents of a neighbourhood vote to include the cost of transit on their city taxes, it’s done for all residents for only $56 to $128 a year – and ridership increases by 50%.

7. Go Electric!
In the debate over the future of automobile technology, electric vehicles seem to make the most sense. A small lightweight electric vehicle costs only $10 a month to run, and since most trips are short, recharging is not a problem. For longer trips, the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) offers a lot of promise. By installing extra batteries in a hybrid, the PHEV enables all local trips to be electric (generated sustainably), while longer trips can be co-powered with gasoline, biofuel or hydrogen. Austin Energy (a city-owned utility) is collecting future orders for flexible-fuelled PHEVs from cities and businesses, so that auto companies can bring them onto the market at a reasonable price.

8. Green Up New Developments
Way too many new suburban developments are bland, car-dependent, anti-social energy hogs – and maybe it’s because many city governments lose their nerve when negotiating with a developer. In reality, most developers will jump through every green hoop they’re given, if that’s the cost of getting approval. So let’s see more far new developments that are pedestrian and cycle friendly, with super-efficient passive solar houses, green energy, green space, and village centres where people can gather for a snack and a coffee.
See (click LEED, then Neighborhood Development)

9. Green up your Rooftops
They’re attractive, they make good habitat for birds, and you can even grow food on them. But did you know that green roofs also reduce stormwater runoff costs, reduce energy costs for cooling, reduce the urban heat island effect, and reduce air pollution? And last twice as long as a regular roof? Maybe that’s why Toronto has a strategy and a budget devoted to encouraging more green roofs, and why there are 59 green roofs already installed, including the Mountain Equipment Co-op building on King Street.
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10. Plant More Trees
What would our cities be without trees? The forgotten parks pioneers who planted their boulevards of maples and flowering cherries 60 years ago live on today in the quiet pleasure of so many city-dwellers, and their children. And while we’re not admiring them, the trees are improving air quality, reducing the summer temperature, buffering noise pollution, providing habitat for birds and wildlife – and improving property values. Maybe that’s why Toronto is so proud of the 3 million trees that grow on public land, and why Toronto’s urban foresters work so hard to protect them.
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Guy Dauncey is author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers), and President of the BC Sustainable Energy Asssociation. See