How Green Was My City

Sustainable policies are easiest to implement in urban centers, says professor in his latest ranking of environmental winners

view of Seattle at sunset

The best payoff from going green is generated by cities, where the greatest percentage of the world’s population lives—and where the world’s environmental health gets the biggest boost, says the Tufts political scientist Kent Portney.

Portney has been ranking U.S. cities’ environmental friendliness for nearly a decade. His latest report, 2012 Greenest Cities in America, was published this summer in the Canadian magazine Corporate Knights. Cities—not international organizations, nations or states—are best positioned to lead the sustainability movement in the United States and worldwide, he says.

The rankings are based on how many environmental policies and programs a city has adopted or implemented out of Portney’s list of 38. In categories that include green development, land-use planning, transportation, pollution prevention and energy and resource conservation, it is the adoption of the initiatives that counts, rather than measurable outcomes, which might come years later, he says.

In his latest report, Portney ranks the 54 largest U.S. cities (plus Pittsburgh, because in 2009 it hired a city sustainability coordinator and is in the process of implementing the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan). Tied for first place are Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle, each with 35 out of the 38 programs in place. Last are Pittsburgh, Santa Ana, Calif., and Wichita, Kan. Boston and Washington, D.C., fall in the middle of the pack.

Being green increases a city’s tourism, attracts jobs and can save money, in addition to improving residents’ health and quality of life, says Portney, a professor in the School of Arts and Sciences. “It translates into a lot more than bragging rights.”

Fort Worth, Texas, certainly thought so. It moved from number 33 in 2011 to number 17 this year by implementing five new sustainability programs. A multi-agency sustainability task force is making city operations greener and more cost effective. In addition, the city has programs for green building and energy, alternative-fueled city vehicles, bicycle ridership, rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse.

Portney has been tracking urban green movements since 2003, with the publication of his book Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously: Economic Development, the Environment and Quality of Life in American Cities, which examines 25 U.S. cities with green initiatives. The second edition of the MIT Press book will be published in January.

Urban Ground Zero

Kent PortneyKent Portney
Today about half the world’s people, roughly 3.5 billion, live in cities. By 2050, that number is expected to reach 70 percent, according to the World Health Organization. In order to thrive, cities need to make the environment a priority, Portney says. The good news is that they have the ability and agility to enact environment-friendly programs more easily than the federal government.

Even so, some cities are more successful at implementing green agendas than others. It is not a city’s size or wealth that determines success, but whether residents are active advocates and their city leaders listen to them, Portney says.

“Cities that have made a commitment to trying to become more sustainable … do seem to have populations that have a greater propensity to sign petitions, participate in demonstrations, belong to local reform groups and be active in neighborhood associations,” writes Portney and co-author Jeffrey Berry, also a professor of political science at Tufts, in a 2010 article in Urban Affairs Review. “In the last analysis, sustainable cities are participatory cities.”

For example, Seattle is ranked first among America’s green cities for a good reason, Portney says. In 1990, residents founded Sustainable Seattle, a nonprofit fueled by volunteers concerned with sustainability and its relationship to economic prosperity and social equality. The pressure of public opinion pushed city leaders to make the environment a priority.

“Without the efforts of Sustainable Seattle, it is entirely possible that sustainability would have played no more than a minor role in the city’s planning,” Portney writes on his website Our Green Cities, which includes the complete 2012 green-city rankings.

While it’s doubtful that Congress will enact a national environmental policy anytime soon, “cities have been making great strides for years,” Portney says. “This can motivate and set model programs for others to follow.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at

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