Urban density, walking and biking and public transit are in—suburban development, cars and highways are out. 

These days, millennials, empty nesters and even young families are moving into cities, helping metropolitan areas such as Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Seattle bounce back from generations of population loss.

Flash back 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, and this definitely wasn’t the case. The dominant development pattern in most American cities was urban sprawl. As people fled cities for the suburbs, low-density development gobbled up farmland and green space on the edges of metropolitan areas. The problem with urban sprawl, many experts say, is that it fosters inequality, depletes the tax base of cities and pollutes the environment. 

Many metro areas are continuing to sprawl outwards, but sustainable urban living is becoming increasingly popular.

Lee Fisher, executive director of CEOs for Cities
Lee Fisher, executive director of nonprofit CEOs for Cities, says the movement toward urban sustainability extends beyond coastal cities like San Francisco and New York. 

“In midsize cities throughout America, cities that do not necessarily roll off the tongue like Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Knoxville, Greensboro, Columbus and Cincinnati, they’re also moving towards being green,” he says. “That to me is the most exciting movement around the country.”

U.S. mayors are taking action by creating climate action plans, developing sustainability goals and measuring their progress.

“The efforts you see coming from U.S. cities, particularly in the last couple of years, have gotten much more sophisticated,” says Cooper Martin, program director at the Sustainable Cities Institute, a project of the National League of Cities. “Fifteen years ago, cities signed the Kyoto Protocol [to reduce carbon emissions], but it was really just a pledge. Now there’s a four-step process that every city agrees to undertake. They measure emissions, set a benchmark, adopt a plan to reduce emissions in all sectors across the city and track progress over time.”

Of course, the United States has a long way to go—in the most recent international Sustainable Cities Index from the consulting firm Arcadis, only nine U.S. cities made the top 50, outpaced by such cities as London, Berlin, Hong Kong and Sydney.

Yet more U.S. cities are taking action toward becoming environmentally friendly. 

These efforts are especially notable given that Congress has not taken action on climate change. “They’ve gotten more committed to tangible actions as opposed to calling on the federal government to do something,” says Martin. 

Land Use and Planning

In the District of Columbia, transportation choices abound, making it easy for residents to get around without a car. 

“That’s what people want—not to use their car for every single thing,” Martin says. “I have my car for going to the grocery store or other places on the weekend, yet five minutes before I leave to go somewhere, I can figure out how to get there [without it].” 

As cities regain population, they’re adding amenities, improving public transit, and creating places where you don’t have to rely on a car. 

Sustainable development is helping to create the kind of connected communities that residents want. For example, many cities are building complete and green streets that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists as well as cars. They’re also collecting and recycling storm water on-site. One of the benefits of sustainable development is that density creates greater economic value. 

The reinvigoration of public spaces is also a key factor driving sustainability, Fisher says. “They recognize that part of what drives people to live in a city is the ability to connect with other people,” he says. “If you have active, beautiful, connected public spaces, that’s going to create a city that attracts more population and therefore becomes a more sustainable city.”

Embracing smart growth as an urban development strategy can fuel regional economies, adds Mark “Puck” Mykleby, co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University. “Millennials, boomers, they don’t want to be stuck in the suburbs anymore,” he says. “They’re like the GIs after World War II who fed the economy with housing demand—except the boomers and millennials today have three times that level of demand.”

Still, Martin notes that progressive visions are often stymied by zoning codes, which often need to be updated before sustainable development practices can be rolled out. “The implementation might lag behind, but that doesn’t reflect a lack of commitment on cities’ parts,” he says.   

America’s car-friendly suburbs can also be redeveloped in more sustainable ways, but there are limitations. “Town-center-style developments are more popular, but they definitely haven’t figured out how to design and finance them so they’re scalable,” says Cooper, noting that lifestyle centers are often de facto islands that are disconnected from nearby schools, recreation centers and neighborhoods. “You have development—a walkable experience—but it’s plopped down in an otherwise very suburban, spread-out area. It’s a nook of a walkable experience.”

Buildings and Energy

In New York City, an aggressive green building policy proved to be a game-changer. Several years ago, the city began requiring owners of large buildings to make their properties more energy-efficient.   

“We saved energy customers $750 million over 20 years and created 18,000 jobs—and reduced our carbon footprint by 5 percent,” says Adam Freed, who worked for Mayor Bloomberg’s administration as deputy director of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. He now serves as sustainability principal with Bloomberg Associates. “We focused on energy conservation in large buildings over 50,000 square feet. Those buildings represented only 2 percent of the building stock, but half of the energy use. We developed a set of rules around upgrading the public lighting and benchmarking energy use.”

New York City is now on track to reduce its carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, says Freed. 

Commercial and residential buildings account for around 40 percent of overall energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in cities. Developing more energy-efficient buildings offers “a tremendous opportunity to increase sustainability and reduce reliability on fossil fuels,” says Martin. 

Case Western Reserve University is one of the universities now part of the MetroLab Network, which is creating city-university partnerships in 20 cities to research and develop new ways of improving cities’ infrastructure, services and other public sector priorities. The effort is part of the White House’s “Smart Cities” Initiative, launched in September 2015 and aiming to devote $160 million in federal research toward making local communities more economically healthy, safe and sustainable. Mykleby is coordinating the effort at Case Western Reserve, which will, in part, use smart-meter data to assess energy use in county buildings, including public housing. That data will be used to create initiatives to minimize energy waste. 

In recent decades, the private and public sectors have embraced efforts to make buildings more energy-efficient and cut back on emissions. These efforts are not only helping to reduce the carbon footprint of cities, but also spurring the kind of innovation that creates jobs and generates economic activity. 

“It really started with municipal governments saying they were going to do municipal buildings as energy-efficient buildings,” says Martin. “Now it’s taken off in so many more measurable ways. There are hundreds of municipal green building policies around the country. They did not really slow down during the recession—a lot of buildings kept with green building policies and expanded them.” 

Many other cities have borrowed and even improved upon New York’s programs, says Freed. 

“We’ve seen a positive ripple effect of one city doing something and another city taking that idea, and in some cases leapfrogging it, in other cases replicating it,” he says. “The power of cities is to really drive sustainability, because they’re on the front lines of so many issues.”

Martin says cities are following New York’s lead because they’re seeing a big return on their investment. “The jury has come back and decided, and it’s definitely gone a long way to reducing energy demand,” he says. 


Washington, D.C., has taken steps to make it easier for residents to get around without a car, such as adding bike lanes. The city also has a bike share program with 350 stations in the D.C. metro area.
There are now more than 50 stations and more than 350 bicycles available for use in downtown Austin and East Austin, Texas. This small city offers just one example of the explosion of bike sharing systems across the country. 

Bike sharing and the growth of public transportation are two of the hottest trends in transportation, says Martin. There are well over 100 bike-share systems across the country, with more in the works. Public transportation ridership is at its highest level in half a century, and several cities are also making big bets on their public transit systems. 

“Bike share in particular is really taking off and has a ton of potential in the next couple years,” says Martin. “I think electric bikes are going to be really popular in about five years or so, maybe 10 years. Electrifying bikes, using docks as chargers to increase speed and comfort, has tremendous potential.”

There have been some high-profile flops in bike-share systems; even Washington, D.C. had a failed pilot because it didn’t have enough stations. Successful bike share systems have generally had sufficient station density and a well-connected bike network, says Martin. 

Washington scrapped its initial system and “tried again, and started with a lot more stations, so even if you get to one station and it’s full, there’s another one two blocks away,” says Martin. Now the city boasts 3,000 bikes and 350 stations in the D.C. metro area.

Cities that are investing in public transit include Fort Collins, Colorado, which launched a new bus rapid transit system in 2014, and Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, which put in a light rail system in 2008.  These cities see public transportation as attracting new riders and spurring economic development along transit corridors. The bus rapid transit system in Cleveland, which was completed a little over a decade ago, has spurred more than  $4 billion in investment on Euclid Avenue, a historic thoroughfare that was largely vacant and blighted before it underwent the facelift.    

Public transportation investments are more likely to pay off where there’s density, Martin says. “Public transportation revitalization has been a little bit hit-and-miss—it’s a chicken and egg situation, because you need enough density that public transportation can be viable,” he says. 

Once again, updating zoning codes is critical. 

“What happens a lot of time in transit corridors is that they need to see zoning reflect the fact that you’ve made a huge investment,” says Martin. “Sometimes that’s where problems come up. You put the infrastructure in, and there’s a whole series of negotiations over whether you’re allowing the zoning to change.” 

Strong public transportation and bike networks are essential. “Two groups of citizens are moving to downtowns at a very rapid rate: The first are the young and the restless, the second are the about-to-retire and restless,” Fisher says. “In order for downtowns to compete for both of these groups, more than ever before they need to be walkable, bike-able and transit-friendly.” 

Food Systems

In cities like Detroit, community gardens and urban farms are flourishing, putting vacant land back to use, feeding residents and generating income.  

Community food systems are on the rise in cities. According to the Sustainable Cities Institute website, these systems “ensure that all residents have access to healthy, affordable food options; minimize the environmental impact of food production and transport; facilitate and encourage local food production and processing; create local jobs that provide fair working conditions and a living wage; benefit local economies by supporting local food producers, retailers and businesses; and maximize resources through collection and reuse of organics (compost).”

The local food movement has taken root through community gardens and farm-to-table restaurants, says Martin. Some cities see community food systems as a way to address social disparities by ensuring that poor residents have access to healthy food and benefit from job creation. 

“You definitely see a lot more cities identifying food deserts and actively taking steps to not just bring in grocery stores but to take a whole different strategy and address the equity issues,” says Martin, citing public investment in community food hubs, or marketplaces where food entrepreneurs can sell their products, as examples. 

The creation of food hubs, community gardens and amenities such as green roofs are a win-win for cities, Fisher says. These green enhancements make cities more attractive while contributing to the economy. 

“They’re using nature to enhance not only the beauty of the city but also to conserve energy at the same time,” he says. “Being green is not just fashionable, it’s also smart and efficient.”

In the past, many cities had outdated land use policies prohibiting urban farming. Updating these policies has allowed more people to grow their own food. Farmers markets, grocery stores and food hubs are helping plug the gap in so-called “food deserts” where there isn’t access to major grocery stores. 

“A lot of this is more citizen-led—it’s really about changing land use policies,” says Martin. “These were big issues in cities like Cleveland and Boston, where it was actually illegal to grow and produce your own vegetables on your own properties. With rezoning, it’s now allowing you to use your backyard, your vacant spaces, and that’s all it took. Make it legal and people are interested in doing it.”

Climate Adaptation

Chicago’s climate adaptation plan outlines nine initiatives for dealing with the effects of climate change, including intensely hot summers, flooding and heavy rains. The city developed more than 450 mitigation and adaptation initiatives in the first two years of the climate plan using strategies such as pursuing innovative cooling, managing stormwater and preserving the city’s plants and trees. 

As more cities create offices of sustainability led by full-time directors, they’re creating a culture of sustainability across departments. That way, complex sustainability issues can be dealt with in a coordinated manner rather than separately siloed, and sustainability can be implemented at all levels of city government. 

Climate adaptation requires a lot of coordination. It’s a huge undertaking to develop scenarios of how climate change will affect cities.   

“A big issue with climate adaptation is, how do you measure and define success?” says Michael Crowley, program director with the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit organization in Burlington, Vermont, that helps cities become more sustainable. “We help cities figure out how to develop indicators that show they’re really making progress.”

Setting goals and measuring progress is hugely important, says Fisher. “It’s important to show citizens that you’re moving the needle,” he says. “That’s a huge motivator. Having sustainability goals is not a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity. But goals, to be effective, have to be short-term and-long term. You have to be celebrating small wins along the way.”

CEOs for Cities measures urban progress using City Dividends, which “calculate the monetary gains top metros could realize if they increase their college attainment by 1 percentage point (the Talent Dividend), reduce vehicle miles traveled by 1 mile per person per day (the Green Dividend) and reduce the number of people in poverty (the Opportunity Dividend) by 1 percentage point,” according to its website. 

Climate change will impact cities differently depending on their geography, so cities must prepare differently as well. For example, while the upper Midwest may face increased flooding, requiring it to upgrade and replace its stormwater infrastructure, cities in the Southwest will likely need to reduce their water use so that they can maintain an adequate water supply.  

Freed says sustainable cities will have growing economies. “One of the reasons we were able to get so much traction in New York is that our goal was not to create environmental sustainability but to have sustainable growth,” he says. “Growth is good, but we wanted to do so in a way that enhances the quality of life for citizens and addresses the climate risks we face.”

Ultimately, he says, U.S. cities have a tremendous amount of leverage, but they also need the support of state and federal government. “I’m a huge believer in the power of cities,” he says. “But cities can’t do it alone.”