Making the Grade By Making the Most Of Natural Resources

Parks were one criteria on which cities were judged, along with air and water quality, energy policies and public transit. This is Portland's Washington Park.
Parks were one criteria on which cities were judged, along with air and water quality, energy policies and public transit. This is Portland's Washington Park. (Portland Oregon Visitors Association)

By Kristen Gerencher
Saturday, June 17, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO -- Portland, Ore., is the big city doing the best job of making its resources sustainable for future generations to enjoy without passing on a major cost burden, a new study says.

Portland ranked highest among the 50 largest U.S. cities for using its assets and infrastructure wisely, keeping money in the local economy and being prepared for the unexpected, according to a study from SustainLane, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan online community for healthy, sustainable living.

San Francisco came in second in this year's annual survey, with Seattle taking third place. SustainLane's 2005 survey evaluated 25 cities and used different criteria. The survey began in 2004.

The 2006 report measures the 50 most populous cities based on 15 economic and quality-of-life categories. Cities were judged on their ability to maintain air quality and healthy drinking water, their use of renewable energy and alternative fuels, access to public transit, number of parks, green building and local food production.

The study looked for strong local economies that could handle sudden, unpredictable events such as surging energy prices and natural disasters, as well as the presence of easily walkable neighborhoods and downtowns, farmers markets and affordable housing.

Northwestern cities tend to do well in ecological studies, but East Coast and Midwestern hubs such as Boston, Chicago and New York also made the top 10, said Warren Karlenzig, chief strategy officer at SustainLane and research director for the study. Washington came in at No. 12.

"One big surprise was Philadelphia," Karlenzig said. It was ranked No. 4. "It did well because of [housing] affordability, pretty low natural-disaster risk."

The City of Brotherly Love also is tracking greenhouse gas emissions with a goal of 10 percent reduction by 2010, he said, and 13 percent of its city vehicle fleet uses alternative fuels. Other strengths were a relatively high number of energy-efficient "green" buildings, and local food production that boasts 18 farmers markets and more than 400 community gardens.

"They have a very strong network of local food in Pennsylvania in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, so if energy prices go up they will be in a better position because local food won't cost as much," Karlenzig said.

The concept of what makes a city sustainable varies, with some experts preferring strictly physical criteria and others saying the definition should include poverty rates and other socioeconomic indicators.

In some cases, cities that reigned in certain categories ranked near the bottom in others. San Francisco took top honors for planning but was the second-least affordable city in which to purchase a house based on average income and housing prices, exceeded only by Long Beach, Calif., Karlenzig said.

San Antonio was the most affordable city in which to become a homeowner, followed by Baltimore, according to SustainLane. Meanwhile, Austin is home to a clean-energy incubator that's developing solar and wind power technologies, but only 2.5 percent of its residents take public transit to work, Karlenzig said.

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