Amsterdam

Creating a recycling program that pays dividends

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Amsterdam is getting wasted—but not how you might think. In the city's Noord district, the Dutch have turned trash into literal treasure, i.e., local currency, with Wasted, a project from the nonprofit Cities Foundation that incentivizes recycling. In exchange for collecting plastic household waste, the program gives participants (“neighbors") Wasted-branded coins that are redeemable at some 30 local businesses (“friends") for goods and services—think craft beer or a slice of carrot cake for one coin, half off a bike repair for three, or a reiki treatment for seven.

Graphic of Amsterdam's recycling system.

And it's working. Since the program was introduced in 2015, nearly 700 households have chipped in to divert more than 16 tons of garbage. What's more, the trash dodges not only landfills but also municipal recycling centers, because Wasted recycles the plastic by hand and teaches the neighborhood how to do it too.

At the Wasted Laboratory, community members learn about plastic consumption, its effect on the environment, and how to identify different types before seeing firsthand what happens to all that plastic that gets collected. In a workshop demonstration, participants melt, mold, and press trash into reusable building blocks on small-scale, homemade machines; the organization makes the open-source plans for these machines available on its website so communities everywhere can follow suit.

This year, Noord residents will see their plastic pop back up around the neighborhood, with the colorful blocks being used to build planters, benches, temporary event stages, and even playgrounds. —Hannah Lott-Schwartz

Seoul

One-upping NYC's High Line model

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Fifty-five feet above the streets of South Korea's capital, a living library teems with plant life. Skygarden, which debuts later this year, transforms more than a half mile of abandoned highway bypass into an open-air public space reminiscent of New York's High Line. The $33 million project takes a human approach to infrastructure, introducing cafés, shops, exhibitions, stages, trampolines, and even a foot bath to the formerly condemned overpass, which connects parks in the city's west with the central Namdaemun Market.

What sets Skygarden apart, however, is its veritable dictionary of South Korean flora, the thousands of plants representing 254 species of tree, shrub, and flower arranged alphabetically by neighborhood name. Lily ponds abut feathery ginkgo trees, bushes with edible berries, and succulent gardens in two main squares, where the landscape reinvents itself each season.

Skygarden follows the success of the Cheonggyecheon urban renewal project, which converted a polluted stream into a pedestrian-friendly linear park in 2005. And though Skygarden lives high above Seoul, its architects aim for its roots to grow downward and sprout similar projects, turning the cityscape green one alley, roof, and parking lot at a time. —HLS

Manchester, England

Welcoming back a buzzworthy ecological ally

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Worker bees have been a symbol of this manufacturing powerhouse since the Industrial Revolution—they even appear on the city's official coat of arms. Despite the Mancunian reverence for the insects, however, they barely made it out of the 19th century alive.

But now, thanks to cleaner air, expanding greenery, and an enthusiastic amateur beekeeping community, Manchester is making amends to its hive-dwellers at a time when they're under siege the world over. Beehives have sprung up not only in community gardens and in private yards, but also on the rooftops of prominent landmarks, such as Manchester Cathedral, the two-century-old Manchester Art Gallery, and The Printworks, an entertainment complex housed in an old newspaper press. Meanwhile, at the Manchester Museum, the current exhibit After the Bees explores how bees are necessary for human survival through artworks, photography, and film. And befitting a city with one of the world's most popular sports teams, a group of bee-loving soccer enthusiasts is even hard at work turning the stadium and its surroundings into a pollinator-friendly environment.

“With the Industrial Revolution, we invented pollution and exported it around the world," says local beekeeper Richard Searle, who's working with like-minded bee enthusiasts to brew honey-based beer. “But now we've got delegations from China and all over the world that come to study how you can revive the urban environment.

“Beekeeping requires a collective," Searle continues. “It's how the bees work, and they've been around for millions of years." —Chaney Kwak

Greenville, South Carolina

Repurposing historically relevant spaces

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Greenville hasn't always lived up to its name. The self-proclaimed Textile Capital of the World was once home to nearly two dozen fabric mills and factories, which was great for the local economy—but not so much for the environment. The effects of that industry took an especially tough toll on the Reedy River, for decades a polluted afterthought running through downtown. An ongoing cleanup campaign kicked off an urban transformation that brought new life to the heart of Greenville with bars, galleries, and restaurants.

Now the city has turned this new eco-minded ethos toward the mills themselves. More than simply honoring the city's industrial heritage, plans to repurpose these brick behemoths have an eco-friendly goal: keeping untold tons of equipment and building debris out of landfills.

So far, four redevelopment projects have transformed mills
into luxury residential, office, and retail spaces. One of the newest players in the city's thriving bar scene is the Birds Fly South Ale Project, a brewery that opened last year in a 9,000-square-foot cotton warehouse with original wood from the early 1900s. And at least three new projects are slated for 2017, including the Woodside Cotton Mill, once the largest cotton mill in the world, which will house 300 apartments, a general store, offices, an events venue, and a brewery and restaurant—further evidence of the bright future that looms for this progressive Southern town. —Blane Bachelor

Sydney

Constructing fish-inspired skyscrapers by the sea

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Appropriate to their waterfront location, Sydney's newest trio of high-rises, the International Towers, are covered in fins. Unlike the piscine kind, however, these colorful shading panels are made for sustainability instead of mobility, responding to the sun throughout the day to reflect or deflect light and control temperatures while channeling natural light into the towers' offices.

The fins are among many forward-thinking design elements that earned these structures six Green Stars, the highest sustainability standard in Australia. For example, instead of running air conditioners, these futuristic buildings draw chilly water from the adjacent harbor and use it as coolant. The towers also generate solar energy, collect rain, treat wastewater on-site, recycle 84 percent of their food court waste, and even deodorize the trash room using fermented fruits.

“It's a big leap, but it's the way the industry has to go," says Geoff Dutaillis, the head of sustainability at Lendlease, the project's developer. Together with the adjacent Renzo Piano–designed high-rises, the International Towers are completely transforming the once derelict concrete container wharf of Barangaroo South into a carbon-neutral community. In addition to restaurants and an in-the-works luxury hotel, over half of the 54-acre district is set aside for public space. —CK

Austin

Building a neighborhood on a former brownfield site

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Some 20 years after it became a brownfield site—meaning it was too contaminated for safe use—an area in downtown Austin's southwest quadrant is being reborn as the Seaholm EcoDistrict, the first of its kind in Texas. This eco-conscious utopia is more than its LEED certifications (though every last building was constructed to green standards). With the EcoDistrict designation comes a philosophy: to enhance quality of life while promoting sustainable living. It's not about demolition but revitalization, modernizing an inefficient, outdated model with a conscious eye toward both climate change and social health.

To that end, a stunning mid-century power plant—built in the sleek Art Moderne style—anchors the 90-acre district both physically and ideologically. After being decommissioned in the late '80s, the plant underwent years of meticulous renovations, wherein architects not only kept 75 percent of construction waste out of the landfill thanks to a sustainable design approach but also used more than 20 percent recycled and locally sourced materials in the update. Preservation was completed last year, yielding 130,000 square feet of private office and retail space, including a restaurant in one of the former boiler rooms.

Seaholm is also getting nearly 1,500 multifamily housing units, the sunlight-filled New Central Library (with 3-D printers and a live oak on the roof), bike- and car-share programs, solar benches with built-in USB charging stations, local food initiatives, art installations, and streets inspired by woonerf, a Dutch design concept that places equal value on pedestrians, bicycles, and cars. Meanwhile, below the surface, the city's rainwater collection and wastewater reclamation systems help save millions of gallons of potable water every year. Thinking ahead comes at a price, of course—more than $2 billion by the time all major development projects wrap in 2019—but for eco- and future-minded Austin-ites, the result is priceless. —HLS

Pittsburgh

Rethinking the post-industrial skyline

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Green is not at the top of most people's minds when they think of Pittsburgh, but the “Smoky City" has come a long way since its steel mill days. In fact, the city now boasts 39 LEED-certified buildings, including a number of eco-friendly firsts: the first green university dormitory (at Carnegie Mellon), the first green radio station, and the first green children's museum, not to mention America's first LEED-certified convention center, upgraded to LEED Platinum in 2012.

The latest addition to the green skyline is the LEED Platinum–certified Tower at PNC Plaza, completed in 2015, which has been called the world's greenest office tower, thanks to a one-of-a-kind breathable double skin facade to ventilate the building, on-site wastewater recycling, and a solar chimney to evacuate hot air.

So why has the city been so committed to going green? “The alignment of place, passion, and commitment to sustainability positions Pittsburgh as a green building ideas incubator," says architect Christine Mondor, principal of evolveEA, a consulting and design firm that has managed the certification of more than 60 LEED projects.

“Pittsburgh has been able to punch above our weight with some of the earliest and highest-performing green buildings in the country," Mondor says. “We are a competitive bunch and take pride in our region's commitment to green building." —Devorah Lev-Tov

Victoria, British Columbia

Turning a neighborhood into a locavore hub

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Victoria, British Columbia's coastal capital, has taken the idea of mindful eating and turned it into an entire neighborhood, the Food Eco District (FED). Within this three-by-four-block zone, which debuted in 2014, all FED members—including fine-dining restaurants, quick-service cafés, and coffee shops—are guaranteed green by the Vancouver Island Green Business Certification. Plus, the FED partners with the company Topsoil to plant organic rooftop gardens.

“I think we've opened up people's minds about growing food in the city," says project coordinator Heidi Grantner. “Alleyways and unused pavement spaces could be livened up with food and could become a key part of having a sustainable food system on Vancouver Island." In the past year, FED added six new planter boxes and three new members. FED helped carbon-neutral Italian eatery Zambri's plant lemon and olive trees and procured Kaffir lime trees for hawker-style Asian spot Foo.

Best of all, the district is changing the way people engage with their food. Every summer, a FED party offers tastes and sips from member businesses, and this year FED will pilot walking tours of the district and its gardens, with plenty of nibbles en route. “Food should be communal," Grantner says. —Lora Shinn

Barcelona

Making city streets more pedestrian-friendly

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While conducting a noise study in 1987, Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, assessed that traffic routinely exceeded the 65-decibel noise limit. “To reduce noise to acceptable levels, select streets must be residential," he says.

Thirty years on, Rueda's findings have morphed into an ambitious Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan that, in addition to reducing noise pollution, aims to reduce traffic accidents and air pollution. The solution: implementing a series of pedestrian-only urban cells,
or “superblocks."

First introduced in the trendy El Born district in the '90s, the superblocks are outlined by a network of roads connecting to the rest of the city. Within the cells, traffic speeds will be reduced to 10 km/h (6 mph), with vehicle access for residents only, clearing more than 70 percent of traffic congestion in favor of green spaces. And more than 120 miles of bike lanes will replace cars as the standard means of transportation.

While it's normal for change to be initially met with resistance, a pilot superblock introduced last fall in the emerging Poblenou neighborhood received surprisingly favorable reviews; neighbors embraced the car-free area by regularly organizing events and pressuring the city council to add trees, benches, and a playground.

For Rueda, this plan is long overdue. “Since the usage of cars has become widespread in society, it has been the king and we the servants," he says. “Perhaps it's time to revolt and turn that the other way around." —Jessica Benavides Canepa

San Antonio

Putting a river back on the right course

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The Alamo City's River Walk may be one of Texas's most visited attractions, but the project—which involved building dams and bypass channels—hasn't been kind to the ecosystem, leaving stretches of the San Antonio River devoid of aquatic life. That's all changing, thanks to one of the country's biggest environmental triumphs.

In 2013, San Antonio completed a multiyear project to restore the natural flow of the river and connect its farthest reaches via expanded pathways. While the river's northern stretch—home to the lively Pearl District, an urban renewal success story in a monumental old brewery—got the buzz, more than $270 million of the $384 million initiative went to the ecological restoration of the river's more natural southern expanse, the 8-river-mile Mission Reach. The numbers are impressive: 113 acres of restored riparian habitat, 15 miles of trails, and hundreds of now flourishing native plants and wildlife species, including egrets, herons, and armadillos. The project has been so successful that it attracts leaders from cities around the world to see how they can adapt the model.

Another waterway restoration project is now in the works, with plans to revitalize 2.2 miles of parkland surrounding San Pedro Creek, which runs through one of the city's historic West Side neighborhoods and is often mistaken for a drainage ditch. A $175 million redevelopment project aims to restore the creek's natural habitat and reinvent it as a pedestrian-friendly destination that features public art. The initial segment is slated for completion by May 2018—perfectly timed for San Antonio's tricentennial. —BB