As we head into the third decade of the 21st Century, the race to build sustainable cities is really starting to gather pace. In this post we’ll visit all six continents to check in on six of the greenest cities in the world and see how they are transforming and adapting with an eye on the environment and sustainability.
6 of the World’s Greenest Cities from 6 Different Continents
Oceania – Wellington, New Zealand
New Zealand is one of the greenest countries in the world with a huge amount of nature to protect. It’s therefore no surprise that they are making an effort to make their urban areas sustainable and Wellington is arguably the greenest capital city in the world.
Despite almost half a million people living in its relatively densely populated urban area, Wellington records low figures when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. It features a network of bush walks and nature reserves, as well as a 60-acre Botanic Garden. The city council also has a dedicated project to fully transform the NZ capital into a fully fledged smart green city by 2040.
Asia – Penang, Malaysia
The rapid development of large Asian countries like China and India has led to many of their cities ending up with dangerous levels of air pollution. However not too far away in Penang, a Malaysian city with strong Chinese and Indian influences, ambitious plans are afoot to build a brand new, futuristic, self-sustainable city that will essentially float just off the existing coastline.
While right now, Penang may not be an obvious choice when it comes to the world’s greenest cities, that could all change with the ambitious Penang2030 scheme that will implement policies to help fight climate change. If everything goes to plan, Penang’s floating islands will be a bio-diverse area where people and native animals will coexist, potentially also turning into one of Malaysia’s most sustainable tourist destinations.
North America – Vancouver, Canada
On completely the other side of the world, Vancouver is a much larger city than Wellington or Penang, but it shares many common traits with the New Zealand city in particular, especially in terms of its bay-side location and commitment to green policies.
These policies centre around healthy food and the conservation of resources and include an ambitious bid to become a zero waste society by 2040. Any wasted food will be converted into fuel while they are hoping to ensure as many products as possible are refurbished or reused before recycling.
Vancouver is also setting out to transform into a city where over half of journeys are taken by foot, bicycle and public transit. On a continent where cars are the de facto mode of transport, that would be a significant accomplishment.
South America – Curitiba, Brazil
South America may not be a continent that you associate with being at the forefront of the battle against climate change. It certainly has its fair share of chaotic, poorly designed cities but there are many others currently in the process of transforming with impressive new public transport projects and plans to better connect downtown areas with distant suburbs.
Brazil’s Curitiba is a good example of a South American city that has used radical policies to transform itself into one of the continent’s greenest. Original plans to demolish historic buildings to make way for a larger roads were scrapped several decades ago now, and instead shuttle bus routes have been built on pre-existing roads with express lanes and designated stations radically increasing public transport usage. This method of using buses to form a tube or metro-style network has been mirrored in cities up and down South America and across the developing world and has helped to ease gridlock and air pollution, even as cities have continued to grow.
Curitiba has also become one of the cities with the most green space, with more than 50 square metres of greenery per person, some feat in a city of two million residents. The green areas also act as a natural storm-water management system.
Europe – Gothenburg, Sweden
Scandinavia is at the heart of the global climate change movement and Sweden’s second city Gothenburg is one of its most sustainable urban areas. Despite being a relatively small place, a large and sensibly designed network of buses, trams and boats (operating almost exclusively on renewable energy) help ensure that residents all live within easy access of public transport, virtually negating any need to own or use a car.
Even those who live on the more than 20 islands that form the Gothenburg archipelago are well served and it’s possible to travel from the city centre to even the most distant islets without paying any more than the standard 90 minute tram fare.
Goteborg, which features on our Scandinavia backpacking route, was voted the world’s most sustainable travel destination for four years running between 2016 and 2019. It has a reputation for transforming industrial eyesores into something practical – the most famous example being its rusty port-side sauna, made entirely out of recycled materials including 12,000 glass bottles.
Africa – Durban, South Africa
Finally we head to Durban in South Africa, which was named the greenest city in the world in 2019 according to something called the Husqvarna Urban Green Space Index. It was awarded this title ahead of 97 other cities in 51 countries largely by virtue of its high percentage of green space.
Like many growing cities on the continent, the challenge is not just of building new green areas, but of protecting existing ones from being swallowed up by new developments. That has been difficult but Durban seems to have succeeded where many African cities have failed by preserving and even extending what is essentially an urban forest which has grown alongside the city.
This post on some of the world’s most sustainable cities was published in January 2021.