Sustainable Cities: Three Cities Make Their Mark by Reducing Their Impact

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on September 11, 2018
Vicky Harris
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In 1992, Mexico City was named the most polluted city on the planet by the United Nations. Twenty years later it was lauded by the international press as a model of sustainability for its successful bold initiatives like vertical gardens and innovative bicycle program. Across the Atlantic, London, a city that remains the industrial engine of the country that launched the industrial revolution, now ranks among the five most sustainable cities in the world. On the other side of the globe, Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolitan area and home to an estimated 38 million people, is well on its way to becoming the world’s most sustainable megacity, having reduced its CO2 emissions by an impressive 25% since 2010.

The economies of these three cities are thriving. What they have in common is the determination of their citizens and leaders to take an uncompromising approach when it comes to achieving both economic growth and sustainability. As Tokyo’s Governor Yuriko Koike put it, “More than ever, megacities must help to set the global agenda, adding, “our goal is for Tokyo to develop sustainably in order to become a truly matured society that exists in harmony with the environment.”

The fact is that these three cities, like hundreds around the world, are showing that economic growth and sustainability are now two sides of the same coin. Although the three cities we highlight here today still have ways to go, evidence shows that their no-compromise approach to sustainability is working.

Living in harmony: green cities are not the stuff of empty promises.

Mexico City’s Green Plan is Working

In 2007, Mexico City, with the help of multilateral organizations, NGOs, scientists, academia, and industry, developed the “Plan Verde” (Green Plan). The plan outlined a 15-year strategy with annual investments of $1 billion towards the development of innovations in transportation, water management, waste disposal, land conservation, and sustainable energy. The plan also included a $5.4 billion “Climate Action Program” to reduce the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 12%. As reported by Design to Improve Life journal, the Plan Verde “focuses on fighting environmental and urban problems with green solutions, and through it, the Mexican capital has already become a sustainable role model for other megacities.”

Country citizens, who lived the health consequences of air pollution daily, enthusiastically rallied behind Plan Verde and programs like vertical gardens around the city. Mexican architect Fernando Ortiz-Monasterio told the New York Times that “the main priority for vertical gardens is to transform the city” and to “intervene in the environment” to improve air quality in Mexico City. Four years later, citizens led the initiative, dubbed “Via Verde,” to expand the city’s green spaces to incorporate existing structures around town, such as highways and bridges. A recent article suggests, “Upon completion, Via Verde could be the world’s largest nature-urban regeneration project. Using a drip irrigation system and rain, the columns could filter approximately 27,000 tons of gases, capture 7,000 kilograms (15,400 pounds) of dust, and process more than 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of heavy metals.”

London Makes a Bold Move to Stay Green  

London is ranked the fifth most sustainable city in the world by the Sustainable Cities Index developed by city design consultancy Arcadis. The Sustainable Cities Index “Ranks 100 global cities on three dimensions, or pillars, of sustainability: People, Planet and Profit. These represent social, environmental and economic sustainability to offer an indicative picture of the health and wealth of cities for the present and the future.”

London has a strong record when it comes to taking measured steps to increase sustainable transport in its city center. Since 2003, polluting vehicles are only allowed to enter London if they pay 11.50 pounds per day. In 2010, the city introduced cycle superhighways, which according to European Cyclists’ Federation, “in peak hours central sections of cycle highways are used by literally thousands of cyclists – more than could be transported in the same place by cars.”

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged last year to make London’s entire transport system 100% zero-emission by 2050. The Independent reported on the mayor’s strategy to get there: “All taxis and minicabs will be non-polluting by 2033 while the entire bus fleet, numbering 9,200 vehicles, will be zero-emission by 2037. Under the plan, all new road vehicles driven in inner London will need to be zero emission by 2040, paving the way for the city’s entire transport system to be zero-emission a decade later.” Encouraged by the city’s sustainability progress and emboldened by technology to go even further, in June the mayor ordered “68 fully-electric double-decker buses in a bid to create the largest fleet of its kind in Europe.”

World’s Largest Megacity is About to Become the Most Sustainable One

In the same report that London ranked fifth in sustainability in 2016, Tokyo ranked 45th. Yet, the hosting city for the 2020 Olympics is on a faster pace than most megacities to change their sustainability status. An insightful article published by the Government of Japan titled, “Tokyo Aims to Realize Hydrogen Society by 2020,” declared, “The 1964 Tokyo Olympics left the Shinkansen high-speed train system as its legacy. The upcoming Olympics will leave a hydrogen society as its legacy.”

The article explains: “The creation of a hydrogen society aims at achieving four major objectives. First is the reduction of the burden on the environment. Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen emits only water when burned. So, it promises to greatly cut emissions of carbon dioxide. Second is the diversification of energy sources. Hydrogen can be produced with renewable energy sources, and its use will also promote stability in the supply of energy. Third, it will generate beneficial economic ripple effects. The shift to a new energy source will naturally mean new demand and new jobs. And fourth, it can help in coping with natural disasters.”

Tokyo’s Governor Yuriko Koike says, “We aim to leverage the Games as an opportunity to showcase our model of a sustainable city to the world and our goal of becoming a global environmental leader.” Electricity for the Olympics will be 100% renewable and the awards “will be made using circular economy methods” from recycled digital devices including phones, cameras, and music players.

Technological Innovation and Collaboration to Help Cities Reach Their Goals  

More and more cities are making smart, sustainable choices that ultimately lift the quality of life for all of us, but there is much more to be done. Despite the praise and bold initiatives, Mexico City still has a serious air pollution problem to solve. Furthermore, the zero-emission urban centers that cities like London and Tokyo aim to become will need the help of technological innovation to realize their goals.

Collaboration is well underway between industry, local governments, and citizens, and between cities themselves, to use innovation to grow with purpose and without compromises. At Joi Scientific, we are working to broaden the energy choices that cities have in the future with clean and abundant Hydrogen 2.0 energy to power city grids, transportation, and industry. Together, hydrogen and other renewables can make cities smart and take them to the top of their class by ensuring they remain the engines of global economic growth while shrinking their global carbon emissions footprint.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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