Top 10 Cities for Green Construction

Which cities are making a case for green living? See more construction pictures.
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With the cost of energy consumption rising both in terms of dollars and impact on the environment, and with global population swelling to record numbers, many builders are incorporating green construction methods to meet these challenges.

In short, green construction uses an array of conscientious design and building practices to enhance the energy efficiency of a building while mitigating its environmental and ecological impacts. Rating systems like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000, gauges the ecological soundness of material selection, water and energy consumption, indoor environmental quality, and other factors. The LEED system has counterparts in other countries, including Canada and Brazil, and many developing and industrialized nations have homegrown agencies to promote environmentally sound building practices.

What are the best cities for green construction? Some are the longstanding sustainable building standard-bearers you might expect, while others might seem to be unlikely candidates in emerging markets around the world. But to start, let's go to the home of the oldest LEED-certified building in existence.

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., the home of many of the federal agencies that oversee green building initiatives in the United States, is also home to a remarkable amount of green construction. From 2003 to 2009, Washington, D.C., and the surrounding region added 23 million square feet (2,136,730 square meters) of LEED-certified space, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments [source: Aratani]. In 2006, the District of Columbia passed the Green Building Act, a law requiring, among other things, LEED certification for new public buildings.

According to 2012 reports from the U.S. Green Building Council, Washington, D.C., had the second largest number of LEED projects in the country with 884 [source: USGBC]. There's also 31.5 square feet (2.9 square meters) of LEED-certified space per resident -- more than any other state, and more than 10 times as much as runner-up Colorado [source: USGBC]. The city also lays claim to a green-building superlative: The 143-year-old Treasury Department headquarters is the oldest LEED-certified building in the world [source: O'Keefe].

Songdo International Business District, South Korea
Officials hope to complete construction in Songdo by 2018.
Officials hope to complete construction in Songdo by 2018.
Chung Sing-Jun/Getty Images

In 2009, the South Korean government announced a plan to build a million green homes and improve energy efficiency in a million more, along with many other sustainable building projects [source: Watts]. Two years later, the government announced the construction of a $9 billion offshore wind farm [source: Bloomberg Businessweek]. But perhaps the biggest single project had been underway since 2001.

The Songdo International Business District is a 1,500-acre waterfront city lying 40 miles (64.4 kilometers) outside of the country's capital of Seoul. The city is a designated free economic zone where businesses can operate without the tax burdens in existence elsewhere in the country [source: Cortese]. The $35 billion development features several pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods comprised of office buildings, homes and retail shops, all of which adhere to LEED standards. The city is also part of the LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot program, which rates the connectivity and sustainability of neighborhood design. In 2008, the master plan for the city earned a Sustainable Cities award. (However, while 40 percent of the city is set aside for parks and green space, critics point out that the site was built on wetlands that had been home to several species of migratory birds and other wildlife [source: Ko. Schubert, Hester].) The first phase of Songdo officially opened in August 2009, and construction planned for completion in 2018 at the earliest [source: Strickland].

Los Angeles, Calif.

While the layout of the southern California metropolis has been synonymous with ''sprawl,'' recent regulations have made Los Angeles ripe for green building.

In 2009, the city unveiled the Green Building Retrofit Ordinance, a law requiring city-owned buildings built before 1978 or larger than 7,500 square feet (696.8 square meters) to be refurbished with environmentally friendly materials [source: Database for State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency]. In 2010, the state government adopted a green building code requiring new homes and commercial and public buildings to cut water consumption by 20 percent over the previous code. Builders also had to begin using low-polluting construction materials and discarding half of construction waste in areas other than landfills [source: Roosevelt].

According to a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency survey, Los Angeles was home to 510 Energy Star-certified buildings for a total of 106.1 million square feet (9,857,013 square meters) -- more than any other city in the country [source: Catacchio].

Vancouver, Canada
A scenic view of West Vancouver from Stanley Park.
A scenic view of West Vancouver from Stanley Park.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In 2009, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson called together a Green Action Team and tasked them with setting standards to make the city the greenest in the world by 2020. Among its targets, the team sought to ensure that all new building construction would be carbon neutral, and that all existing buildings would increase their efficiency by 20 percent [source: City of Vancouver]. Today, the city employs a building code that requires all new municipal buildings over 500 square meters (5,382 square feet) in size to meet LEED Gold standards and incorporate passive design, an approach that takes advantage of natural movements in air and light to provide energy. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the world saw a preview of the city's vision: an LEED Platinum-certified Olympic Village that housed athletes, which derived 90 percent of electricity for the games from hydroelectric power [source: Murphy].

Vancouver's quest for sustainable excellence can be seen in several buildings all around town. The Net Zero Building is the first Canadian multiunit residential building that consumes and creates an equivalent amount of energy. National Yards -- the base for the city's engineering crews -- is the first LEED Gold-certified building in Canada [source: City of Vancouver].

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Brazil is currently ranked fourth in the world for LEED building projects, with 37 buildings already certified and 336 undergoing the certification process [source: Green Building Council Brazil]. And with Rio de Janeiro slated to host both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the coastal metropolis can expect to see a deluge of green construction over the next several years.

In accordance with the International Olympic Committee requirement that venues used for the games meet international standards for carbon emissions and energy efficiency, all 34 of the competition venues will incorporate green features. Although there are no requirements for soccer stadiums built for the World Cup games, according to Green Building Council Brasil, nine of the 12 stadiums being erected throughout the country for 2014 are undergoing the LEED certification process [source: Green Building Council Brazil].

Copenhagen, Denmark
Bicycling is extremely popular in Copenhagen.
Bicycling is extremely popular in Copenhagen.
Michael Pasdzior/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Copenhagen is already home to large tracts of open space, as well as 242.3 miles (390 kilometers) of bike lanes, which one in three residents uses to commute to work or school every day [source: City of Copenhagen]. With 60,000 residents expected to join the population by 2025 and designs on becoming the world's first carbon-neutral city by the same year, the Danish capital, which was among the first municipalities to offer incentives for environmentally friendly practices, continues to be home to key advances in green construction [source: City of Copenhagen].

The country's building regulations state that by 2020, buildings' energy consumption must be less than 30.7 kilowatts per square meter per year [source: Danish Architecture Centre]. In 2010, city officials mandated that all new and old rooftops angled under 30 degrees must be green -- meaning that they are literally covered with vegetation to absorb rainwater and cool the building, among other benefits [source: Nusca]. One of the most intriguing projects is expected to open in 2016: a new municipal waste incinerator that will generate energy to power tens of thousands of neighboring homes and feature a ski slope running along its exterior [source: Witkin].

Chicago, Ill.

Under former Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago launched several green building initiatives in the early 2000s. In 2002, the city constructed the Chicago Center for Green Technology, the first rehabilitated municipal building to receive an LEED Platinum rating, and a resource for those curious about green building [source: Chicago Center for Green Technology]. Soon after, Chicago began requiring LEED certification for all city buildings, and any building projects receiving financial or zoning assistance from the city had to incorporate green features. Its Green Permit Program also awards projects that incorporate certain sustainable features with a faster permitting process and reduced permitting costs [source: City of Chicago].

As of 2012, the U.S. Green Building Council counts 794 registered or certified LEED projects in Chicago, the third most in the nation [source: USGBC]. The city possesses more than 4 million square feet (371,612 square meters) of green rooftops, which absorb rainwater and help regulate building temperatures [source: Richardson]. The Willis Tower -- the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere (formerly known as the Sears Tower) -- began undergoing a retrofitting in 2009 to cut its energy consumption by 80 percent, derive power from solar panels and wind turbines, and incorporate other sustainable features [source: Stern].

Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Juergen Haepp of Fosters Architecture discuss a model of Masdar City.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Juergen Haepp of Fosters Architecture discuss a model of Masdar City.

Positioned about 17 kilometers away from the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City bills itself as ''one of the most sustainable communities on the planet' [source: Masdar City].' The $19 billion city, a project of the government-owned Mubdala Development Company that was first conceived in 2006, functions as a testing ground for sustainable technologies and innovations.

So far, six buildings in Masdar City are operational: the campus of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (a relative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), apartments for its student body and instructors, and a smattering of commercial businesses all tied to an intelligent energy grid that monitors energy and water to help meet strict consumption limits. Architectural designs in Masdar draw on passive building designs to reduce energy needs, and the city draws much of its power from a 10-megawatt photovoltaic array on the outskirts of the city. Traditional cars are barred from entering the city, and residents travel either on foot or in a fleet of electric vehicles. A 147-foot-tall (44.6-meter) tower diverts winds to provide residents with a cooling breeze, and its LED display changes color to indicate whether apartment dwellers are adhering to the city's energy consumption standards.

The city has seen several setbacks, including delayed construction deadlines and low effectiveness from the photovoltaic system [source: Vidal]. Construction is planned for completion in 2025, allowing the city to house approximately 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters [source: Masdar City].

San Francisco, Calif.

It's no surprise that San Francisco made the list. The city's 2008 green building code predates the state's CALGreen building laws by two years, and its requirements are even stricter [source: SFDBI]. San Francisco requires all municipal buildings, as well as renovations over 5,000 square feet (464.5 square meters), to receive LEED Silver certification, provides faster permit review for building projects intended to reach higher levels of LEED certification, and bans toxic construction materials and certain types of wood in municipal projects [source: SF Planning Department, SFEnvironment]. As of 2012, the city has 522 LEED projects and at least 248 Energy Star-certified buildings within its geographic limits [source: USGBC, Catacchio]. San Francisco also ranked first out of 30 green building markets in the United States in the 2011 Green Building Opportunity Index [source: Better Bricks].

The potential for sustainable construction in China continues to increase.
The potential for sustainable construction in China continues to increase.
Yann Layma/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In China, the potential impact of green construction is not limited to a single city. For the last two decades, rural residents have migrated to urban centers by the millions. According to BBC, China's cities should house roughly a billion urbanites by 2025 [source: Campanella]. Constructing homes and facilities to accommodate these massive populations is big business here: Each year, roughly half of the world's new buildings are fabricated in China [source: Larson]. Meanwhile, despite consuming less energy per person than North American counterparts, the country's sheer population makes it the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet [source: Bradsher].

China spends more money than any other country on green energy projects [source: Melik]. The government has launched a few initiatives to promote green building, including subsidies to purchase energy-efficient materials [source: Liu]. While the accuracy of the statistic is questionable, Chinese officials say that more than 95 percent of new buildings constructed in urban areas comply with the country's energy efficiency standards [source: Liu]. But the energy efficiency benefits of green building might be the only viable way to deal with its burgeoning urban population: More than a quarter of the country's energy consumption is linked to its buildings, a figure that is expected to increase 70 percent by 2020 [source: Larson].


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