Taking a carbon-reduction cue from Europe's greenest city

Hamburg is the world's most beautiful city.

Or at least that's what my friend and former co-worker Alex Schwenkenberg would say followed by, "Take a look." And he'd pull up several shots of the Germanic cityscape.

Whatever its standings in the looks department, Hamburg, which has a population of about 1.8 million, does have an attribute few question. It stands as one of the world's greenest cities and offers an example of how other cities could improve their carbon footprint and livability.

Many U.S. cities have taken up the green challenge -- from California to Texas and up in Maine. It involves embracing arcane concepts like sustainability, energy efficiency and benchmarking greenhouse gas production. But solutions are relatively simple and noncontroversial.

Urban centers draw young people

Young people are the key. They're the next generation of real estate buyers and leaders, and they're increasingly looking to settle in urban centers rather than the suburbia preferred by their parents, says Michael Freedman, urban planner, futurist and founding partner at San Francisco-based Freedman, Tung + Sasaki. They want work close to home and socialize. They don't want to spend 10 percent to 20 percent of their waking hours stuck in traffic.

And they want greener vistas, cleaner air and a better overall environment.

Hamburg's leaders caught the sustainable bug sometime after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The city aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent in 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. It's just wrapping up a year as Europe's greenest city, a designation that passes to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. The European Green Capital award is issued by the European Commission as a means to get cities to inspire each other and share best practices, "while at the same time engaging in friendly competition."

Hamburg's CO2 savings

Energy-saving measures by 810 Hamburg businesses keep about 219,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually and the amount of energy expended on heating facilities "has dropped by 40 percent compared with 1990, causing a 45 percent reduction in CO2 emissions," according to city officials.

The city also is encouraging sustainable practices and development. Its HafenCity project, which has taken docks and old industrial land in the heart of Hamburg, epitomizes the trend. The massive redevelopment project is being engineered to transform 387 acres on the Elbe River into the most energy efficient residential, business and arts sector in the city. Design is compact yet has open space, encouraging living, working and entertainment.

Hamburg is hardly the Lone Ranger in green-minded redevelopment. Yet, others struggle. Oakland's been trying to jump start the project to revamp the 330-acre old Oakland Army Base for the past decade. Other cities, including Fresno, have been trying to redevelop their urban centers for decades. Some have been successful. Some haven't.

Sustainable makes cents

As the American Society of Landscape Architects says: "Urban development should be guided by a sustainable planning and management vision that promotes interconnected green space, a multi-modal transportation system, and mixed-use development."

In other words, people have to like it, and they'll like it better if it's sustainable.

Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute says going sustainable and green actually saves money and provides economic benefits. He calls it "synergistic bundling."

San Antonio's Mission Verde

San Antonio has embraced the concept, launching it's Mission Verde Sustainability Plan  to create jobs through green technology and infrastructure. "Saving energy saves money," the plan says. "Renewable energy creates economic self‐reliance."

It will be interesting to see how San Antonio does in the heart of Texas oil country. The city says it wants to set an example for others to follow.

In the next several months, my organization will be working with a handful of San Joaquin Valley cities to create energy action plans with realistic goals that actually save energy and money and reduce green house gases. The scale will be nowhere near Hamburg's or San Antonio's, but it may save some jobs just by replacing inefficient lighting and doing other more inventive stuff like adding solar and fuel cells to city buildings.

Guiding sustainable projects

A friend of mine at a small Valley community who has been working with me implementing energy efficiency stimulus grants for the past year or so just landed a job in the Bay Area. She'll be guiding a city's climate plan and making a difference.

A little here and there. Like European Commission says, Europe is an urban community and must make changes to become more sustainable. California and 49 other states must do the same.

And I believe it will happen. A little at a time.

Photo: Hamburg's Alster Lake