Best Sustainable Cities 2023

Green Builder Media’s Sustainable Communities of the Year awards program highlights three cities that have made big green strides.

Green Builder editors picked these three cities for the annual Sustainability Awards 2023: 

Large Municipality: Vancouver, British Columbia

Two decades of success have this greenest of green cities striving for even more.

Vancouver - downtown sunset

Since 2015, Vancouver has been among the world’s top five greenest cities for its efforts in carbon reduction, near-total usage of clean energy, and tourism-related sustainability methods. Credit: Magnus Larsson/Flickr

Asked about what he is most proud of when it comes to Vancouver, British Columbia, George Benson, the city’s manager of economic transformation, needs only two words: “Vancouver’s ambition.” 

In recent years, Vancouver has broadened its efforts to remain one of the world’s greenest cities—various reports have ranked it anywhere from first to fifth since 2015—and go beyond just focusing on economic development. It also wants to rid its skies of unnecessary carbon emissions and make the change to a low carbon economy—an equitable transformation for everyone, Benson says. 

That’s ambitious indeed, given the city’s 40-year commitment to tech innovation and creation of a circular economy, helping to make Vancouver one of the lowest-carbon cities in the world. 

“With per capita emissions of fewer than 3.5 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (C02e) per person, we have picked most of our low-hanging fruit,” Benson says. “And, because of our existing low-emissions hydro-powered electricity system, most of our remaining decarbonization efforts involve expensive, low-ROI interventions, particularly in buildings, to get those ‘final tons’ of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that we need to remove.”

City by the English Bay 

It’s easy to fall in love with Vancouver. Visitors can easily set themselves up in a green-minded hotel—British data comparison firm Uswitch reports that 44 percent of the city’s lodging falls into this category, offering anything from restaurants with all-organic menus to on-site composting. 

They also can easily get around on a bike, rented or owned, and roll onto a ferry to Stanley Park for a trip around the island or through its forests, and to stop by a homemade rock garden. 

Vancouver rush hour 300

By 2019, Vancouver had installed 2,900 miles in bike lanes in the greater metro area, helping to reduce automobile-generated downtown traffic by 26 percent. Credit: Paul Krueger/Flickrz

But bikes aren’t always necessary. Sometimes, a good pair of shoes is good enough. 

“When I asked the hotel staff about a particular restaurant, they told me, ‘It’s about a mile away,” says Deborah M., a recent visitor from California. “An easy walk.’”

Overall, about 40 percent of trips in the city are on foot, bicycle or public transit, and almost 80 percent of residents are within a 15-minute walk to a grocery store, according to data from Simon Fraser University. In addition, Vancouver’s mild climate minimizes heating and cooling needs. Its dense downtown, with reflective skyscrapers, has helped reduce traffic and automobile ownership.

Throw in the fact that the province of British Columbia runs a nearly carbon-free electric grid, powered by a clean energy cocktail of hydroelectric, wind, biomass and natural gas—supplying 95 percent of  Vancouver’s energy, according to data from the City of Vancouver—and you have a city that is definitely on a path to sustainability greatness, according to the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC).

Advice for Other Sustainable City Candidates

Vancouver has stood out as a leading sustainable metropolis for more than 20 years. For cities wanting to contribute to the global efforts to slow down the worst effects of climate change and increase their visibility, Vancouver leaders recommend that they “be ambitious but pragmatic.” 

For example, Vancouver has a “balanced, credible plan” that’s been scientifically verified to enable the city to reach a 2030 target of reducing GHG emissions by 50 percent and net zero by 2050—but only if everything goes right. “Better to have a real plan that gets you to a target than an impossible one that doesn’t,” Benson says. “If the resources don’t match the scientifically necessitated targets, you have to work with your community to figure out how to close that gap.”

Any successful effort needs to have buy-in from every possible sector, he adds. For example, VEC supports the business community and workers. “But,” Benson notes, “the more actors you can bring in and the greater the sense of shared responsibility possible, the more successful you will be.”

Mid-Sized  Municipality: Aspen, Colorado 

Two decades ago, this outdoor recreation-based city started a move toward using only clean energy. Now, it plans to clear the air—literally.

Aspen, Colo., is known for its skiing, mountain life, and small-town celebrity culture. But it also aspires to lead in sustainable living.

Aspen_fireworks Credit C2 Photography HR

Aspen prides itself on operating with 100 percent renewable energy, as well as implementing a staunch greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal.

The ideology has been there for a while. The city has run on 100 percent renewable energy since 2015. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 63 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. 

According to Tessa Schreiner, the City of Aspen’s sustainability manager for the Environmental Health and Sustainability Department, Aspen’s efforts begin with policy alignment—and that is not just business-speak. “The City of Aspen is proud of our intentionality of aligning building code, engineering code, land use regulation, and utility policy with our long-standing climate action values,” says Schreiner. 

For example: More than two decades ago, Aspen, and Pitkin County, adopted the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program (REMP)—one of the first of its kind in the U.S.—which incentivizes the offsetting of additional energy usage on a property with renewable energy. It applies a fee if that energy is not offset. 

Because Aspen’s power grid runs on renewable electricity, the city is actively working on better ways to electrify its buildings and transportation, Schreiner notes.


Aspen prides itself on operating with 100 percent renewable energy, as well as implementing a staunch greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal.

The electrification action is boosted by other efforts within Pitkin County. A coal mine network in the Coal Basin area, about 45 miles from Aspen, is being targeted for the massive amounts of methane leaching from its various openings. About 1.3 million cubic feet is being pumped out into the air each day, or about 50 percent of the county’s annual carbon emissions total, according to climate scientist and entrepreneur Christopher Caskey. 

Dallas Blaney, CEO of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), says the goal is to eventually eliminate at least 50 percent of the methane by capping mine openings or capturing and destroying the gas. Although burning methane creates carbon, it also creates steam, which can be condensed as water and released into the local watershed—ideal for the area’s current drought. 

There’s also the possibility of building a power plant in the area, and using the methane to generate electricity for an estimated 2,000 homes, Caskey notes. His own business, Delta Brick & Climate Company, in Montrose, Colorado, currently fires its kilns with standard gas and electric heat, but is looking for potential sites for methane capture and utilization.  

Done by Design

Aspen faces challenges specific to its culture. There are unique building types, including large residences with high demand for energy-consumptive amenities and luxury design. “These demands, coupled with the challenges of an icy climate, make energy efficiency and usage reduction a challenge,” Schreiner says. 

In addition to supporting luxury facilities, the community prioritizes increasing and maintaining quality affordable housing for its residents and workforce.

In 2022, Aspen enacted an eight-month moratorium on residential building. According to Schreiner, this allowed the community to pause, reevaluate, and apply improved policy. This resulted in a land use code that limits residential demolitions and applies aggressive requirements for the building performance of properties that go through redevelopment. 

Aspen is also amending the 2021 building and energy codes related to building energy performance, with the goal of electrification. “The City is working to develop building performance standards that drive efficiency over time,” Schreiner says. “We could not have accomplished this without our community’s commitment to shaping Aspen’s built environment and sustaining our deep-rooted environmental values.”

Problem Solving?

With other cities facing similar challenges, Aspen offers clarity of purpose.

“Centering equity in policy and programming is vital to creating a truly sustainable community where all members can thrive,” Schreiner says. “With costs of living increasing and the urgency to address climate change only amplifying, we need to ensure that we’re addressing the needs of the most vulnerable members of our communities.”

Bringing others to the table—across the organization, the community, and the region—is key to finding ways to identify and break down silos, invite new people to the conversation, make sure they feel welcome, and work across jurisdictional boundaries, Schreiner notes. “Be bold and be a leader,” she says. “This climate crisis is unknown territory, and we can’t wait for others to pave the way—we have to stand up, be brave and take risks.” Courtesy of Primergy Solar

Small Community: Babcock Ranch, Fla.

For this sustainable community under development, it’s a case of strength in numbers.

Babcock DJI_0611 - Solar overview

Babcock Ranch runs primarily on clean energy, courtesy of thousands of solar panels throughout the development.

If you want to hear from Dr. Jennifer Languell about which of Babcock Ranch’s sustainability strengths stand out most, there are two big questions to ask first: Is it the 670,000 solar panels onsite, operated by Florida Power and Light? Or is it that a Category 4 hurricane devastated other communities in the area but left Babcock Ranch relatively unscathed?

“The sustainability of Babcock Ranch is not a result of any single community attribute,” says Languell, the sustainability engineer who helped design the 18,000-acre community located 12 miles north of Fort Myers, Florida. “The solar array is a significant community feature, but it is the combination of thoughtful design, engineering, and building that all contribute to Babcock Ranch’s sustainability.” 

Dr. Languell was one of the first 100 people to move to the new community in 2018. The project completed its 1,300th home and welcomed its 2,000th resident in January 2022. Eventually, the community will grow to encompass 20,000 homes and 50,000 people. 

The community is at a 30-foot elevation and about 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and it is non-coastal—facts that when combined with the beauty of the land itself “inspired the community vision of preservation, restoration, and durability,” says Languell. 

Built to Last

The homes were designed to take on the changing weather caused by global climate change. Hurricane Ian has been the biggest challenge so far, and it was a pretty big one. “A combination of hardened infrastructure, intentional redundancy in systems, and preserved/enhanced natural features all played a key role in weathering Ian,” she notes. 

To put things in perspective, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s Operation Blue Roof, a program that offers emergency residential roof repairs, has, as of this writing, installed close to 19,000 tarps. None are needed at Babcock Ranch.

Underground power lines protect homes and their power supplies, and retaining ponds keep them from flooding. The streets absorb water, further protecting the houses from flood damage. 

Babcock Ranch - Lee Health

Thanks to 1 gigabyte of available fiber optic connectivity, Babcock Ranch residents can engage in telehealth consultations with doctors at an onsite Lee Physician Group Clinic. Credit: Google Maps

Most community residents stayed home during Ian, and the homes never lost power. There was one traffic light that went down, and some fallen signs and trees were uprooted. By comparison, nearby Fort Myers was devastated by wind and flooding. 

“People weren’t interested in the Babcock Ranch storm features until Ian, Dr. Languell says. “When it happens, people notice.”

Extensive Community Services

The solar panels are also pretty impressive. The 670,000 panels take up 880 acres of land, and the 150-megawatt (MW) plant can power up to 30,000 homes, 10,000 more than the project’s estimated maximum size. The extra solar electricity goes back to the area’s grid and is distributed to other communities. 

Babcock Ranch also has 10 MWs (40 megawatt hours) of battery storage so that it doesn’t have to rely on backup gas generators on cloudy days and at night.

There is something else special about the community, Languell notes: There is plenty of open space. It’s bike friendly. The small pre-existing downtown is growing and includes a K-8 neighborhood school, which makes the community a draw for families with school-age kids. 

There’s also an International Code Council (ICC)-standard field house; it provided food and shelter to some of the 2.6 million Floridians who lost power during Hurricane Ian. And no, Babcock Ranch is not just for older adults. About half of the residents are families with children.