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Green Neighborhoods: the Making of a Sustainable City

By Jonathan Denis-Jacob
March 29, 2011

Environmental issues are undoubtedly the challenge of the 21st century. Climate change and rising energy prices bring the need to seriously reconsider the way cities are designed. In fact, cities now find themselves at the very center of the “Green Revolution” as one of the main components for achieving sustainability. As a result, several urban initiatives are being put forward to make cities greener, healthier and more eco-friendly. One of these is the concept of “Green neighborhoods”, which is probably the very first attempt to connect urban sustainability principles with micro-level community planning. Recent experiences in Montreal and Portland, Oregon have proven successful in enhancing active transportation conditions in neighborhoods, reducing carbon emissions and building community involvement.

Green neighborhoods are designated as such by using various indicators well beyond traditional variables such as vegetation cover and the size of parks. Green neighborhoods are broadly defined as being moderately dense, mixed-use, designed at a human scale, active and public transportation oriented and literally “green”. The main emphasis is placed on sustainable transportation and proximity to a diversity of services and amenities, in short, those elements which make neighborhoods liveable places to live, work and play.

In green neighborhoods, the urban fabric allows for people to rely primarily on active and public transportation. The housing stock offers a variety of dwelling types and population is socially and economically mixed. Green neighborhoods can also include green infrastructure such as green buildings, rainwater recycling and green energy production systems.

The first benefits of green neighborhoods are environmental. Research has shown that green neighborhoods reduce greenhouse emissions by 20 to 40% per person[i] primarily because of the use of clean means of transportation. Green neighborhoods also contribute to the improvement of public health issues, such as obesity, because their residents tend to be more active and drive less than the average North American. Green neighborhood initiatives are by the way often used to develop a culture of active transportation, especially among children, in communities.

Green neighborhoods, however, are rarely built from scratch. In fact, location plays a central role. Inner city neighborhoods, which are a stone’s throw away from commercial streets, employment centers and most amenities, are much more likely to become green neighborhoods than those in low-density car-reliant suburbs. But still, actions can be taken to make a place genuinely “greener” regardless of the location.

A first approach taken to implement green neighborhood is to build a participatory process to find creative ways to promote active transportation. Based on the feedback of the community, several measures such as the enhancement of the public realm, residential densification, the introduction of new proximity services and the organization of local events and activities are put forward. In Montreal for example, a pilot project called Green, active and healthy neighborhoods has proven effective in identifying safety issues and barriers to active transportation in the public realm and proposes design enhancement strategies.

The environmental issues the world is facing require innovative solutions beyond mere technological progress. Designing more sustainable cities, where walking, cycling, skateboarding and public transportation become the main means of transport in daily life is one of them. Green neighborhoods are a step to take to achieve this goal. Furthermore, as environmental awareness grows and people are seeking healthier lifestyle, the creation of green neighborhoods becomes a promising solution for the city of the 21st century.


Playbook for Green buildings and neighborhoods.

Montreal Urban Ecology Center. Green active and Healthy Neighborhoods.

Portland Sustainability Institute. The Ecodistricts Initiative.