The European Commission awarded Oslo the prestigious European Green Capital title for 2019. The designation was created to reward a city’s commitment to, and efforts toward, improving its urban environment and boosting awareness of the need for environmental change at a city level, which is especially important given that more than two-thirds of Europeans currently live in urban areas. “Oslo is making great strides in transitioning to a society free of fossil fuel emissions. Its success in increasing public transport and prioritizing people over cars is truly inspiring,” said Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Throughout the year, the Norwegian capital will serve as an ambassador for sustainable urban development to inspire other cities to go green.
Many factors are behind Oslo’s success. Notable is the city’s reputation as the “Electric Vehicle Capital of the World”. According to the European Commission, 60 percent of all new vehicles sold in the city in the first half of 2018 were electric and 56 percent of all public transport journeys citywide were powered by renewable energy. Emissions are also down, and Oslo is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Furthering the city’s green accolades are the improvements made to cycling lanes, public transport infrastructure, and ecological environments, including its vast network of biodiverse streams and rivers, which have been rehabilitated and made accessible to the public.
2. Vancouver, Canada
Canada’s third-largest metropolis is one of more than 70 cities worldwide that have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050.
A world-renowned city for green thinking and living, Vancouver has a sterling reputation in environmentalism: the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in North America and more than 300 LEED-certified buildings (as reported by the city council’s Green Vancouver initiative). It’s also the headquarters of several prominent environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation and Greenpeace Canada. Residents will enjoy Vancouver’s 200 green spaces, including the 1,000-acre Stanley Park—one of the greatest urban parks in the world.
Vancouver’s strategy for staying on the leading edge of urban sustainability is its Greenest City Action Plan, which aims to cut car travel, promote renewable energy, and enforce stricter building codes. Canada’s third-largest metropolis also has ambitious plans to become zero waste by 2040 and is one of more than 70 cities worldwide that have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050.
3. Copenhagen, Denmark
The Danish capital consistently ranks among the world’s greenest cities. A former European Green Capital (a title awarded by the European Commission in 2014), Copenhagen has been recognized globally for its environmental urban planning and its bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets. More than a third of its people bicycle to work or school, and the city aims to increase that to 50 percent to reach its goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. For those that do take public transport, all of the city’s buses will be electric by the end of 2019. And 96 percent of residents have access to green space in 15 minutes or less—all 5,584 acres of it.
Copenhagen is also a leader in commercial wind power—the large, offshore Middelgrunden wind farm, two miles from the city center, was started by wind-energy pioneers, who formed a cooperative to make it happen. The city is also at the forefront of eco-friendly commercial building design. The Green Lighthouse, the first carbon-neutral public building in Copenhagen, uses 75 percent less energy than regular buildings.
4. Amsterdam, Netherlands
Arguably the most bicycle-friendly city in the world, Amsterdam is reportedly home to more bikes than people. Since residents prefer to use cycles over their cars, Amsterdam’s many attractions are bike and pedestrian accessible, including the Hermitage Amsterdam, the Dutch outpost of Russia’s St Petersburg museum. The gardens of the Rijksmuseum, known as the “green outdoor gallery,” are also popular and showcase several historical garden styles and include a number of newer features, including a 19th-century green house with so-called “forgotten” heirloom vegetables and a water maze.
It’s not just pedal power that earns the Dutch capital its green stripes. The country famous for its windmills is still a leader in wind energy solutions. More than 2,200 wind turbines generate around 5 percent of the Netherlands’ electricity—a figure it aims to increase to 16 percent by 2023 (according to the Dutch government’s Energy Report). Another lofty plan in the works (construction is scheduled for completion in 2027) is the world’s largest offshore wind farm and a 2.3-square-mile island to support it.
5. Zurich, Switzerland
Thanks to its strong commitment to reduce pollution from vehicles, the promotion of cleaner forms of transport, and low levels of air pollution, Zurich finished first in the Sootfree Cities ranking, an initiative of the Soot Free for the Climate Campaign, which grades the efforts of 23 major European cities to improve air quality. The Swiss city has a long-term objective of becoming a 2,000-watt society by 2050. What does this mean? Zurich has set the goal for its citizens to consume only 2,000 watts of energy per capita—the amount acknowledged globally as sustainable.
There are more and more initiatives for sustainable real estate projects in Zurich, but it’s also a great place to live. The city was praised in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index for its investment in efficient and renewable energy and its highly coordinated trams, trains, buses, and light rail systems which make public transport simple, quick, and affordable.
Another focus of green cities are their public parks, and Zurich is no exception. The city’s noteworthy natural attractions include the beautiful lakeside gardens of Zürichhorn and Platzspitz parks, reportedly a favorite of author James Joyce.
6. Essen, Germany
Essen, in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, is a city transformed from a coal and steel town into one of the greenest cities in the world. The European Green Capital of 2017, Essen’s eco credentials include overall energy performance, biodiversity, green urban areas, waste production and management. The city’s target is to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 40 percent by 2020, as reported by the European Commission. The city has an outstanding public transportation system and its bicycle lanes have been expanded citywide.
Apart from its award-winning green initiatives, Essen’s visitors will be enchanted—and perhaps inspired— by the UNESCO-listed Zeche Zollverein, a former coal mine turned cultural center; the Alvar Aalto-designed opera house; and, the Kettwig historical district, where cobbled streets and 17th- and 18th-century buildings seem to transport visitors back in time.
7. Sydney, Australia
Sydney was the first local council to be certified as carbon neutral under the Australian National Carbon Offset Standard. The Sustainable Sydney 2030 program aims to make the city more global, connected, and green over the next decade. Part of the city’s vision is to lower emissions and create more pedestrian zones and transportation routes, linking the CBD to the suburbs. The Smart Green Business program, implemented in 2014, has so far helped small- and medium-sized businesses improve their environmental performance, saved over 200 million liters of water, and diverted 2,400 tons of waste from landfills.
It’s not all about business, though. Sydney’s parks and gardens are setting the bar for how outside spaces can help a city’s green ranking. What was once a concrete container wharf has been transformed into the award-winning Barangaroo Reserve, 15 acres of native parkland in which locals can walk, cycle, and picnic. Central Park Sydney, meanwhile, has been transformed into a stunning “urban jungle,” with vertical gardens wrapped around the low buildings, home to around 38,000 native and exotic plants.