Story at a glance:

  • Over the last few decades cities have made more official efforts to be green, largely due to concerns surrounding climate change.
  • Sustainable cities are typically defined by their commitment to renewable energy, reducing carbon emissions, and green construction policies.
  • Reykjavik, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen are some of the cities doing inspiring sustainability work.

By the year 2050 current projections reveal that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. In this urban vision of the future, building efficiency will become increasingly important to economic, social, and environmental development in sustainable cities.

Choices in architectural design, construction practices, and technology used in buildings today must be purposeful in order to maximize energy and resource efficiency in the sustainable cities of the future.

Here are 10 cities that have successfully implemented sustainable strategies for development with examples of some of their most impressive green buildings.

Economic Mitigation Potential by Sector, 2030

Sourced from the World Resources Institute

The WRI released its Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA) program to provide a guide for leaders in public and private sectors to follow in order to increase building efficiency and reach sustainability goals in their cities. “The BEA partnership brings technical experts together with local governments to improve policies, deliver more efficient buildings and technologies, and transform cities,” says Jennifer Layke, global director of WRI’s energy program. “Energy-efficient buildings create environmental, health and economic benefits.”

These sustainable cities have committed to and made progress toward increasing the efficiency of their buildings and urban development projects.

10 Sustainable Cities Inspiring Action

Here are 10 sustainable cities who are leading by example, with photos from some of their most inspiring projects.

1. Copenhagen

Rendering: TMRW

Upon completion the UN17 Village will be one of the most sustainable building complexes in Copenhagen. Rendering courtesy of TMRW

Best known for its bike-centric and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, Copenhagen is one of the world’s leading cities when it comes to implementing sustainability on a large scale, largely due to its incentivizing green solutions. Indeed, you’ll find more than 230 miles of bike lanes within this city’s limits. Numerous bike-share/bike-rental programs exist throughout the city, making cycling an extremely viable (and safe) mode of transportation.

By focusing so heavily on providing easy access to green transportation alternatives, the city has removed over a third of all fossil-fuel-reliant transportation since 2019, eliminating approximately 90,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Of course, Copenhagen has also made significant efforts to improve sustainability in the building sector; it is the first Scandinavian city to enact a mandatory green roof policy, requiring all new roofs with a slope less than 30 degrees to incorporate soil and vegetation into their architectural planning. Green roofs help mitigate stormwater runoff, act as passive cooling features, and aid in the sequestering of carbon emissions, making them crucial to Copenhagen’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025.

As it stands, more than one-fourth of Copenhagen is occupied by green spaces, while over half of the city’s energy comes from renewable sources—mainly wind, solar, and biomass systems—meaning they are well on their way of meeting their carbon neutrality goal.

UN17 Village

One of Copenhagen’s more ambitious sustainability projects is the development of the UN17 Village, a mixed-use living community that aims to be the first building in the world to incorporate and address all 17 of the United Nations’ Global Goals, with specific focus on those regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“Focusing on universal access to energy, increased energy efficiency, and the increased use of renewable energy is crucial to create resilience to environmental issues like climate change,” Anders Lendager, CEO and founder of the Lendager Group, previously told gb&d.

Designed by Sweco Architects Denmark and the Lendager Group, the UN17 Village comprises five buildings total and is set to be able to house more than 1,100 residents. Other amenities include restaurants, a health clinic, common areas, and a sharing center. Sustainable features will include rainwater collection, treatment, and reuse, green roofs and walls, biodiverse landscaping, water- and energy-saving appliances, integration into the local district heating system, solar panels, and more.

UN City

If it wasn’t already obvious, Copenhagen takes the United Nations sustainability goals very seriously—and the UN City campuses are the perfect example.

Designed by 3XN, UN City encompasses two campuses and houses 11 United Nations agencies in total. Its design was largely informed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially when it comes to energy efficiency—1,400 square meters of solar panels clad the roof, of which provide approximately 30% of the building’s electricity.

To conserve water UN City utilizes a rainwater collection system to supply water to its bathrooms, while outdoor green spaces help mitigate stormwater runoff. Cool seawater is pumped throughout the building’s cooling system to help regulate interior temperatures at peak efficiency.

A central atrium, large windows, and smart building facade allow daylight to enter the structure, further reducing energy loads and improving occupants’ psychological well-being. Overall UN City uses 55% less electricity than similarly-sized office buildings and boasts a LEED Platinum certification.

2. Oslo

Oslo sustainable cities

Oslo has set an ambitious goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2030. Photo by Tord Baklund for #VISITOSLO

The capital of Norway is also one of the most sustainable cities. The city welcomes 10,000 new residents each year, bringing in a flood of green developers and architects ready to tackle sustainability in a growing city. Eco-friendly initiatives are on the rise, like the mandate that requires all new municipality-built buildings be not only zero-emission, but to also be “energy-plus,” actually generating energy.

Oslo aims to be climate-neutral by 2030. Emissions are being tracked citywide, the municipal pension fund is invested in green projects instead of fossil fuel-based projects, and the city aims to have a car-free city center.

Oslo even offers incentives like tax credits, access to public transport lanes, and waived tolls to anyone driving electric cars, plus credits for electric transport bicycles. With all of these exciting prospects in long-term sustainability and more on the way, Oslo and its 660,000 people have proved they are all in on sustainable building, which is why programs like FutureBuilt have been so successful.

The Vulkan Area

Oslo sustainablel cities neighborhood

Beautiful escapes surround the popular Mathallen Food Hall in the Vulkan area of Oslo. You can easily spend a day on the Akerselva river walk or exploring the neighborhoods in and around historic Damstredet, with houses that date back to the late 1700s and 1800s. Photo by Tord Baklund

This city-wide drive for sustainable building is reshaping entire neighborhoods. The Vulkan area between Oslo’s city center and the Grünerløkka borough was developed along the scenic Akerselva river walk. This bustling area is now home to two Energy Class A hotels, an uber-popular food hall, the country’s largest charging facility for electric cars, and a plethora of restaurants and bars.

A system of geothermal wells that runs nearly 1,000 feet deep supplies all of Vulkan’s buildings with heating and cooling. Extensive solar water heating systems, state-of-the-art insulation solutions, and recycling energy from coolers and elevators are all found in the city’s buildings, and it’s making a difference to Oslo’s growing legacy as one of the top sustainable cities worldwide.

The Munch Museum

new munch museum gbd magazine 03

Norway’s changing light inspired the design of the tower-shaped museum clad in glass and recycled, perforated aluminum panels of varying degrees of translucency. Photo by Einar Aslaksen

When Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist who painted “The Scream,” died in 1944, he donated more than 27,000 of his works to the city of Oslo on the condition that they were made accessible to all people and housed in a single space. Designed by EstudioHerreros, the Munch Museum is the city’s fulfillment of that wish—as well as an inspiring example of sustainable construction.

Located along Oslo’s coast, The Munch Museum is built directly into the water and sits atop piles stretching 200 feet down to the bedrock. In being so close to the water, the museum is able to take advantage of cool sea breezes for natural ventilation and is linked to a nearby seawater cooling plant to further regulate interior temperatures.

Exhibition rooms require stable humidity, temperature, and lighting, but the rest of the museum makes extensive use of daylighting strategies—large, energy-efficient windows and skylights provide ample illumination throughout the year, reducing energy expenditure and the building’s annual carbon emissions.

The main structure of the museum itself also prioritizes sustainability—low-carbon concrete makes up the framework while glass and recycled aluminum panels clad the exterior.

3. Amsterdam

schoonship amsterdam floating homes isabel nabuurs

Initiated and developed by the residents themselves, Schoonschip Amsterdam includes 46 self-sustaining floating homes and creates a new model for sustainable living. Photo by Isabel Nabuurs

Like many of the cities on this list, Amsterdam has invested considerably in expanding its cycling infrastructure. At present you’ll find more than 500 kilometers of bike paths throughout the city; current estimates suggest that more than 65% of all trips within the city are made by bicycle.

Amsterdam’s governing bodies also have high hopes for the city when it comes to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Green policies aim to reduce Amsterdam’s carbon dioxide emissions by 55% in 2030 and 95% by 2050. The city’s climate goals also include eliminating all emission-producing modes of transportation and generating 80% of all household electricity via solar and wind power by 2030.

Amsterdam is also on track to become a circular city by 2050, which means everything that the city produces will be able to be either reused, repurposed, or recycled—a move that would effectively reduce waste production to near zero.

Schoonschip Amsterdam

schoonschip amsterdam alan jensen

As an urban ecosystem embedded within the city, Schoonschip Amsterdam provides a new model for sustainable living. Photo by Alan Jensen

No project better showcases Amsterdam’s commitment toward sustainability than Schoonschip Amsterdam—a self-sustaining floating village that utilizes shared services and houses more than 100 residents.

Developed by Space&Matter, Schoonschip Amsterdam includes more than 40 homes and aims to reduce its overall environmental impact and carbon footprint. Natural building materials like FSC-certified wood, wood fiber insulation, burlap, and even straw were favored over concrete, steel, and other traditional building materials in this design.

An interconnected grid of 500 solar panels supplies electricity to all residences and uses blockchain technology to exchange energy between households, operating similarly to an energy cooperative. Solar boilers and heat pumps are used to heat the village’s tap water, with many residents taking advantage of water-efficient showers to conserve water and energy by as much as 90% and 80%, respectively.

schoonschip amsterdam isabel nabuurs 02

Schoonschip’s jetty creates a social meeting space for residents while also supplying the community’s energy, water, and waste systems underneath. Photo by Isabel Nabuurs

Schoonschip Amsterdam also makes efficient use of its wastewater—graywater from showers, washing machines, dishwashers, and the like is treated onsite and reused while blackwater is collected, fermented, and converted into energy at a biorefinery.

Green roofs take up at least a third of each household’s roof, allowing residents to grow their own food while also serving as passive cooling features, reducing the need for interior heating and cooling.

“Schoonschip is transformed into thriving neighborhoods based on regenerating existing nature and ensuring social, ecological, and financial value remains with the community. This ensures a network of stewardship and care, which will keep the neighborhoods operating in a circular way for perpetuity,” Sascha Glasl, cofounder of architectural firm Space&Matter, previously told gb&d.


Amsterdam is also home to HAUT, the tallest mass timber building in the Netherlands and the fourth tallest mass timber building in the world. Designed by Team V Architecture, HAUT measures 240 feet tall and makes use of prefabricated cross-laminated timber, a highly sustainable building material due to its continued sequestration of carbon throughout its operational life cycle.

HAUT was designed to meet the highest level of BREEAM standards and includes a variety of sustainable features. Solar panels clad the roof and facade, cooling is sourced from the ground, rainwater is collected and stored for use in the rooftop garden, and nesting boxes provide homes for bats and birds.

4. Reykjavik

fabric iceland gbd magazine courtesy of basalt architects 03

Basalt Architects designed FABRIC, an ongoing project in Reykjavik that uses low- carbon construction materials. FABRIC incentivizes alternative and communal ways of living and working—mixing housing, office space, public space, service, and retail. Rendering courtesy of Basalt

Few cities can truthfully claim they are powered almost entirely by renewable energy. Reykjavik, however, can. Since the mid-1970s Iceland’s capital city (and Iceland in general) has relied on renewable energy to produce approximately 100% of all the energy it consumes, with the majority of that power coming from geothermal and hydropower facilities.

Overall Reykjavik sources approximately 27% of its electricity from geothermal plants and 73% of its electricity from hydroelectric facilities. An estimated 95% of the city’s buildings source their heating and hot water from district-wide geothermal heating. Renewable energy, however, is but one facet of Reykjavik’s sustainability efforts.

In 2010 the city released the Reykjavik Municipal Plan, a policy plan that set development goals up until 2030 and included a comprehensive Sustainable Planning Policy, the latter of which focuses on:

  • Reducing pollution
  • Preserving green spaces
  • Increasing sustainable public transit systems
  • Incentivizing green building practices
  • Improving energy efficiency


In 2016 Reykjavik announced its plans to become carbon neutral by the year 2040 and completely fossil-fuel free by 2050. To achieve these goals the city has begun reducing the number of gas stations and investing in pedestrian infrastructure in an attempt to gradually phase out conventional internal combustion vehicles and increase walkability.


FABRIC is an ongoing project designed by BASALT Architects that exemplifies Reykjavik’s recent efforts at pushing sustainable design to the next level.

Located on the site of an old geothermal drilling zone, FABRIC will source the bulk of its energy from on-site geothermal wells and be constructed primarily from cross-laminated timber (CLT), a material with a very low environmental impact. Of the eight-story complex’s noteworthy features, however, the “Green Ribbon” is the most crucial. This long green space extends between the building’s floors and rooms, functioning as both a channel for geothermal ducts and as a place for gardening.

“It’s a really active hub—not only the building itself but also how it channels the city through it,” says Marcos Zotes, partner at Basalt Architects, of FABRIC’s connected living, working, gardening, and retail spaces. “It should promote a healthier way of living. The aim is to have services that reflect this—medical offices, psychology offices, et cetera.”

Living Landscape

Designed by French architecture studio Jakob+MacFarlane in partnership with local Icelandic studio T.ark, Living Landscape is a work in progress that, when finished, is set to become the largest wooden building in the country.

Slated for completion in 2026, Living Landscape encompasses 26,000 square meters and sits atop the site of a former landfill. Its main goal is to recreate the natural landscape that was lost due to decades of pollution, as well as meet those guidelines laid out by the 2015 Paris Agreement in regards to carbon reduction.

It is for this reason that Living Landscape will be built primarily out of CLT, as wood sequesters carbon both during its initial growth cycle and throughout its operation lifespan. Ultimately, the use of CLT is estimated to reduce the building’s embodied carbon by roughly 80%, according to Jakob+MacFarlane—and any electricity that it will require will be produced by geothermal and/or hydropower.

As the name suggests, Living Landscape also aims to rejuvenate and restore nature to the land itself. A rooftop garden and farm will allow residents to grow their own food and foster community with one another, while the central courtyard is set to be xeriscaped in accordance with local Icelandic habitats to reintroduce biodiverse wildlife to the site.

5. Bogotá

Bogotá green building

In recent years, Bogotá has become a beacon of sustainable development, in large part thanks to the efforts of the Columbia Green Building Council. Photo courtesy of ProColombia

Bogotá was selected to drive building efficiency and sustainable cities across the globe through the BEA program in 2016. In preparation for the 18 million Colombians expected to move to cities by 2050, the country has been working to maximize land use and energy efficiency, especially in urban areas like Bogotá.

“We want the city to be as compact as possible, but also to be adaptive to climate change and as low as it can be in terms of consumption,” Cristina Gamboa, director and CEO of the Colombia Green Building Council (Consejo Colombiano de Construcción Sostenible, CCCS), previously told gb&d.

Since 2009 the CCCS has been part of the World Green Building Council, with Bogotá as one of 30 world cities involved in the BEA program. Bogotá is in the midst of drafting a new master plan for the next 12 years to improve quality of life in the city, with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 32% in new buildings.

Taller de Arquitectura de Bogotá Cubierta

Photo courtesy of Taller de Arquitectura de Bogotá

There is a history of resourceful architecture in Bogotá. Colombians have long built using simple resources and simple techniques, focusing on reusing and reshaping things, says Daniel Bonilla of Daniel Bonilla Arquitectos and design director of TAB, or Taller de Arquitectura de Bogotá (Bogotá Architecture Workshop).

The city is increasingly looking at establishing and fine-tuning public policy that flags buildings as a priority for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This commitment has changed how all new construction projects are approached, from renovating the historic, mountainous foot path to Monserrate to building schools and libraries as a way to invest in better education to promoting eco-tourism through sustainably designed restaurants, hotels, and businesses.


Buildings like the Elementos—four LEED Platinum towers on Avenue 26—are an example of what can be done with recycled content, solar panels, a green roof, low-emitting materials, and countless other sustainable building features. Certified in 2017, this project allowed for 67% savings in water and 48% in energy overall, and it’s 100% naturally ventilated.

T7/T8 Business Tower

On the same street you’ll find the T7/T8 Business Tower—LEED Gold certified in 2017. Sustainable building strategies and a careful selection of lights, faucets, and other equipment resulted in a savings of 15% energy and 38% water, compared to traditional offices. The tower was built with 28% recycled materials—44% of which come from the region.

6. London

Maggie's Centre Barts sustainable cities London

Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the Maggie’s Centre Barts cancer center makes use of translucent wall panels for effective daylighting purposes while also providing patients with privacy. Photo courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Not only is London one of the most sustainable cities in the world, but it also seeks to become the world’s first National Park City, with a goal of being zero-carbon by 2050. The city strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60% by 2025—encouraging architects and builders to think along the same lines.

The potential new title reflects on how urban and environmental aspects of London often combine. Famous urban sites intertwine with more than 35,000 acres of public green spaces maintained by the city—40% of its entire area. There are more than 700 green roofs in central London alone, and it is also home to one of the most sustainable mass transport systems in the world. In 2003, city officials introduced the transit tax to encourage use of public transport and reduce car emissions.

The buildings are beginning to reflect this duality. The cancer center Maggie’s Centre Barts, for instance, has a glass design that minimized solar gain while maximizing the amount of natural light. One of the world’s tallest buildings constructed out of cross-laminated timber, Dalston Works, is also in London.

Bloomberg European Headquarters

Two Buildings

Designed by Foster+Partners, Bloomberg’s European headquarters has the highest BREAAM rating of any office building in the world. Photo by Nigel Young

Bloomberg’s new European headquarters, completed in 2017 in the heart of London, earned a 98.5% BREEAM rating, the highest score for an office building to date. The “breathable” walls open and close based on weather conditions, resulting in a reduced dependency on mechanical ventilation and cooling equipment. Aluminum ceiling tiles assist in the heating, cooling, lighting, and acoustics of the building. Rather than using a traditional office fluorescent light system, the building has 500,000 LED lights—using 40% less energy.

Bloomberg London sustainable cities

The impressive interior of Bloomberg’s European headquarters is as sustainable as it is practical and operates much more efficiently than most buildings of its size. Photo by Nigel Young / Foster+Partners

On average the Bloomberg building uses an estimated 73% less water than the typical office building. An on-site combined heat and power generation center supplies heat and power in a single efficient system, estimated to reduce energy consumption by 35%.

The Bloomberg building is also a zero-landfill facility—and has been since construction began in 2010. Instead of going to the landfill, waste is composted or converted to energy. The workplace uses a waste system that allows a greater proportion to be recycled. All of these innovations are paving the way for green developments in sustainable cities, and future National Park Cities, across the world.

The Stratford


The Stratford—a sustainable 42-story residential and hotel high-rise in East London. Photo by Hufton + Crow Photography

Designed by SOM, the Stratford in London showcases just how effective high-density high-rises can be at promoting sustainability, reclaiming contaminated sites, and reducing urban sprawl.

“The densification of cities is critically important if we are going to fit more humans onto this planet, so there is of course the many benefits of it being a high-density residential building on a compact site,” Mina Hasman, associate director and sustainability lead at SOM, told gb&d in a previous interview. “And the land itself was a brownfield site, so we took advantage of being able to rectify the negative impacts this contaminated, empty site was having on the community.”

Oriented so as to make the most out of natural wind currents, The Stratford is able to passively cool and cross-ventilate itself, reducing energy usage and the building’s operating costs. A corrugated curtain wall and high-performance façade help maximize the admittance of natural light while minimizing the amount of solar heat gain. When necessary, the building uses a district-wide water-based heating and cooling system—which is more sustainable and efficient than conventional HVAC systems—to regulate interior temperatures.

Of the building’s notable features, however, none are more impressive than the three sky gardens. Seeded with native plant species, the sky gardens provide habitats for crucial pollinators and migratory birds, while also serving to improve psychological health and promote interactions between occupants.

7. Boston

sustainable cities Boston

Thanks to progressive climate policies and an abundance of green building projects, Boston is considered to be one of the most sustainable cities on the East Coast. Photo by Eric Roth

At the same time urban populations are predicted to increase, Boston has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. Austin Blackmon, chief of Environment, Energy & Open Space, says Boston is actively pursuing initiatives aimed at engaging residents and promoting sustainability, and it has been paying off. In 2017 The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recognized Boston as the most energy-efficient city in the US. In the same year USGBC named Massachusetts the number one state for LEED projects for the second year in a row, with a total of 130 projects.

As the city faces increased flood risks and other effects of climate change, Blackmon says one of their priorities is Climate Ready Boston, a program that assesses the city’s vulnerability and outlines goals—from developing local climate resilience plans to creating a coastal protection system to address flood risk. It details actions big and small, like having an expanded urban tree canopy and a protective, floodable waterfront park. Meanwhile, Renew Boston encourages residents and small businesses to become more energy efficient, too.

Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library sustainable cities

Sustainable development isn’t just limited to new construction projects, as evidenced by the recently renovated Boston Public Library. Photo by Robert Benson Photography

From green renovations to eco-friendly construction projects, development in Boston has become increasingly sustainable. The Boston Public Library underwent renovations completed by William Rawn Associates in July 2016 that incorporated a number of energy-efficient features. Insulated ultra clear glass replaced the dark tinted single pane original glazing to address the lack of natural lighting and reduce the need for as many light fixtures. Lights were replaced with LED fixtures to further efficiency, while removing dividing walls and making the two-story space invited more balanced natural light from multiple directions.

Low-flow plumbing fixtures and non-electric flushometers were installed in new and existing toilet rooms. The design also included occupancy sensors and improved controls, and CAV (Constant Air Volume) boxes were replaced with VAV (Variable Air Volume) boxes to reduce energy and conditioned air usage. Unlike CAV systems, which supply a constant airflow at a variable temperature, VAV systems vary the airflow at a constant temperature.

GE Innovation Point Campus

sustainable cities innovation point gensler

Once completed, the GE Innovation Point campus will include passive solar design elements, photovoltaic solar panels, rooftop gardens, and innovative water catchment and reuse systems. Rendering courtesy of Gensler

Construction on the GE Innovation Point campus in Boston started in May 2017. The design incorporates green technology while leaving room for future innovation. Gensler, the architecture firm behind the design, aims to generate approximately 10% of the campus’ energy use from a solar veil with easily removable photovoltaic panels to ensure generation capabilities can advance in the future.

The flexible framework of the veil shades the southern facade to reduce solar heat gain and glare. Innovation Point also includes rooftop gardens and outdoor spaces, water recapture and reuse systems, and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Wellesley House

Wellesley sustainable cities

ZeroEnergy Design’s house in Boston’s Wellesley neighborhood is highly efficient and makes use of several sustainable design strategies. Photo by Eric Roth

Boston’s neighborhoods are also beginning to build houses prioritizing energy efficiency in their design. In Wellesley, about 16 miles from Boston, ZeroEnergy Design built a house that includes an impressive array of solar panels, and top building enclosure strategies, such as continuous insulation, an airtight envelope, and triple-pane high-performance windows.

The house also features efficient HVAC systems, including an air source heat pump for heating and cooling, a heat pump hot water heater, LED lighting, energy recovery ventilation, high efficiency appliances, and more. This house is an innovative example of building for more sustainable cities without sacrificing comfort and style, with energy performance, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality in mind.

8. Cape Town

Cape Town sustainable Cities

Cape Town is widely regarded as one of the most sustainable cities in both South Africa and the entire African continent. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Home to 6.5 million people and one of the fastest growing provinces in the country, the Western Cape of South Africa is already being heavily impacted by the effects of climate change. The crippling droughts, electricity insecurities, and rising costs are simultaneously concerning and mobilizing the people of the region, and Cape Town is leading the way in the sustainable cities movement.

South Africa is poised to become a global green building leader by 2019, with Cape Town vying for a position at the heart of that transformation, according to the Dodge Data SmartMarket World Green Building Trends Report 2016. This is most clearly demonstrated through the large sustainable development projects popping up in the South African city.

sustainable cities waterfront Cape Town

Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront is a mixed-use development that houses numerous sustainable building projects. Photo courtesy of V&A Waterfront

No single area is more symbolic of the transformation bubbling over in the Western cape than the bustling V&A Waterfront, a mixed-use sustainable development encompassing more than 300 acres of residential and commercial buildings. More than 21,000 people work there, 1,500 live there, and as many as 180,000 visit daily. While the V&A Waterfront plays an important role in the economy of the area, it also plays an even more important role in the fight to preserve resources.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

Radisson Red sustainable cities

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art resides in a former grain silo and makes use of an array of sustainable features, such as a seawater cooling ventilation system. Photo by Patrick King

One of the green projects at the Waterfront is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), which opened in September 2017 and was designed by Heatherwick Studios, a renowned British architectural firm.

Housed in a converted grain silo built in the 1920s, Zeitz MOCAA required that developers find innovative ways to preserve and acknowledge the building’s history while recycling and reusing material, minimizing the carbon footprint, and still giving it a new, contemporary use—essentially “reverse-engineering” sustainability into the property via adaptive reuse.

Some of these upgrades, such as installing sensor-activated taps in restrooms and changing lighting controls, were fairly straightforward and easy to implement, while other factors—such as temperature regulation—required more complex solutions. To reduce Zeitz MOCAA’s reliance on mechanical air-conditioning, the entire Silo District is cooled using a seawater cooling ventilation system, which uses cold water from the Atlantic Ocean to regulate internal building temperatures.

“The cooling system replaces energy-hungry air conditioning. Ice-cold water from the Atlantic sea is piped throughout the building and returned into the sea. This seawater is so cold it cools the air around it, eliminating the need for air-conditioning and other cooling systems,” Donald Kau, head of communications at the V&A Waterfront, previously told gb&d.

Radisson RED Hotel

The Radisson RED Hotel is another V&A Waterfront project focused on sustainability, and it opened in the same area around the same time as the Zeitz MOCAA,. In the design and build phase, the V&A implemented key green elements that reduced the building’s strain on resources (via spatially efficient design that makes use of daylight, lighter wall thickness, and the aforementioned seawater cooling system). Within the hotel, food waste has been reduced by more than 30%, and there is a “no paper” policy in the studio rooms.

Other innovations implemented within the waterfront area include efficient water and electrical design to minimize demand on resources, water and energy metering systems to manage consumption, efficient use of space using light-weight internal walls to reduce wall thickness and decrease total building weight, and using low-VOC finishes and natural lighting.

The area also incorporates durable yet cost-effective building facades that could withstand the harsh harbor environment and offer thermal performance, further improving energy efficiency and reducing the need for air-conditioning.

9. Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne Sustainable cities

Designed by artist Robert Owen in partnership with the Denton Corker Marshall architectural firm and modeled after an aboriginal fish trap, the Webb Bridge in Melbourne provides pedestrians with a safe place to walk and bike in the city. Photo from iStock

Melbourne has repeatedly been named the world’s most livable city, according to the Economist’s Global Liveability Report 2017. The criteria used for this ranking system evaluates a multitude of factors related to stability, health care, culture/environment, education, and infrastructure, so it’s no surprise Melbourne is also gunning for a spot on the list of the world’s most sustainable cities.

In 2022 the city announced its goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2040, and there is a huge push to increase renewable energy use even sooner. With 78% of the municipality’s greenhouse gas emissions generated by existing buildings, Melbourne has focused its energy (literally) on renovating and retrofitting old buildings to become increasingly energy efficient.

Melbourne sustainable cities

Over the last two decades, Melbourne has made strides to improve the city’s overall sustainability, especially with regards to residential and commercial buildings. Photo by Trevor Mein

This effort has been supported by programs like the 1200 Buildings retrofit program, the commercial office program CitySwitch, and the residential apartment program Smart Blocks, in which the city provides building owners and tenants access to financial incentives and grants to help existing buildings increase their uptake of energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions.

Since 2010 the owners of more than 540 commercial office buildings in Melbourne have retrofitted to improve energy and water efficiency.

101 Collins

101 Collins Melbourne sustainable cities

Originally built in the 1990s, 101 Collins was renovated to improve the building’s energy efficiency, resulting in the installation of over 150 photovoltaic solar panels. Photo courtesy of 101 Collins

One of the most impressive examples to date is the renovation of the fourth tallest building in Australia: 101 Collins. Since it was built in the 1990s, the owners wanted to improve sustainability in the building, specifically in regards to energy efficiency, leading to an installation of 180 photovoltaic solar panels on the 56th floor of the building. Redesigned by local architectural firm Gray Puksand, 101 Collins is the largest and tallest private commercial solar PV installation in Melbourne.

The panels generate 47,000 kWh of electricity per year, or more than the annual amount of electricity used in more than 12 houses. Due to the tower’s height, the solar-grid was designed to be as hands-off as possible. “It will operate for well over 25 years with little or nil maintenance,” Ross Boreham, senior manager of engineering and sustainability for 101 Collins, previously told gb&d.

This sustainable building also has LED and motion sensor lighting, new high efficiency VSD chillers, an upgraded BMS, and double glazed windows with surface coated tempered glass to increase thermal efficiency.

55 Southbank Boulevard


55 Southbank Boulevard is the tallest mass timber building in Melbourne and makes extensive use of cross-laminated timber, a sustainable material that sequesters carbon throughout its operational lifespan. Photo by Peter Clarke

In keeping with the topic of tall buildings, Melbourne is also home to one of the world’s tallest mass timber buildings: 55 Southbank Boulevard. Designed by Australian architectural firm Bates Smart, 55 Southbank is an extension of an older commercial building built in 1989 and now serves as a hotel.

Constructed using approximately 5,300 tons of FSC-certified cross-laminated timber, 55 Southbank is estimated to offset annual atmospheric CO2 emissions by roughly 4,200 tons.

10. Seattle

Seattle sustainable cities

Designed by McLennan Design, Heron Hall is located on Bainbridge Island, and island just off of Seattle’s coastline. It functions as both a living building and laboratory for Jason McLennan himself. Photo by Daniel Banko

Over the last decade Seattle has been ranked the fastest growing big city in the US, a title that does not immediately suggest that the Pacific Northwest city is one of the most sustainable cities across the globe. However, Seattle reached “peak emissions” in 2008, and emissions have been on a downward trend ever since the city committed to creating a more eco-friendly environment, according to Seattle’s Environmental Progress Report 2017.

Seattle aims to reduce total core greenhouse gas emissions 58% by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050, with a 91% reduction in passenger vehicle and building energy emissions, compared with their 2008 emission levels, all while the population continues to increase. The result is an explosion of green development to keep things in the balance.


NorthEdge Seattle

NorthEdge sits on the site of a former brownfield and its design was largely informed by sustainable water management practices. Photo by Lara Swimmer

One project that exemplifies the development expansion in Seattle is the 208,000-square-foot technology office space called NorthEdge, home to the data visualization company, Tableau.

Designed by Perkins + Will, NorthEdge repurposed an abandoned brownfield site that formerly housed low-rise industrial buildings. “The idea of reclaiming land used for an industrial purpose was, conceptually, something we wanted to build on,” Erik Mott, design principal at Perkins + Will in Seattle, previously told gb&d. “There was an opportunity to create a public space, a place for a community to have an identity and to experience the water’s edge.”

The building itself is stacked along the grade of its hillslope, with the hillside acting as a watershed with underground water heading to nearby Lake Union, so maintaining the integrity of the watershed was a vital part of the design. The LEED Silver-certified design mainly focused on water and water management, with a 57% reduction in landscaping use and a 35% reduction in potable water use.

Bates College Advanced Technology Center

Bates Technical College sustainable cities Seattle

Designed by McGranahan Architects, the Bates College Advanced Technology Center is a LEED Gold-certified building with a high focus water and energy efficiency. Photo by Francis Zera

While the buildings of major companies often steal the spotlight in Seattle, green design is booming all over the city, even in places that have historically struggled with economic and gang-related challenges, such as the Central Tacoma and Hilltop neighborhoods where Bates Technical College built a LEED Gold–certified technology center.

The sustainable features of the Bates College Advanced Technology Center include a green roof that captures rainwater runoff, while a ground source heat exchanger and heat recovery from the server tower offer an estimated 35% reduction in energy use, saving nearly $25,000. Irrigation and domestic water use reduction features also save hundreds of gallons of water each year.

The Beach at Expedia Headquarters

designing landscapes surfacedesign gbd magazine

Expedia Group commissioned Surfacedesign to improve public enjoyment of its headquarters’ 2.6 waterfront acres. Restoring biodiversity and rejuvenating soil health were two of the project’s main goals. Photo by Marion Brenner

Located just north of downtown Seattle on the rugged edge of Elliot Bay, the Beach at Expedia Global Headquarters is a prime example of the role our built environment plays in maintaining and preserving local ecological communities.

Encompassing approximately 2.6 acres of waterfront, The Beach—designed by Surfacedesign—implements elements of adaptive reuse and makes extensive use of reclaimed materials like timber, stone, and driftwood. Walkways and bicycle paths wind through the site, abutted by bioretention areas to effectively mitigate stormwater runoff in compliance with the project’s Salmon-Safe certification.

Perhaps the most important component of The Beach’s development—and one that is often overlooked in sustainable design projects—was its focus on restoring and maintaining soil health. Due to its previous development, the site’s existing soil had been depleted of key nutrients and was largely devoid of diverse microbiological life—what little healthy soil remained was collected and used to develop soil blends with similar characteristics to that of the site’s native soil.

“This approach established sustainable and resilient soils and planting communities that will continue to grow into natural balance with the Seattle environment,” Michal Kapitulnik, a partner of Surfacedesign, previously wrote for gb&d. “Soil testing and monitoring after installation informed formulation of compost tea blends used to seasonally inoculate the soil and plants, stimulating biological activity and resilience without the use of chemical fertilizers or other inputs.”

By cultivating a healthy soil profile, the team at Surfacedesign was able to effectively xeriscape with plants and grasses indigenous to the Puget Sound. Special attention was focused on those plants capable of attracting and harboring wildlife, so as to bolster and maintain taxonomic diversity.


Lauren Bell contributed to this article