Metrics for Great Cities

The Most-Livable Cities Share Common Traits

I recently noticed, while writing an article about walkability, some overlap among top-performing U.S. cities in positive metrics. I think these are important because they’re all the result of good policies, not mere good fortune. What are the metrics for great cities?

Urban Forests

The urban forest is the collective tree and shrub cover in and around cities, located on both private and public land. According to American Forests, a nonprofit forest-advocacy organization, the urban forest is able to:

  • Remove air pollution
  • Produce oxygen
  • Absorb rainwater and pollutants in rainwater that would otherwise run into streams and groundwater
  • Provide shade
  • Block wind
  • Reduce energy demand
  • Reduce noise levels
  • Store carbon
  • Provide habitat for animals, and
  • Make people happier and more relaxed.

American Forests evaluated the 50 most-populous U.S. cities’ urban forests in regard to:

  • Civic engagement in maintaining the urban forest
  • Urban forest strategies and city greening to address city infrastructure challenges
  • Accessibility of urban forest and greenspaces to the public
  • Overall health and condition of the city’s urban forest
  • Documented knowledge about its urban forests, and
  • Urban forest management plans and management activities.

Why did American Forests undertake the project?

Scott Steen, American Forests CEO and one of the judges for the project, said the group wanted to “showcase the tangible value that urban forests provide to cities and their residents, including economic, aesthetic, social and physical well-being. Various studies have shown a correlation between trees and lower rates of crime, reduced levels of stress and lower body mass.”

Image #1: New York City skyline, Graham Styles

In addition, “No two cities have worked exactly the same way to achieve their place on our top 10 list, but they each serve as a role model for others,” Steen said.

Energy Efficiency

Achieving greater energy efficiency, like living in a healthy urban forest, results in a better quality of life for people. It also saves people and businesses money, and has the potential to obviate the need for more power plants as the country’s population grows.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) evaluated 34 major U.S. cities on their efforts to reduce energy use and costs. ACEEE ranked each city based on the following sectors’ successes to reduce energy use:

  • Local government
  • Community initiatives
  • Buildings
  • Utilities
  • Transportation

Boston walkable neighborhood

Walk Score

My previous article looked at Walk Scores in more detail. You can review it here. The walkability rankings were compiled by the group Walk Score. It’s important to remember that different neighborhoods in a city can have hugely disparate scores. Denver’s overall score is 55.7, but the Berkeley neighborhood on Denver’s west side, for example, at 93 is a “Walker’s Paradise.”

Here’s how the data looks when combined:

Urban Forest

Energy Efficiency

Walk Score

New York City

Top 10

69.75 (3rd)

88 (1st)

Seattle

Top 10

65.25 (5th)

71 (8th)

Washington, D.C.

Top 10

56.25 (7th)

74 (7th)

Portland, OR

Top 10

70 (2nd)

63 (15th)

Minneapolis

Top 10

55.25 (8th)

65 (12th)

Denver

Top 10

52.75 (11th)

56 (23rd)

Austin, TX

Top 10

62 (6th)

35 (34th)

Sacramento

Top 10

40.75 (18th)

43 (24th)

Charlotte, NC

Top 10

23.75 (31st)

24 (50th)

Boston

not ranked

76.75 (1st)

80 (3rd)

San Francisco

not ranked

69.75 (3rd)

84 (2nd)

Philadelphia

not ranked

54.5 (10th)

77 (4th)

Chicago

not ranked

54.75 (9th)

75 (6th)

Milwaukee, WI

Top 10

not ranked

59 (20th)

Clearly many other metrics would be useful. These three are interesting, I think, because each confers benefits beyond the individual person. Energy efficiency is good for individuals, businesses, and the environment. Walkable cities are good for people’s health and for property values. The urban forest gives people cleaner air and water, cooler temperatures, and often a sense of peace and well being.

What other metrics would be useful in this sort of comparison?

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

 

 

 

Green Cities Make People Happier and Healthier

Live Science reports on a study that people feel enhanced well-being in cities with more green space.  It’s clear that green cities are not just more pleasant; they’re good for us! Green cities make people happier and healthier.

parks make people happier and healthier

Here’s another example. And another from a post I wrote in 2012.

So what do we do to create green cities? Lots of things, but one of the most crucial is improving the urban forest.

 

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

What Are the Best Cities for Treehuggers?

What are the best cities for treehuggers?

American Forests’ 10 Best list is based on 6 main criteria.

Despite the emerald ash borer, some cities’ urban forests are healthy and well managed. What are the best cities for treehuggers?

According to American Forests, they are:

  • Seattle
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Sacramento
  • Denver
  • Austin, Texas
  • Minneapolis
  • Milwaukee
  • Charlotte, North Carolina
  • New York City
  • Washington, D.C.

And then there’s this nonsense. Those power lines should be buried, or at least relocated to the alleys.

What are the best cities for treehuggers?

Thanks, Xcel Energy!

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

 

How Do We Improve the Urban Forest?

3202889267_48d33c8233_z

Jacaranda trees in Buenos Aires.

Green cities need a healthy urban forest, made up of street trees, park trees, and trees on private property. Trees clean the air, pump out oxygen, sequester carbon, lower air temperature, and provide shade. We can’t really have green city without healthy trees. More info here and here.

Most cities’ street trees have a tough life. They’re squeezed into a small boulevard space, and many are mutilated for power line clearance. Park and yard trees usually have a better fate, but the emerald ash borer will be fatal to any untreated ash trees it can find.

dying ash

A dying ash tree.

How do we improve the urban forest? The city of Madison, Wisconsin, has about 10% ash trees in its urban forest. It also has the Urban Tree Alliance, a unique organization with a compelling mission. From their web site:

“The Urban Tree Alliance is a non-profit organization serving the greater Madison, WI area. We grew out of a desire to elevate the level of care given to our urban forests as a whole. It is our goal to advocate for the urban forest; define and explain the benefits it provides; educate and demonstrate how to assure it’s health and growth; and act in service to property owners, community groups, municipalities, and anyone else who has a stake in the management of this communal resource.”

“To the best of our knowledge we are the only non-profit organization of our kind in existence.”

Urban Tree Alliance

Urban Tree Alliance

This group offers many of the services of other tree companies, but also offers subsidized tree care to people who make less than 80% of the county median income. Great idea! The UTA is also working on finding ways to use urban wood, such as for lumber and furniture. The abundance of ash trees that will be cut in the next decade will ensure a robust supply, and it’s a shame when useable trees end up chipped just to get rid of them.

The city of La Crosse has begun the process of removing the ash trees in parks and on the boulevards. It’s surprising to see so many stumps where there should be shade. It’s crucial that we learn, this time, not to overplant one species!

Pettibone Park is a lot less shady after more than 400 ash trees were cut.

Pettibone Park is a lot less shady after more than 400 ash trees were cut.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture