Making the Grade By Making the Most Of Natural Resources
Portland, Ore., Leads List of Top 50 Cities

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.

New York did especially well on commuting, the only category to be weighted more heavily in the rankings than other criteria, he said. The study looked at measures such as public-transit usage, how many people walk, bike or carpool to work, and the percentage who drive alone to their jobs, he said.

"One thing common to the bottom of the list is an almost complete lack of public transit," Karlenzig said. "Out of the bottom 10 cities, with the exception of Detroit, they all have less than 5 percent public-transit ridership." Columbus, Ohio, came in at the very bottom of the list. Also in the last 10 were Nashville, Memphis, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City.

Such low numbers may reflect limited bus routes, irregular service hours and underserved areas, all of which can threaten a city's transit future, he said. "If cities don't have 5 percent ridership, people don't really think it's there. It's almost like it doesn't exist."

Surveys such as SustainLane's "go a long way in terms of helping the nation understand what constitutes a better and more sustainable urban environment," said Nicholas C. Zaferatos, associate professor of urban planning at Western Washington University's Huxley College of the Environment in Bellingham.

Green building materials, for example, may be 5 to 10 percent more expensive upfront, but the investment pays off in seven years on average, he said.

Eric Pallant, environmental science professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., 80-100 miles from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, said sustainability rankings may motivate some cities to improve their infrastructure and planning.

But those whose residents are less educated and affluent face bigger obstacles in making the transformation, he said. "I live in a place where it's so hard to do. These are poor, Rust Belt communities. These are not people who think environment first. They're thinking of day-to-day survival first."

Regional job loss, especially in manufacturing, has led more young people to settle in distant, economically vibrant cities, many of which are more likely to support alternative technologies and planning strategies, Pallant said.

It often takes resources for cities to attract resources, Zaferatos said. "If they're losing jobs, if there's no tax base, it's awfully difficult to invest in those places. That's the unfair advantage that these leaders on the Top 10 list have. Money is coming in."

But it also takes political will, he said. "When you match investment money, investment power along with a forward-thinking sustainable urban policy, then you get redevelopment of the waterfront, of older industrial parts of the city, and they become live, active, enjoyable neighborhoods people tend to love, and as a result rank as good cities."

Still, a growing number of communities are taking it upon themselves to impose new standards, Pallant said. "The really remarkable thing is despite national policies that are anti-sustainable in almost every respect, the number of grass-roots organizations doing good work in these places, unheralded, is amazing."

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