What Works for Green Cities

In cities across the country, bike-sharing plans, tree-planting initiatives, and other programs aimed at enhancing urban sustainability are becoming increasingly popular. As mayors consider how to design and implement their own programs, they can turn for guidance to a series of MIT assessments of what kinds of programs have worked — and not worked — in other cities and why. The MIT director of the assessment project is now developing a systematic, user-friendly method of presenting this information as well as a protocol that will permit easy or even automatic updating of the content. Her next task: determining the environmental benefits that actually accrue from specific urban sustainability programs.

At one time, cities were seen as dark, dirty hubs of consumption, degrading to both people and the environment. But recently, environmentalists have recognized that dense, compact cities are, in many ways, environmentally friendly. For example, people reside in relatively small spaces and close together; shared walls and short travel distances make for efficient energy use. What is more, urban leaders have stepped in where national-level politicians have been unwilling to act. As a result, cities are now leaders in the pursuit of sustainability. More than 1,000 mayors have signed the Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, vowing to meet the targets of the Kyoto Protocol. While that agreement was initially a response to federal inaction on climate change, city leaders have since realized that "being green" has multiple benefits: It makes cities more sustainable, enhances their livability, and attracts new residents, drawing people back into urban areas that are inherently more efficient. "By the mid-2000s, U.S. cities were competing to see who could be the most green," says Professor Judy Layzer, associate professor of environmental policy and head of Environmental Policy and Planning at DUSP.

Many U.S. cities are now devising and implementing sustainability programs aimed at everything from increasing bicycle use to expanding renewable power generation to cleaning up and conserving water. In 2008, Layzer became intrigued with such urban programs. Supported by a seed grant from the MIT Energy Initiative, she began to develop the first systematic assessment of ongoing sustainability programs — a source of integrated information that city leaders interested in sustainability will find invaluable. "Imagine that you're a mayor and you want to start a bike-share program," says Layzer. "If it fails, you don't get to try it again. Politics is very unforgiving." To design the best possible program, you would read case studies, search the Internet, and call your mayoral counterparts in other cities. But that is a scattershot way to gather information. When Layzer's work is finished, you will instead consult a website created by her group and find a systematic analysis of how different approaches have led to different results in different settings or contexts.

[Excerpted from an article from the MIT News Office -- see for more; image: Urban sustainability program areas, Stephanie Stern, MA '11, MIT]