Five Impressive Cities
Our second annual look at communities where citizens are making a difference in their environment

by Christian Nardi

Many of us are deeply concerned about the environment—polluted waters and air, threatened open spaces and wildlife preserves, and disappearing ice caps are but a few of the problems we face today. Instead of just talking about these troubling issues, people in communities across the country are rolling up their shirtsleeves and creating green solutions. Here, Delicious Living acknowledges five such communities, both large and small, that have taken huge strides in improving the environment.

Burlington, Vermont
Population: 39,824
Why we picked it:

  • 31 percent of the city’s energy comes from renewable sources.
  • Pesticides are not allowed on Burlington’s public parks, lands, and waterways.
  • 8 percent of the city’s population eats food produced on farms within the city limits.

What do you want the town you live in to look like in 30 years? That was the question Burlington’s city government asked its residents in 1999. Keeping true to its history of public participation and progressive government, the town engaged its citizens and created an action plan for building a sustainable future. As a result, Burlington’s citizens now take part in environmental programs that run the gamut from cleaning up contaminated sites to monitoring the health of the town’s crown jewel, Lake Champlain.

“People here know they can turn out and their voice will be heard,” says Betsy Rosenbluth, director of the Legacy Project, created to help steer Burlington’s vision. “We try to tie projects into what people can do to make a difference.”

One of the best examples of this type of community-wide effort is Intervale Compost, started by the Intervale Foundation, which was initiated to restore Burlington’s 800-acre floodplain along the banks of the Winooski River. Here, the town’s farms, restaurants, hospital, schools, and residents take their food scraps and yard clippings to be composted. The end product is then sold to local farmers and home gardeners, and the proceeds—up to $220,000 a year—subsidize local agriculture and land reclamation.

And then there’s the 10 Percent Challenge, Burlington’s campaign to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 10 percent by 2010. Citizens and businesses voluntarily sign up on a website, input information, such as the number of miles they drive per week and the amount of energy they use at home, and then are guided through how they can reduce emissions. The website tracks individual and collective progress. So far, 64 businesses and 290 households have signed up, slowing the growth of emissions by 2 percent in four years.

To ensure the continuation of the town’s environmental legacy, the concept of sustainability is being adopted into the public school curriculum, and school cafeterias are switching over to organic and locally grown foods. “It was really the kids’ idea,” says Rosenbluth. “They’ve started studying sustainability, and they wanted to know why those practices weren’t being done in their own cafeteria.” No doubt, the future of Burlington is in good hands.

Chicago, Illinois
Population: 2.9 million
Why we picked it:

  • In 1999, the city committed $100 million to a variety of environmental projects, including making itself more energy-efficient.
  • It literally made the city greener by sponsoring the planting of more than 300,000 trees during the last 15 years.
  • On average, 18,000 people in the Chicago area commute to work daily on bicycles, cutting down on gas emissions.

Learn more The following websites offer ideas on how to implement some of these sustainable environmental programs in your own community.

Burlington Legacy Project:
City of Chicago Department of Environment:
Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks:
Portland Office of Sustainable Development:
Santa Monica Sustainable City Program: When Mayor Richard M. Daley is finished carrying out a slew of new environmental initiatives, he hopes his oft-nicknamed town will have earned a new moniker: Greenest City in America.

Chicago’s most impressive initiatives deal with energy conservation. For example, six of the city’s nine museums and the Art Institute of Chicago have all been converted to run partially on solar power. And all new city buildings have been built to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified. Chicago has also committed to acquiring the largest amount of renewable energy from wind, solar, and landfill gas sources ever purchased in the United States. In addition, nearly 20 percent of the city’s buildings (the equivalent of 80,000 homes) are powered by those alternative energy sources.

Since 1989, Chicago, backed by its charismatic mayor, has redoubled its efforts to clear litter from the streets, blast graffiti, and plant hundreds of thousands of flowers and trees around town. City Hall now has a 20,000-square-foot rooftop garden. By improving the quality of life in Chicago, city planners want to prevent residents from flocking to the suburbs, a pattern that contributes to sprawl, traffic, and related air pollution.

“We want to make everyone in this city good stewards of the environment,” says City Commissioner Marcia Jiménez. “Whether it’s the food we eat or the products we buy or the houses we live in, we are striving for all those things to be more sustainable.”

The Green Bungalow Initiative is a perfect example. The more than 80,000 75-year-old brick homes that make up Chicago’s Bungalow Belt have not been noted for their energy efficiency. The city recently bought four of these houses and refurbished them—one with solar panels, one with a garden rooftop, and one with recycled building materials—providing residents with a working model for making their homes environmentally friendly and cost-efficient to boot. To entice people to use the models, Chicago is offering energy conservation grants, free architectural assistance, and tax credits for remodeling. As of 2000, 1,746 people had registered to renovate their own bungalows.

Chicago’s actions are proof that it’s not only small, wealthy communities that can tackle environmental issues. “It’s encouraging that this sort of green agenda can happen in a working-class city,” says Tim Beatley, author of Green Urbanism (Island Press, 2000). “It shows sustainability is increasingly being seen as less alien and more as a way to improve the quality of life.”

Boulder, Colorado
Population: 94,673
Why we picked it:

  • 130 miles of hiking and biking trails exist within the 27.8-square-mile city limits.
  • The city’s Transportation Resource Center offers free recycled bikes donated by community members and the local police. Helmets are also free.
  • 90 percent of residents voluntarily participate in recycling.

Driving the 25 miles on Highway 36 north of Denver you’ll find the usual display of sprawl: cookie-cutter subdivisions, big-box stores, megaplex movie theaters, and rambling concrete parking lots. But just when you thought the SuperTargets would never end, the highway climbs a small rise. On the other side, nestled up to the famous Flatiron rock formations, is a sprawl-free oasis—lush farmland, pine forests, and giant reservoirs—surrounding the unique community of Boulder.

Even back in 1898, when they started preserving land around the city, Boulder’s planners showed great forethought. Since then, its citizens have worked hard to protect and preserve almost 42,800 acres of land—creating a buffer zone around the city that serves as an outdoor playground full of fishing holes, hiking trails, and rock-climbing areas, and home to an array of wildlife including bears, foxes, and mountain lions.

In 1967, Boulder became the first town in the nation to pass a sales tax specifically aimed at raising money to buy, manage, and maintain open space. And last November, when President Bush’s tax cuts were creating a nationwide frenzy, Boulder voters approved their third sales-tax hike to raise $51 million to acquire and preserve more land. “The people of Boulder never hesitate when it comes to supporting preservation programs,” says Open Space and Mountain Parks Public Information Officer Cathy Vaughan-Grabowski. “The town is very eco-minded.”

Although Boulder is known for its Open Space Program, its forward-thinking attitude has put the town on the forefront of a number of other initiatives as well. The Blueline Ordinance, which restricts water services above a certain contour line of elevation, has prevented stilted homes from lining the hillsides and blighting mountain views. To monitor the development that is allowed, Boulder boasts the first mandatory residential green-building program in the country, called the Green Point System. New homes and additions of more than 500 square feet are not granted permits unless building plans earn a certain number of “green points,” which are awarded for conservation of fossil fuels, the use of xeriscapes, recycling of construction debris, and other measures that save the city electricity and water and reduce pollution. Which, along with keeping out the sprawl, will help keep Boulder the true oasis it has strived so hard to become.

“Boulder has been making a sustainable community for many years,” says Vaughan-Grabowski. We think the city’s founders would be quite pleased with the progress.

Photo by Larry Geddis

Portland, Oregon
Population: 600,000
Why we picked it:

  • 10 percent of the city’s energy comes from renewable sources (only a handful of cities across the country are using renewable energy at all).
  • $61,000 in electricity is saved each year by converting sewage gas into energy.
  • Portland has a higher percentage of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings than any other city in North America.
  • 400 local volunteers teach the community about recycling.

Identify an innovative green solution and chances are its roots lie in Portland. From the urban growth boundary that has saved 25 million acres of forest and farmland surrounding the city to an efficient solid-waste program that recycles nearly 60 percent of the city’s trash, more than any other American town, Portland has set a precedent for the world to follow.

“Portland is leading the way on so many things,” says Tim Beatley, Green Urbanism author and a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture in Charlottesville. “It’s the comprehensible way they do things that has made Portland such a model.”

One highlight is Portland’s Global Warming Program, implemented in 1993, before the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was even written. With this program, Portland spent millions of dollars to install solar-operated parking meters, energy-efficient traffic lights, and a water-treatment plant that uses microturbans and fuel cells to convert methane into electricity. The program is proof sustainability pays off; the city now saves $2 million a year in electricity.

Portland’s current focus is tackling its 100-year-old sewage system, which used to dump 10 billion gallons of polluted water each year directly into the Willamette River. Among other things, the city has asked residents to disconnect downspouts from roofs so rainwater goes into yards instead of sewers. So far, 30,000 residents have done so, and because of this fix and a new sewage system being installed, runoff into the river is down to 3 billion gallons. When the sewer project is complete in 2011, runoff may be down 98 percent to 200 million gallons.

What motivates Portland? “These programs are a huge part of why the quality of life here is so high,” explains Portland’s Environmental Department Policy Director Jeff Cogen. “The people of this city really believe in this stuff.”

Santa Monica, California
Population: 84,000
Why we picked it

  • 75 percent of the city’s public works fleet runs on alternative fuel, one of the largest such fleets in the country.
  • It is the first city to use renewable energy in all public buildings.
  • Greenhouse emissions have been cut by 6 percent since 1990, while most cities have increased their emissions in that time.

In 1991, hoping to get an idea of how its city was performing environmentally, Santa Monica’s city council commissioned a six-month study to look at everything from pollution to energy use. Council members soon discovered that without some tough love, this west Los Angeles beachside town would continue to harm the environment. By 1994, the council adopted its first Sustainable City Plan, and since then it has been experiencing one success after another.

Take, for example, the cleanup of the long-polluted Santa Monica Bay. The creative answer to this vast pollution problem? The Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility, the first of its kind in the world, which now collects 95 percent of the community’s urban water runoff (about 500,000 gallons a day) that would otherwise be flushed into the bay. The facility treats the water and converts it for landscaping and plumbing uses—supplying about 4 percent of the city’s daily water usage.

Because water is such a precious commodity in the Los Angeles area, Santa Monica is also encouraging residents to cut down on use. In 1989, it began offering free low-flush toilets; now 96 percent of residents and 55 percent of businesses have them. Santa Monica also plans to offer residents subsidized controlled irrigation systems and funding for the design and installation of xeriscapes. Since the Sustainable City Plan was initiated by the city government, water use has been cut by 6 percent; the city is striving for an impressive 20 percent reduction by 2010.

Santa Monica residents are getting excited about what has been happening around their city. “Initially, there wasn’t much community awareness about what was going on,” says Dean Kubani, Santa Monica’s senior environmental analyst. “Now people are recognizing what the plan has provided for the community. There is a lot more involvement.”

Next on the agenda for Santa Monica is creating more open space and building city-funded, affordable green housing, says Kubani. “The biggest challenge is to have a strong community where everyone’s basic needs are met, without harming the environment. That’s what sustainability is all about.”