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Growing Green Cities

Green building in Santiago, Chile (Photo: nielsvk/flickr.com)

Our really old picture of cities is Dickensian.  Grime, soot, crowding and dank back alleys. 

Our 20th century picture is high-rise energy consumption ringed by factories and car-culture suburbs. 

The 21st century vision that’s emerging is “green cities” — high-efficiency leaders in renewable energy, and recycling, with gardens on the rooftops and solar power lighting up the town. 

In this picture, population density is an advantage. Good thing, too. Cities consume 75 percent of the world’s energy. You can’t have a green planet without them in the lead. 

This Hour, On Point:  Exploring green cities.


Joan Fitzgerald, Director of the Law, Policy and Society program at Northeastern University and author of “Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development”

Jeb Brugmann, urban development consultant, founder of “ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability,” an association of over 1,000 local governments and government organizations worldwide that have committed to sustainable development.  He’s author of “Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World.”

Read an excerpt from “Welcome to the Urban Revolution”

Bob Dixson, Mayor of Greensburg, KS. Greensburg pledged to rebuild sustainably after it was flattened by a tornado in 2007.

See Greensburg’s master plan for sustainability.

Web Extra:

See Tom Ashbrook and two CEO’s in a recent discussion of the green business future and energy efficiency in the American economy. It was part of an event held at Babson College’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, and sponsored by the Babson Energy & Environmental Club:

Credit: Babson Energy Club on Vimeo. A special thanks to Babson co-organizer John Moorhead.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • M.J. Young

    Thanks to Tom and everyone on “On Point” for bringing to the radio waves such a long-term, engaging topic as urban environmental renewal!

    Question to Joan, Jeb, & Bob:

    How does the future scene of urban gardening and agriculture look in America, especially given what have been some promising developments in Havana and Cuba’s gardens as early back as 1999 by the Washington Foreign Service?

  • Gary

    The “electricity” (Line loss) goes into the air, and into the ground, and is lost as heat due to resistance and impedance of the carrying lines.

  • Dave True


    The energy lost in transmission line is lost as heat. The resistance of the conductors, now most likely aluminum, builds up heat in the lines whch is lost to the atmosphere as heat.

  • Jim

    Much of the loss of electricity over transmission lines is due to resistance in the lines which generate heat. The electical energy is converted to heat energy and is dissipated to the surrounding air.

  • Trevor

    Tom, from a popular standpoint in the USA, middle class and educated seem to be the main drivers of green change. Where and when do individuals within the city who are working class and or poor start to embrace the green technologies and ideas that will really help the cities move forward environmentally?

  • Ellen Dibble

    I have heard that educated, green types consider apartment buildings incapable of being constructed to be energy efficient. This despite New York City apparently proving just the opposite.

  • Joe

    How did we go from energy efficiency (which is means-tested and ready to go) to feed-in tariffs and other renewable subsidies that are nice to think about long-term but are politically, technologically and financially distant in the US?

    EE today means: savings for users, jobs for retrofits and other improvements, lower CO2 emissions, less need for expanded capacity (from more nuclear, more coal burned or fracking/drilling), and improved domestic security.

    The $6 billion Home Star bill was just announced yesterday and will give states and cities that have a strong EE orientation the chance to realize all those benefits.

  • troll doll

    Finally someone has said the “B” word! BICYCLES! It is the thing than is missing from the Americas Clean Energy future. Why not tax credits that do to cars instead go to bicycles, transportation that has the least impact on infrastructue and 0 emissions!

  • M.J. Young


    To follow through on your earlier question about more socioeconomic and other diversity stepping into urban environmental renewal, Washington, D.C. has a couple exciting initiatives including DC Food for All and the Student Conservation Association that strive to revamp community kitchens and offering community crews through a Conservation Leadership Corps program for inner-city youth.

  • Ellen Dibble

    A big part of “green” is reducing the amount of pavement (parking lots), and city codes tend to require parking places for each apartment. I would favor apartment buildings coded to favor bicyclists. I know I get a big discount for not needing a parking place (I live in a building grandfathered; built in the days of horses). I’d favor smoke-free buildings on offer as well, and spare us all great hassle with laws, neighbors, etc.
    As for recycling, apartment buildings here hire “sorters” — I don’t know about Germany.

  • Gary

    Cities will always be massive consumers of energy and everything else. The loss can be lessened, but they will always be net consumers of huge amounts of energy.

    They will become self-sufficient when the aliens give us that Flux-Capacitor technology.

  • S. Nellis

    What can I do as an individual to help? After living in Munich Germany for 5 years, I feel passionately that America needs to do more. Most people ride bikes, walk, or take clean public transport to work every day. Recycling is mainstream and manufacturers are encouraged not to over-package their products. I have been researching cities in America trying to find green cities, but have been terribly disappointed and heartbroken over how behind America is. We claim to be the best most advance country in the world, yet we are decades behind Europe. Are there organizations I can get involved in that will really make a difference?

  • Ahmet Ali UNSAL

    Hello Tom,
    I was born in Aydin, a city which has a population of 200,000 people. And every house has a solar panel on the roof so it collects the sunlight and heats the water. So we never pay for hot water and heating the house. Not only it is free but also no carbon dioxide for the air. And my city has the lowest rate of lung cancer statistics in all over Turkey.. Thank you

  • Khalil Pirani

    A good example to take note of is the Al-Azhar Park in Cairo recently completed. It has been built on top of trash landfill and has water tanks underneath and a park on top for pulic use. It generates not only income for the city to rehab historic houses in the vicinity but also provides a ‘green lung’ for the city. It is extremely well used and is very popular. This is an example of true sustainability provide economic, environmental and social sustainability.

  • Khalil Pirani

    In our tough economic times, sustainability has to be a three-legged stool. It needs to provide not only environmental sustainability but also economic,social and environmental sustainability. The Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, completed few years ago, is a good example we need follow here in the USA.

  • Ellen Dibble

    S. Nellis, a Green something Act out of Washington sparked Stretch coding, with millions of dollars now training HERS checkers, with “duct blasters,” and they will be checking all new construction in cities and towns that sign on to be Stretch code cities (not much different from an international code coming down the pike, but with government boost. And our city fathers and mothers have been checking with the banks. Yes, they will take into account into their mortgage offerings that the additional cost of 3 to 5 percent to be 30 percent more energy efficient will not be an added cost to the buyer, since the lower cost of energy, and the greater value of the home will be taken into consideration.
    i.e., no added cost to build 30 percent more green.
    Problem — are we creating a prohibitively expensive city? No one will be able to afford it? A couple of councilors voted no for that reason. But in Massachusetts this is a bandwagon, dozens of cities have signed on within a couple weeks.

  • Wait one minute…

    Could someone explain to me why apartment buildings are not required to recycle?

  • Max

    When I moved into my house last fall, we were the first in our neighborhood to even inquire about recycling. When the trash company got back to us, they informed us that we would have to pay an additional $5 a month for recycling pick up. We did sign up, but that is in direct opposition to giving an incentive to recycling.

  • http://www.low2no.org Justin W. Cook


    I am involved in a project in Helsinki, Finland called Low2No that is beginning with Finland’s cities as a key to achieving national carbon neutrality in the coming decades.

    We see a couple different models for the sustainability of cities out there. One is a ground-up solution such as the Masdar carbon neutral city currently under construction in Abu Dhabi. This project has the incredible goal of being a carbon neutral home for 500,000 inhabitants once finished, but it also requires a separation from the existing city to control energy inputs and consumption and significant behavior modification by occupants.

    Our project, Low2No (www.low2no.org) is a second model. At its core, it is a transitional strategy that will help move cities from their existing condition to a low and eventually no carbon future. This model is intended to be replicable in any context and not rely on special circumstances which are what ultimately undergirds cities such as Masdar and even Freiburg.

    From our work we have learned that green buildings and low carbon energy production is just the beginning. Decoupling economic growth from combustion is what will ultimately be necessary and solutions such as these require nationally scaled initiatives.

  • A. R. Costa

    We have a PV solar array on our roof that generates more power than we consume. During the day our power goes out to the grid, while at night we need to purchase, in essence, our own power back from the town. Living here in Hudson, MA, we have a municipal utility that does not do net metering. Consequently, they pay us approximately 4.5 cents per kWh for the power that we deliver to the grid; while they charge us approximately 16 cents to deliver (the same) power back to us. We have tried to rectify this obvious unfair practice but to no avail. Can anyone offer advice in this regard?

  • Bryan Sweeney

    Geothermal is an excellent option but, again, it costs WAY too much. When I looked into installing it in my home in Andover, it would have cost about $31,000, and that is after the IRS 30% rebate. I would never recoup the investment.

    Ithaca NY charges about $2 a bag of trash and recycling is free. Two bucks isn’t much but golly, it really gets people to think about what they throw out. Now, my household produces about 4 bags a week. When my wife and I lived there, we threw out one bag a week.

  • http://space.mit.edu/~kcooksey Kathy Cooksey

    I’ve had a recycling culture shock in moving from Santa Cruz, CA, to Somerville, MA (near Boston). In the latter city, recycling is not simple and therefore, a small fraction of the community recycles.
    Santa Cruz provided large bins for mixed recycling (including plastic bags).
    In Somerville, we have to sort and bundle the paper. I don’t mind sorting, but the fact that I have to shovel my paper recycling into a paper grocery bag or tie it up, is painful. The former since my household does not accrue paper bags (we use cloth bags diligently). The latter since recycling is not uniform or stackable.
    I give props to Somerville for allowing recycling of waxed plastic (e.g. milk cartons).

  • Chris


    I would like to know whether the carbon cap and trade / green credit mechanism can play a part in the funding of residential green projects. For example, if I want to install residential solar or wind, could there be a mechanism by which I can purchase from a polluting company the right to buy an allotment of carbon credits from a solar provider? The polluting company is still trading for the right to increase their emissions, the green company is still offsetting with green credits, but as the consumer I am able to drive the demand?

  • Philip

    This program paints a pretty rosy picture of what’s possible, even of what’s been done in other places.

    My city started a curbside recycling program last year, and participation has been abysmally poor.

    What steps do you recommend the hopeful take to influence public policy in the US on a municipal, state, or national level with a view to improved recycling programs and solar power buying programs in particular?

  • jason

    Not only has the Florida legislature killed rebates, they also killed the feed in tariff bill. The current legislature is anemic on solar energy issues. Pathetic.

    The new thing is PACE, where solar energy systems can be finance by way of property tax assessments when localities issue bonds. The problem with this is that it requires individual municipalities to act.

    The FL legislature wants to wash its hands of responsibility. Vote them ALL out.

  • John

    incenting is not a word

  • Ellen Dibble

    I bet geothermal WOULD be viable economically for an apartment building, with a different view of profitablity and use. But I note that a city looking at its building stats does NOT count apartment buildings. They’ll say, 100 single-family homes went up in 5 years, in the last two, 15 and 17, mostly Energy Star whether or not actually officially so.
    But as to apartment buildings? No mention. None actually have gone up. One talks about first homes but not about where you live while saving up money and making friends and connections, whild starting your career. For that? You are supposed to live elsewhere. Even though during those years, people in those apartment buildings are NOT sending children to the schools. “They” know we are a big bonanza in terms of taxes. But they think we are nothing. “No one cares about you.”
    I hear from the president’s advisors that after 2 million foreclosures, there are another 4 million foreclosures coming down the pike, and 4 to 5 million likely to follow that.
    And those people “will have to rent.” Oh, whereabouts? Scarcity will make apartments like diamonds in terms of cost. Please build us some. Reasonable ones. Not luxury ones, not cash cows.

  • Dan

    Although a large global population (and more importantly cheap and abundant energy) has led to the industrial revolution and the age of information, population is the root of energy consumption. We can either deal with population control or it will deal with us. I feel the biggest gains (besides technology) to be made are with vacation travel, and work commute distances and means (car/carpool/subway/bike/walk). Little gains help to keep people conscious of the big picture such as reduce/reuse/recycle [e.g., using less hot water (showers and cooking), turning computers/TVs/lights off]

  • BHA

    Max: “pay an additional $5 a month for recycling pick up”

    If the infrastructure isn’t there, they charge for the extra work.

    My county is serious about recycling. Trash haulers are required to pick up recyclables with the trash (separated) and not charge extra. The recyclables are sold to recycling companies which then sells them in to the ‘larger recycling stream’.

    I don’t have pickup because I have a trash compactor and go to the local transfer station every 4-6 weeks (family of 4 plus 2 cats). $1.75 for the compactor bag. If you pay for trash you can bring as many recyclables as you like.

    Quite an incentive to make the SMALL effort to separate. BTW, ‘separate’ now means “it is recyclable”, not separating individual types of recyclables. Requires the use of about a half a brain cell with each item.

    Figure a total cost of $3.50 every 4-6 weeks including the bag, gas and electricity. My other option would be about $25/month to have it picked up.

  • Wait one minute…

    I live in a 5-story apartment building, all rentals. The landlord does not have recycling bins, there is no curbside recycling, and the transfer station takes bulk items only. There is curbside recycling for some properties, but it seems like landlords would have to arrange it. Pedestrians would not like a huge pile of individual blue boxes sitting on the sidewalk all day.

  • BHA

    “they pay us approximately 4.5 cents per kWh for the power that we deliver to the grid; while they charge us approximately 16 cents to deliver (the same) power back to us. ”

    Wow, that is totally opposite what most places do. I’m not sure it is fair to require them to buy ‘your’ solar or wind power for 5 times or more what they pay on the ‘market’ or through their contracts, but to pay you their contract rate and charge you retail (not even off peak!) is criminal.

  • jeffe

    When I read headlines such as this it makes me think that we are just not able to get our act together.

    Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags


    and then there is the island of Samso, Denmark.


  • Paul Kenyon

    Please ask your green energy guests to review solar derived renewable energy and report on it appropriately. The quality of the energy is bottom tier at top cost. I live off-grid with a small turbine and a small PV array and work in energy and small wind power. Some obvious aspects of these technologies have become clear to me over the 30 years of my experience. PV’s are expecially clear in their impact; it’s their shadow and deploying them widely makes no more sense than orbiting reflective disks around Earth to reflect energy. The PV shadow shades the Earth keeping plants from growing, inhibiting water evaporation and the PV’s reflect 90% to 95% of the incident energy back into the atmosphere as heat which will become a global warming driver as the 266,000 sq. mi. (area of Texas) world wide of asphalt roads and parking is. It is obvious that the sun is currently running the planet as we know it. None of the sun’s energy is left on the table for us to put to use. The sun (or wind) is not “free”. There is a cost to the Earth by our harvesting that energy because it’s taken from what’s currently using it.
    Please be aware the to power a future stable population of 9.6 billion to the American standard of living (12 kW continuous per person, all energy) with PV’s that perform as mine do in Vermont, a fairly representative area for cloudyness overall, taking into consideration of inefficiencies of energy transmission, storage (not invented yet), conversion from DC to AC, performance decline over time, array cleaning and other factors we will have to cover an area the size of South America. I offer to you that this would constitute “an environmental impact” leading to a global warming because of the reflected and rebroadcast energy from these hot surfaces. I can provide the data that supports this calculation. PV’s are also, as mentioned, very expensive. No engineering project can go forward without cost being a critical parameter of design. If wishes were horses begars would ride. If it weren’t for the cost we could each go to Mars for a pretty weekend just as soon as they get the space craft ready. Solar derived renewables are on this scale of impracticality.
    While the environmental impact of PV’s is easy to understand, the impact of wide deployment of enormous turbines is more subtle. Besides avian destruction, infrasound noise and light flicker, MIT studies recently have brought to question the weather disruption and environmental impacts of an overall reduction of wind speeds from harvesting wind for electricity.
    The realities of these technologies are not simple. Your guests must get nose to nose with the technologies (and especially the physics behind those technologies) they are supporting and making popular and it’s clear they have not. They demonstrated on your program today that theirs is but an armchair relationship with the machines with which they would saddle us.
    However, many of their recommendations are valuable. High speed (any rail) is essential as are efficiency and improved insulation for buildings which use 5 to 10 X’s as much energy as those buildings use in electricity. Imagine what R-35/inch glazing would do.
    Carbon taxes and some renewable technologies, unsupportable otherwise, are predicated on CO2 being the primary climate driver. The science, especially the basic CO2 energy absorption physics, does not support that position at this time and is likely not to. Please address these realities of these high minded, high cost, environmentally destructive ideas to address energy, especially solar derived renewables.
    Improving insulation in buildings and advanced glazing, lighter automobiles and longer-lived products such as automobiles and buildings make better sense. Your focus on these issues is important but please make the larger realities of the wide deployment of PV’s, for example, known to all. I can provide supporting documents for everything I’ve told you here. None of it is new or remarkable. Much that is obvious in the larger energy picture is simply being glossed over in discussions such as on your program today.
    Right now the most important thing we can is to educate people about energy. This has not been done.

    Paul Kenyon
    Cumulus Engineering, LLC
    Bridport, VT 05734

  • Susan Golay

    Most people that recycle at home are not able to recycle at work. Most businesses in Saint Louis where I live do not have recycling. 50% of what goes into the waste stream from businesses is recyclables. I see this as a huge problem with a simple solution. Mandate businesses to provide recycling options.

  • Renoir

    What merits discussion about growing green cities is the concept of vertical farms or gardening. Cities should explore the cost/benefits of vertical farms for production of food in urban areas, green spaces equipped to deliver food to dense urban areas without huge carbon footprints left by long distribution networks–all powered by sustainable solar energy sources. Visionary urban planners should consider this within a panoply of alternatives.

  • http://www.nrginsulatedblock.com Marty Walters

    Improving building energy efficiency has been identified by the American Physicists Association as an area that should be a top priority, but companies that can make a difference cannot get a seat at the table.
    We produce nrg insulated block, which consistently delivers HVAC energy savings of over 60%, using DOE consumption figures as a baseline reference. Great?
    Only if the LEED building people can figure out a way to properly calculate the effects of insulated thermal mass into their energy modeling equations. Chasing LEED points in new buildings many times overlooks the opportunity to maximize energy efficiency. Also, the energy star program refuses to consider our insulation
    value, because nrg block has structural properties, but competition such as structural insulated panels systems
    are energy star products. These are just a couple of the issues that slow our entry into the mainstream. Talk about a big waste of energy.
    We battle the energy efficiency system, when we should be out taking orders, and helping everyone.
    Marty Walters
    NRG Insulated Block

  • Janet

    Some of the best parts of any city are over taken with crime and crumbling. Until we take the necessary steps to remove the poor, criminals from the inner city there is not much “green” going to happen.

  • Alan

    Another fine program from “On Point.” It will require more than technology to realize a green future. We must set aside profligacy in favor of more spartan values. By “spartan” I do not refer to militarism, but to frugality among other things. We simply cannot expect to sustain the planet while gorging ourselves on objects, entertainment and, o yes, food. There is beauty AND sustainability in simplicity. Try it. You may be surprised how exciting direct engagement with Nature can be!

  • http://earthgood Toby Hoffman

    Thank you Paul for your insight. Makes sense.

  • http://www.deanbreaker.com/ Amy

    When I read headlines such as this it makes me think that we are just not able to get our act together.

    Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags


    and then there is the island of Samso, Denmark.


Aug 20, 2014
A man holds his hands up in the street after a standoff with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

A deep read on Ferguson, Missouri and what we’re seeing about race, class, hope and fear in America.

Aug 20, 2014
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A half-century ago Monarch butterflies, tired, hungry and bursting to lay eggs, found plenty of nourishment flying across Texas. Native white-flowering balls of antelope milkweed covered grasslands, growing alongside nectar-filled wildflowers. But now, these orange-and-black winged butterflies find mostly buildings, manicured lawns and toxic, pesticide-filled plants. (AP)

This year’s monarch butterfly migration is the smallest ever recorded. We’ll ask why. It’s a big story. Plus: how climate change is creating new hybridized species.

Aug 19, 2014
Lara Russo, left, Cally Guasti, center, and Reese Werkhoven sit on a couch in their apartment in New Paltz, N.Y. on Thursday, May 15, 2014.  While their roommate story of $40,800 found in a couch made the news, other, weirder stories of unusual roommates are far more common. (AP)

From college dorms and summer camps to RVs and retirement hotels, what it’s like to share a room. True stories of roommates.

Aug 19, 2014
Police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

“War zones” in America. Local police departments with military grade equipment – how much is too much, and what it would take to de-militarize America’s police force.

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