Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit released “The US and Canada Green City Index,” a research project that involved an extensive survey of 27 cities in the US and Canada, in an attempt to nail down exactly what makes a city “green.” Why this focus on green urban spaces—because it’s often in the cities that real innovation and problem solving emerges. As the introduction to the report explains, “It is well known that city life can exacerbate problems such as harmful greenhouse gas emissions or urban sprawl, but increasingly cities are also generating unique solutions to these challenges through effective local policies.”
The report rated the cities 16 different categories: CO2 emissions, energy, land use, buildings, transportation, waste management, air quality, environmental governance, and . . . of course . . . water.
One of the key findings of the report was that “While there is a correlation between wealth and environmental performance, it is weaker in the US and Canada than in Europe and Asia.” This difference is due, in part, to the different priorities (although the report states that, in that respect, Canada is aligned more closely with Europe than the US) and the fact that “in the US, environmental ambition is often wrapped up with other public policy goals such as economic development and poverty alleviation, especially in lower-income cities.”
And while North America may be lagging behind in terms of greenhouse gas emissions—which the report indicates are still “high by any standard”—and urban sprawl in US and Canadian cities still “remains a challenge,” the report points out that when it comes to water infrastructure, both the American and Canadian cities come out on top. For example, cities in the US and Canada have an average leakage rate of 13%, a rate lower than any other continent according to the report. And despite some of the highest water consumption in the world—overall average is about twice as high as in other countries, according to the report—“US and Canadian cities have efficient water infrastructure and robust policies regarding water conservation.”
Some other highlights from the report’s section on water:
* There is a strong correlation between higher GDP per capita and lower water consumption. This is not only a result of being able to afford a better infrastructure, as the link between GDP and lower leakage is much weaker.
* Although water stress is not a universal issue, according to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, it affects 10% of the Canadian population and 40% of US residents, especially in the US Southwest, suggesting that greater attention to consumption may become necessary.
* The high usage figures do not arise from a lack of attention to water: all cities monitor their water quality to some degree and nearly all promote lower use.
* On the infrastructure side, the average leakage rate is just 13%, which beats even the wealthy cities of Europe, at 16%.
* Only four of 27 cities do not recycle water to some extent—compared with 21 of 30 European cities that do not recycle water, including 9 of the 15 wealthiest. The vast majority treats wastewater before discharging it.
Of the 27 cities surveyed, Calgary was rated number one in water resource management—just ahead of three US cities (Boston, MA; New York, NY; and Minneapolis, MN)—due in no small part to the city’s commitment to reduce water consumption by 30% by 2033. Called “30 by 30”, the program has found success in water use reduction through the use of automatic metering. According to the report, “Calgary’s water utility began installing them in 53,000 unmetered homes—out of about 280,000 total residences.” Local studies have shown that introducing the meters has enabled the city to reduce household water consumption by 60%. And city residents are mostly happy with the compulsory program, which was given a four out of five rating from customers, due, no doubt, to the fact that installation of the meters is free and has, on average, helped users save money: in 2009, the average water bill in metered household was $41.89 per month, lower than the $50-per-month flat fee paid by households still on the flat rate plan.
Other water resource management success stores highlighted by the report include:
Phoenix: The city’s award-winning wastewater treatment discharges treated water into the manmade wetlands, where the natural flora and fauna of the wetlands further cleans the already treated effluent while also sustaining a diverse ecosystem, including 143 species of birds.
Washington DC: The “Skip the Bag, Save the River” program helps both waste reduction and water quality. Through the program, city residents pay a five-cent charge for disposable bags, 80% of which goes to fund the Anacostia Watershed Trash Reduction Plan, an effort “to clean up one of the most polluted rivers on the East Coast.”
Houston: For the past five years, the city has been using 20 SolarBees—energy efficient, solar-powered aerators—to treat water at Lake Houston, one of the city’s primary sources of drinking water. Using the solar aerators has helped the city reduce energy costs by 28% and chemical costs of 78%.
For more on the “The US and Canada Green City Index,” go here.
New Forester University Webinar:
How can we design a better and greener roadway? Join David Hein, P.Eng., V.P. of transportation at Applied Research Associates, on November 17th for “Greening the Road” exploring roadway design, specification, and construction elements used to develop long-lasting roadways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce and recycle road-building resources, and promote environmental stewardship.