Discover the top 11 Sustainable Cities Around The World

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When we think of cities, we tend to think of iconic landmarks and innovative architecture, but we also see the traffic congestion, the crowds, and oftentimes a lot of air pollution. So how can cities be sustainable?

We have gathered a list of the most sustainable cities and explain how they use innovative ways to work towards a better future, such as tackling waste issues, planting trees and expanding their green areas, using clean or renewable energy, and investing in recycling processes.

Here’s a look at our top 11 sustainable cities. But before you go, here’s our free checklist of all the ways to be a sustainable tourist.

1. Lisbon, Portugal

lisbon miradouro
Lisbon, Portugal

Picture Lisbon. Do you see narrow cobblestone streets, historical architecture, freshly grilled seafood, mouth-watering pastel de nata (Portuguese egg tart), and kilometres of coastline and beautiful beaches? 

What you might not see right away is that Lisbon is also a green city. In 2020, Lisbon won the title of Green Capital by the EU Commission, for the following reasons: eco friendly mobility systems (electric buses and tuk tuks with zero emission, not to mention e-bikes and scooters), sustainable land use, green growth and innovation, and management of waste.

Moreover, with 300 acres of green parks recently added, about 75% of Lisbon residents now live within 300 metres of a green area.  More fun facts about Portugal here.

The interest in a greener movement is growing among Lisbon residents, as evidenced by the rise of zero waste grocery shops, and vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants. You can even find a vegan version of pastel de nata.

Find the best eco-friendly hotels in Lisbon

2. Copenhagen, Denmark

sustainable cities
Copenhagen, Denmark

Look up sustainable cities and Copenhagen will consistently pop up. Known as one of the most eco-friendly places on earth, Copenhagen plans to be the first carbon neutral city in the world by 2025. Progress so far: right on track. 

Very little of the city’s waste ends in landfills (less than 2%). Recycling is huge and is used to create energy at the Amager Resource Centre (where you can also do some artificial skiing and hang out in the park), and the city has the cleanest tap water. 

Copenhagen also uses an energy-efficient heating system for almost every household, and has innovative cooling systems that save about 70% of the energy of an air conditioning unit. 

There are also a few package free shops and zero waste restaurants.

Getting around is easy. The city is pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly: there is something called super cycle highways that allow for easy biking. There are more bikes than cars in Copenhagen, and 45% of the residents commute by bicycle, which is impressive given the rainy and cold weather. The boats are solar powered, and the electric buses emit zero carbon gas emissions. 

3. Singapore

sustainable cities

A small nation of 5.7 million people, Singapore is known for its delicious street food scenes with diverse cuisines, but also for being forward thinking and eco-friendly. 

Singapore has a sustainable action plan called the Sustainable Development Blueprint. Waterways have been cleaned up and you can see otters coming back. A few hotels, malls, and residential buildings have “greened” their walls and roofs, meaning there are plants and other vegetation attached to and growing on them.

This helps to regulate the building’s internal temperature, reduce rainwater waste, and increase biodiversity. One condominium in Singapore was cited by the Guinness World Records as having the largest green wall in the world. The goal is to green mark-certify 80% of buildings by 2030, an initiative pushed by the government. 

There is limited car ownership among residents which is fine seeing as the public transport is very effective and efficient, and helps to reduce pollution and traffic congestion. 

The magnificent Gardens by the Bay is home to 18 supertrees: these are metal structures about 25-50 metres in height (82-164 feet). They are full of life, and also generate solar power, collect rainwater, and cool the buildings in the area. 

To quote Sir David Attenborough, “Singapore is a city of the future. Create the space and the animals will come”. 

4. Vancouver, Canada

sustainable cities
Vancouver, Canada

Albeit quite pricey, Vancouver is an amazing city due to the plentitude of nature around: forests, mountains, and beaches, and the longest uninterrupted waterfront path in the world at Seaside Greenway.

Vancouver was already “climate-woke” since the 90s, when it became the one of the first cities in North America to address the climate crisis publicly. Since then, it made a point of setting very specific goals as part of its action plan: increase green jobs, expand green buildings, and reduce greenhouse gases.

Another major goal is to be completely zero waste by 2040, and only use renewable energy sources by 2050. This includes energy used for heating, cooling, transportation, and electricity. 

There’s a real sense of community around green initiatives. You can easily find zero waste cafes and grocery shops. The public library has a green roof that manages rainwater, regulates the building temperature, and allows the bees to hang out. Its rooftop garden is home to native plants and solar panels.

Currently, Vancouver has one of the lowest emissions in North America.

5. Ljubljana, Slovenia

sustainable country - Slovenia
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Among our list of top 11 sustainable cities, Ljubljana in Slovenia is probably the least popular one, but deserves a shout out nonetheless. Slovenia is beautiful and full of natural beauty. Its capital city Ljubljana, has a lot of green spaces. In 2016, the city received the award for Europe’s Green Capital of Europe, awarded by the EU Commission. 

Ljubljana has implemented a waste management system that cuts down the amount of waste that ends in landfills by 80%. Their goal is to reduce waste created by one individual to 60 kg per year (currently one person in Slovenia creates 470 kg of waste per year, on average). 

The city also found a way to use rain water and recycled water to clean the streets. They even have vending machines that sell zero waste products and encourage people to bring their own reusable packaging.

Cars are not allowed in the centre of the city, which means that the area around the Ljubljanica River, which flows through the city, remains peaceful for pedestrians and cyclists.

6. Portland, Oregon

portland oregon sustainable cities
Portland, Oregon Panorama. Sunset scene with dramatic sky and light reflections on the Willamette River.

Known for its eclectic culture, Portland has built an amazing community of residents that value sustainability and the zero-waste and low-waste movement. Portland was the first US city to create an action plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. 

Portland’s natural surroundings make it incredibly pleasant to tour the city, and biking is very much encouraged. Many people bike to work, and this biking commute method is the highest in the US compared to other cities. 

In Portland you will find DIY and mending workshops that allow residents to reduce their waste by reusing and recycling their items. There are plenty of vegan restaurants, really cool thrift shops, lots of public parks, a waterfront, and urban forests. 

Currently, Portland has more than 200 green areas in the city, and this includes forests, marshlands, polished gardens, parks, and hiking trails. Visitors can easily enjoy a mix of city life and nature in Portland. 

7. San Francisco, USA

San Francisco
San Francisco, USA

This one is perhaps surprising, as San Francisco is notorious for being crowded and dirty. SF residents regularly file complaints about animal and human waste (yep you read that right), needles, and lots of other types of garbage. 

However, San Francisco was the first city in the US to ban single use plastic items such as straws, bags, and utensils. Additionally, 80% of its trash is recycled or composted, and SF is the US city with the least amount of waste in landfills. 

You can easily find vegan and vegetarian restaurants in San Francisco, as well as low waste stores where you can buy in bulk and reduce your use of packaging. 

Being the hub for creative ideas and multiple unicorn companies, it makes sense that there are some technologies that have helped to improve energy efficiency and also make the transport system greener. Light rails and over half of the MUNI buses are zero-emission, and there are many hybrid and electric buses all over the city. 

Many residents are also making an effort to be more sustainable. The water use fell by half in the past few years, due to droughts that are plaguing the area. San Francisco is still very much a gorgeous city with plenty of sustainable initiatives for residents and visitors to enjoy. 

8. Stockholm, Sweden

sustainable city - Stockholm
Stockholm, Sweden

One of the cleanest cities in Europe, Sweden’s capital city is famous for the Abba museum, the emblematic city hall, the world’s open air museum, and the world’s first national city park. 

Stockholm aims to be fossil fuel free by 2050 and already has a system that does not require a lot of fossil fuels. Stockholm has put into place the Grow Smarter Project, which uses sewage to produce fuel in their bio-fuel conversion plants. 

The city shifted from oil to district heating by using centralized heat sources like a power station to heat and cool buildings. This accounts for 80% of hot water and heating in households, which helped Sweden to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Stockholm also found ways to use the heat produced by data centers and large buildings to provide heat to residents. 

Stockholm residents are also very keen about fighting the climate crisis and adopting green habits. More than 70000 residents prefer to cycle to work rather than use a car, which shows a deep commitment to a sustainable lifestyle, especially given the cold weather throughout the majority of the year. 

In 2020, Sweden ranked number 1 as the best country for sustainable tourism

9. Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Famous for its canals, Amsterdam is a popular destination due to its rich history, gothic and neo-gothic architecture, extensive parks and an inner city forest, and of course the red light district.

Also known as the city of bikes, there are apparently more bikes than there are people in Amsterdam. The majority of people use bicycles for their commute, and even students going to school. There are also plenty of electric vehicles and many charging stations. All of this contributes to the clean air you will experience in Amsterdam.

There is an eco-conscious mentality among Amsterdam residents, which is evident in the number of innovative zero waste and sustainable brands. Head to De Ceuvel to discover a sustainable space for events, an organic cafe, and coworking spaces. 

10. Curitiba, Brazil

sustainable city - Curitiba Brazil
Curitiba, Brazil

Located about 416 km (258 miles) south of São Paulo, Curitiba is the green capital of Brazil. It is a cultural and creative city, home to the Wire Opera House and Teatro Guaíra.

One of the main solutions that Curitiba put into place to become a sustainable city was to create an excellent public transportation system, with efficient buses with low emissions. There are dedicated lanes to pedestrians and cyclists, which has also contributed to the green efforts of the city.

Curitiba recycles 70% of its waste. Priority is given to urban planning embedded in green initiatives. There are 14 forests and 16 parks in the urban area, and not a lot of skyscrapers. 

The city also offers an incentive program that provides food and cash in exchange for recyclable waste products. This encourages the residents to recycle, but the program also helps to feed about 7000 residents from low income households. 

11. Reykjavik, Iceland

sustainable cities - Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik, Iceland

A relatively unknown country for tourism about a decade ago, Reykjavik is now one of those places that suffers increasingly from mass tourism. However, the reasons that it attracts so many visitors are valid: mystical landscapes, volcanoes and mountains covered with snow, the Northern lights, and natural geothermal spas.

Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland and also the greenest (and consistently one of the most sustainable cities in the world). In fact, it aims to be free from fossil fuel use by 2050 and carbon-neutral by 2040. Only about 0.1% of Iceland’s electricity is from fossil fuels. Geothermal wells help to power the city by turning water into steam which generates electricity. About 99% of the electricity comes from hydropower and geothermal power. 

The tap water in Reykjavik is one of the best in the world. It’s free of chemicals and minerals, which is unheard of. 

Reykjavik ranks 6th on the Global Destination Sustainability Index, which is another awesome reason to visit and learn from them. 

Final thoughts on the top 11 sustainable cities in the world

It is interesting to see how these sustainable cities use innovative technology and creative ideas to fight the climate crisis and push for a greener era. Their eco-friendly approach is not only mentally and physically beneficial to tourists and residents, but will also benefit future generations. 

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