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San Francisco named 'greenest' city in U.S.; Vancouver tops in Canada

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San Francisco tops the nation in sustainability credentials, with Vancouver and New York close behind, according to a new "Green City Index."

San Francisco tops the nation in "green" credentials, according to a new study.

In a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the City by the Bay topped 26 other major U.S. and Canadian cities as measured by performance on nine metrics: carbon emissions, energy usage, land use, green buildings, public transportation, water use, waste management, air quality and environmental governance.

New York, Seattle, Denver and Boston rounded out the top five U.S. cities in the study, which was commissioned by conglomerate Siemens.

The U.S. and Canada Green City Index intends to draw attention to North American cities that are pursuing sustainable agendas, despite a lack of a federal climate roadmap. It intends to highlight best practices and provide a baseline for others striving to do more.

Within the nine categories are 31 indicators: 16 quantitative (such as water consumption or electricity consumption per capita) and 15 qualitative (such as CO2 reduction targets or green buildings incentives).

The rankings came out as follows:

  1. San Francisco
  2. Vancouver
  3. New York
  4. Seattle
  5. Denver
  6. Boston
  7. Los Angeles
  8. Washington DC
  9. Toronto
  10. Minneapolis
  11. Chicago
  12. Ottawa
  13. Philadelphia
  14. Calgary
  15. Sacramento
  16. Houston
  17. Dallas
  18. Orlando
  19. Montreal
  20. Charlotte
  21. Atlanta
  22. Miami
  23. Pittsburgh
  24. Phoenix
  25. Cleveland
  26. St. Louis
  27. Detroit

As you might expect, the cities that performed best in the rankings had the most comprehensive plans; interestingly, wealth and environmental performance were not as strongly correlated in the two countries as in Europe or Asia.

A few key insights:

  • American cities fared comparatively well in air and waste policies and recycling and water infrastructure.
  • Public transportation is well-supported and incentivized in many cities, but less often used in all but the most densely populated cities on the list.
  • CO2 emissions and electricity use is notably higher in the U.S.
  • The policy environment at local, state and national levels is gaining traction.

The cities were selected by population (top 20 U.S. combined statistical areas, top five Canadian census metropolitan areas) and deliberated upon by a panel of global experts. (Fun fact: panelists requested that Miami and Phoenix be included; Portland makes a cameo in the report but is too small to make the main list.)

The index also broke down the rankings by topic to see where each city really shines (or doesn't).

Here are the top three in each category:

CO2

  • Vancouver
  • Miami
  • New York

Energy

  • Denver
  • Boston
  • San Francisco

Land use

  • New York
  • Minneapolis
  • Ottawa

Buildings

  • Seattle
  • San Francisco
  • Washington, D.C.

Transport

  • New York
  • San Francisco
  • Vancouver

Water

  • Calgary
  • Boston
  • New York

Waste

  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Los Angeles

Air

  • Vancouver
  • San Francisco
  • New York

Environmental Governance

  • Denver, New York, Washington (tie)

So why does all this matter? Because both nations are becoming increasingly more urban.

The authors write:

According to the United Nations Population Division, 82% of Americans and 81% of Canadians lived in cities in 2010 and these proportions are set to continue rising, reaching 90% for the US and 88% for Canada by 2050. This is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1955, two-thirds of the populations of both countries lived in cities. Urbanization, though, has now reached a stage where rural America has begun to shrink. In absolute terms, the rural US population dropped by 12% in the last 20 years and the UN predicts it will decline another 14% in the next two decades, even as the overall national population rises. A similar trend is expected to emerge in Canada around 2020.

You can read the entire report here (.pdf).

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure