3 April 2013 ­ –  Cities are getting serious about climate change, from Vancouver in Canada to Malmo in Sweden and Reykjavik in Iceland.

Right around the world, town planners, governments, architects and builders are focused on creating green cities. Sustainable housing structures reduce environmental impacts in cities. Planners are now looking at avoiding high traffic emissions, providing areas of fresh air, and maintaining and creating water catchment areas. We’re not talking here about aesthetics – this is the basis for all future urban development.

So what are the world’s greenest cities? What can we learn from them? How do we develop and fund them?

Vancouver has an action plan to become the world’s greenest by 2020. The GCAP (Greenest City 2020 Action Plan) is developing a corporate waste and diversion program for all City facilities. It’s creating a procurement policy for purchasing local produced food. It’s also setting up green community events and encouraging green workplaces.

There’s a focus in Vancouver on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use in city-run buildings and achieving carbon neutral operations. There has even been talk of implementing emerging technologies like solar-powered trash compactors that hold five times the waste of conventional bins, thereby putting fewer pollution-spewing garbage trucks on the roads. The streets of Vancouver are paved with recycled plastic.

Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city, has systems involving residents in the design and maintenance of housing developments. It has an extensive network of bike trails and programs aimed at reducing climate impact and creating thriving forests and wetlands.  Malmo has positioned itself as a pioneer in eco-friendly living. Even by environmentally-conscious Sweden’s standards, the drive to go green has been impressive. Lillgrund, the third largest wind park in the world, is located off Malmo.

Copenhagen in Denmark plans to become the world’s first CO2 neutral capital by 2025. From 2007-2011 Copenhagen was appointed to be the World’s first Bike City by the International Cycling Union (UCI). The city also holds the world record when it comes to consumption of organic food products.

In 2006, Copenhagen won the European Environmental Award for its clean waterways and leadership in environmental planning. The secret of its success? Windmills is one answer. More than 5600 windmills supply 10 per cent of Denmark’s electricity. In 2001, Copenhagen opened the world’s largest offshore windmill park. The park powers about 32,000 homes in the city, supplying about 3 per cent of the city’s energy needs.

Traffic congestion has been reduced by integrating transport and cycling solutions. The city’s goal is to have 50 per cent of people cycling to their place of work or education by 2015. Copenhagen has also invested heavily in its harbour. For many years, the water there was heavily polluted with sewage, algae, oil spills and industrial waste. Now it’s so clean that people swim in it. And it’s transformed the city’s real estate market.

According to Forbes, the prices of apartments close to Copenhagen harbour increased by 57 per cent from 2002 to 2011, while apartments in the same area of town but further from the harbour only increased by 12 per cent. In addition, the price per square meter next to the harbour is 42 per cent higher than real estate in the same part of town but not next to the harbour.

Portland, Oregon is ranked by many as the greenest city in the USA. One fourth of the city is shaded by tree canopy, and you’ll find no fewer than 288 parks.  According to official estimates, 25 per cent of the city’s workforce commutes by bike, carpool or public transport. It has 250 miles of bike paths, trails and lanes. And its electricity supply is regarded as a world leader for renewable energy. The city’s electricity supply uses 33 per cent renewable energy compared to a national average in the US of 13 per cent.

The city has recycled close to 57 per cent of all waste generated. It uses 25 per cent coal compared to a national average of 42 per cent and its recycling program is so effective that residential recycling reportedly saves 250,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent to what 35,000 cars would produce on the city’s roads in a year. Oregon has also banned plastic bags.

Reykjavik in Iceland has just over 100,000 residents which would make it the smallest green city on the planet but its developments in green energy sources is impressive. The key here lies with the volcanoes and hot springs in the area. That allows the city to run largely off hydropower and geothermal resources, both of which are renewable and free of greenhouse gas emissions. Some vehicles even run on hydrogen, including three city buses. Iceland plans to unplug itself from all dependence on fossil fuels by 2050 to become a hydrogen economy.

Melbourne is an up and coming green city. It’s already regarded as a world leader in its support for green buildings, with an ambitious target of zero net emissions by 2020. It has a program which helps commercial building owners retrofit their properties with modern energy-efficient technologies and finance through its Environmental Upgrade Agreements. It also has an extensive network of dedicated bike lanes and Swanston Street, the city’s main street, is closed to car traffic.

It’s building water tanks and stormwater harvesting systems. In Darling Street, East Melbourne, it’s installed a world-first in-road stormwater harvest scheme. The City of Melbourne is also big on introducing recycling water technologies in the city’s buildings. There’s a massive tree planting program with plans to double the number of trees planted in the city by 2040.

Sydney has the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target of any Australian government – 70 per cent – by 2030 (on 2006 levels). It says it is planning an integrated public transport network connecting inner Sydney, the City Centre and surrounding areas with the aim of reducing congestion, continuous green corridors with dedicated pedestrian and bike tracks. Sydney council has installed rainwater tanks to provide water for the city’s green spaces.

It has also installed $4.3 million worth of solar panels on more than 30 major buildings, cutting annual carbon pollution by 2250 tonnes. It has also installed 6500 LED street and park lights to reduce electricity use by 40 per cent. Water harvesting and recycling systems are being built at key sites.

There’s a CitySwitch green office which helps commercial office tenants improve energy efficiency and a Clean Harbour Partners Program where businesses are helping reduce rubbish and chemical pollution entering Sydney Harbour. The city has retrofitted city buildings to improve energy and water efficiency, reducing carbon pollution by 42 per cent. It is planning a  trigeneration energy system. Sydney last year won a silver award in the most sustainable government category of the renowned International Green Awards

So how do they do it? How do planners create a green city?  It’s all about funding and strategy. Many of these cities offer incentives and programs for green development. In Vancouver for example you can get grants and loans for energy efficiency improvements. Melbourne has a Sustainable Melbourne Fund that invests in projects that enhance the environment and deliver economic benefits for the people of Melbourne.

According to the Green City Index, a project run by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Siemens, green cities come out of good governance and leadership at the metropolitan level where there are policies that meet or exceed national standards.

They also take a holistic approach, recognising that performance in one area like transport is linked to air quality. They also have more civic engagement involving residents in green innovation, and they combine the green and brown agendas which focus on human health and poverty reduction.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council released its Built Environment Adaptation Framework in 2012, which outlines ten ways in which government can work with industry to deliver effective adaptation strategies. Under this blueprint, governments would engage with industry to identify opportunities. They would also lead by example, sponsor research, and provide financial incentives, like for example, funding retrofitting, or by providing targeted interest free loans, accelerated depreciation, as well as stamp duty and land tax exemptions for buildings in high risk areas being upgraded.

ASBEC also flags a possible buy-back program for buildings in high risk areas. Local councils would be required to speed up processes for permits for green design and adaptation initiatives. The Green Building Council of Australia also has a guide showing councils how they can get involved.

There is also potential funding from the $1.3 trillion superannuation sector.

Australian property funds management company, ISPT aims to be the best-performing wholesale property fund manager in Australia and the first choice in property for Australian super funds. Super funds by their very nature focus on stable, ‘future-proofed’ investments. ISPT’s Green Star-rated buildings consistently outperform their non-rated assets in value and rental return, which would attract more investment in green property.

There are many funding sources for retrofitting.

First, there’s the Renewable Energy Future Fund which includes partnerships between the Government and the private sector to make critical early?stage investments to get private funds supporting the commercialisation of renewable technologies.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has $10 billion to invest over the next five years in investment and green loans to businesses and has now been merged  with Low Carbon Australia.

There’s also the Photovoltaic Rebate Program and  the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program.

With that sort of backing, and with the skills and expertise here, there is no reason why Australia can’t produce some of the world’s greenest cities.