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The World's Most Sustainable Communities

Updated on October 21, 2012

A sustainable community is one designed to minimize its environmental impact, including its overall energy expenditure and waste. This is the most basic definition that can be offered on a topic about which there is much disagreement.

The UN-established Brandtland Commission, purposed to mobilize nations around sustainable development, has thus far produced the most widely recognized definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Although there is variance as to how exactly this goal is achieved, it is not as big a problem as much as it demonstrates that the portrait of the sustainable community remains incomplete.

Delightfully, it means that we discover a showcase of locales and their renditions of green living and energy renewal that disclose their endeavors to live within means while saving the future.

So who is doing it well? Many could be listed, but here is a list of the most consistent. Four premier cities are featured and include very informative videos; four others are listed in sidebars.

Reykjavik, Iceland: Eco-Friendly City


Sustainable Reykjavik

Plus...Vancouver, British Columbia (CAN)

A large city drawing 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

Reykjavik is considered by some the greenest city in the world in the greenest country on earth. This capital city of only 120,000 boasts some of the best sustainable practices of any place. The city’s heat and electricity is entirely supplied by geothermal and hydropower sources. The move has saved the city billions of dollars in heating costs since it was begun in the 1940s. The city also uses hydrogen-powered buses, the exhaust of which is pure water.

Iceland has been working toward total independence of fossil fuels for more than 50 years now with the year 2050 as its target date. It is understandable then that Reykjavik should lead the way. The city is seeking the acclaim of being Europe’s greenest city and is in the running for the title of European Green Capital first awarded in 2010.

Copenhagen, Denmark: Best Practices in Energy Renewal


Sustainable Copenhagen

Plus...Abu Dhabi, UAE

An oil city using its billions to fund endeavors in renewable energy and sustainable technology.

Copenhagen is a model of sustainable development. Tough policy keeps sustainability an important tenant in the city, policy like mandatory green roof statutes. The city is currently installing “pocket parks” around the city. These parks, half the size of soccer fields, support the goal that by 2015 ninety percent of its citizens should be able to walk to a green space in less than 15 minutes—that is, if they don’t bike there.

One-third of the Copenhagen’s 1.2 million inhabitants take a bike to work, college, or school each day via 217 miles of bikeway.

The city reuses excess heat from incinerator and power plants to heat its downtown buildings. Copenhagen currently boasts 5,600 windmills that generate ten percent of Denmark’s energy; but in 2001 the world’s largest windmill park was built offshore that further supplies four percent of Copenhagen’s own energy. A new metro system was introduced in 2000, this in a thriving capital that has less than the average number of cars than other locales in Denmark.

Copenhagen was awarded the European Environmental Award in 2006 for holistic planning and cleaning up its public waterways.

Malmo, Sweden: The Environmentally-Conscious City

Malmo and the Turning Torso tower in background
Malmo and the Turning Torso tower in background | Source

Sustainable Malmo

Plus...Portland, Oregon (USA)

America's greenest city with more than 92,000 acres of green space and 74 miles of hiking, running, and biking trails.

Malmo is a city on a mission. The city plans to be climate-neutral (emitting no greenhouse gases) by 2020 and completely powered by renewable energy by 2030. Already it has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent and been a recipient of the UN Habitat’s Scroll of Honor Award for its approach to becoming an eco-city.

Portions of Malmo today run entirely off of renewable energy. Household waste is burned to generate heat and electricity, and the city recycles 70 percent of the waste collected in its several recycling houses.

Malmo boasts the world’s first emissions-free electric street trains and features innovative green architecture, like botanical roof gardens that reduce runoff and add insulation to buildings, thereby reducing energy costs.

Green space ordinances require developers to include a minimum amount of greenery and “green points” in every courtyard, like adding birdhouses or enough soil to sustain a garden. Most of all, the city is investing in centers for learning urban sustainability, one such being its Institute for Sustainable Urban Development.

Curitiba, Brazil: Urban Master Plan


Sustainable Curitiba

Plus...Oslo, Norway

A city converting its city vehicles to all-electric and using its large oil and natural gas fund to support sustainability innovation.

Called the ecological capital of Brazil, Curitiba, at 1.8 million inhabitants, has constantly placed at the very top of the list of global eco-cities. The city’s sustainable initiative began in the 1960s with a population explosion officials feared would change the character of the city. So a team of professionals launched a campaign—the Curitiba Master Plan—for strict controls on urban sprawl, traffic, and affordable public transit.

The Plan centers on a road system that curtails the city’s growth from its core outward and instead along five wide boulevards radiating from the core. Looping through the boulevards is the Trinary roadway comprised of two one-way streets proceeding in opposite directions that enclose a smaller two-lane street for express buses. Lower density developments are zoned in the farthest distances from the roads to reduce traffic.

The roadway allows the bus system—the best in the world—to work with ease. Buses are used by more than 2.3 million people daily, or 85 percent of the metropolis. Minibuses service outer residential areas and deliver riders to more conventional buses that bring the masses into the city center and other districts. Overall, the bus system saves about 27 million auto trips per year as well as 27 million liters of fuel. Additionally, Curitiba’s Green Exchange program offers the poor free transport and food in exchange for their recyclables and trash.

The city boasts 580 square feet of green space per capita. Curitiba was awarded the 2010 recipient of the Globe Award for sustainability.

There are many other examples of green communities. Let's all encourage our towns and regions to become more environmentally friendly. The "world's most sustainable community" can happen anywhere.


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    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thank you for your encouraging word, whowas. The future is definitely urban and a focus on sustainability couldn't arise at a better time. Our nations and the world must show more responsibility to conserve and think about the health of the planet and its citizens before the costs of not doing so affect us in ways we have not foreseen.

    • profile image

      whowas 5 years ago

      An interesting and inspiring piece of work this and nicely written, too.

      I have my suspicions about the use of the two words 'development' and 'sustainable' in the same sentence - it seems something of an oxymoron. However, I get the idea that precision in terms is not as important as a broad understanding of the popular terminology and I am delighted by these wonderful examples of urban systems that have a minimally damaging impact on the wider ecology. Wonderful stuff. Would that the governments and people of UK and USA could share even a fraction of the good sense and sound values of these other folks!

      I think the future is urban - there just isn't enough planet for it to be otherwise, especially if we aim to maintain at least some biodiversity. These are fine models that help us to envision the life-friendly urban environments of the future.

      Thanks. :)

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      DS Duby, thanks for reading and sharing. I really wish cities in America were more conscious to being sustainable like those in Europe, particularly Scandinavia and Iceland. Yes, we have Portland, San Francisco, and New York that lead this charge, but more can certainly be done by all. I think we can see that it really makes an environmental difference, if only in our attitude toward our earth and its resources. It's going to become a far more important subject in future days.

    • DS Duby profile image

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Green cities are an incredible idea and design, just imagine if every city followed this standard. One can only dream. voted up, awesome, interesting and shared.

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thank you, Global-Chica. Your masters degree sounds very interesting. A few American cities do compare globally...perhaps our two greenest, Portland and San Francisco; but they're further down the list somewhere. I'm glad to know, however, that this "movement" is spreading and becoming a global way of life.

    • Global-Chica profile image

      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      ithabise, this article is such a great read! I'm currently in the process of writing my master's thesis within the subject of corporate sustainability reporting and loved reading your hub and hearing how cities are taking initiatives to be sustainable and "green". I wish we'd also see American cities on the list of sustainable communities. Voted up and awesome!

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Your comment makes me proud and excited about sustainability as a higher level of human achievement, necessary achievement and progress. I appreciate your comment.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Well done Ithabise! I had no idea that many cities are achieving the levels of sustainability you describe. They are an inspiration to us in North America!

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Doc Sonic, I could only think of the section on Copenhagen as I read your comment. Sometimes it's not until progress leaves you behind that you rethink your luxury. I see this type of thing in my hometown and the reasons why it hasn't grown all these years. We must learn to be more than self-satisfied but rather satisfied with progress for the good of all and, in this case, our earth and its resources. Thank you for such a relevant comment.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      We can certainly do better here in the US. Unfortunately, we have a lot of NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude. I live on Cape Cod, where they've been trying to develop an offshore wind farm for many years. People debate the technology and environmental impacts, and that's as it should be. What's annoying, however, are the extremely vocal objections from the folks in Hyannisport, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard who object simply because they think it will spoil their view. "Oh yes," they say. "We must have alternate, sustainable energy, but not THERE - not where I can SEE it!".

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      It is interesting! It proves what we already know: that we can do better and undo many of the problems we've helped to create. Thanks for reading!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

      That was so interesting. I had no idea some of the wonderful things that these cities are doing. Thanks so much for sharing this information.

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thanks, CleverCat! You know, I found myself daydreaming about visiting Curitiba. I'd love to simply visit these places and get a feel for how sustainability feels as a civic duty and goal. I appreciate your comment.

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      YES! Fab Hub. Voted up and interesting! Very cool about the Curitiba master plan. I loved this one.

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      The photos were fun to peruse. I just wish I could visit! Thanks for your nice comment, Alissa.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 5 years ago from Normandy, TN

      Fantastic and informative hub! The pictures of each city are breathtaking and knowing that each of these cities are among the "greenest" in the world just makes them that much better. Job well done - Voted up, awesome, and interesting!

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      K9keystrokes, thank you for so generous a compliment. Curious about Copenhagen... HubHugs back at-ya!

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 5 years ago from Northern, California

      Fantastic and important information you provide here. I was surprised to see Copenhagen on the list, but Oregon seemed like a "natural" fit for the topic. Great stuff! Voted Up across the board!


    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thanks, Cclitgirl. I hope to follow-up with a like hub on American cities that are doing the right thing. Thanks for sharing this as well. I really hope that "green" becomes as important and savvy in America as it is in Europe and parts of Asia. We are the second largest consumer of energy in the world and need to be forward-thinking about sustainability.

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Mtbailz, thanks so much for the compliment. I'm glad that you've learned a little more. There are so many innovative solutions to the problems that plague our beautiful earth.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 5 years ago from Western NC

      This is beautiful! Voted up, across, bookmarked and socially shared. I wish every city in the US could become carbon-neutral. This would be a dream come true. Beautiful pictures, too!!

    • profile image

      Mtbailz 5 years ago

      This was an outstanding Hub. I received quite a bit of useful and interesting information. Thanks a bunch!