Top 10 resilient cities around the globe

Top 10 resilient cities around the globe

By Boyd Cohen

October 17, 2011

Resilient cities, those that are working to transition towards a low-carbon economy (mitigation) while also preparing to avert the worst of climate change (adaptation), are gaining interest and attention from policy makers, city councils and others worldwide.

"The battle to prevent catastrophic climate change will be won or lost in our cities…" - C40 Cities Initiative

Cities account for up to 80% of GHG emissions globally and are home to more than 50% of the world’s population (headed to 60%, 5 billion people by 2030). As I mentioned in the previous post, if we refocus our efforts on the right solutions soon enough, we can mitigate the worst of climate change while actually improving our city economies and growing corporate profits. Hunter Lovins and I recently published a book entitled Climate Capitalism to share stories of cities and companies around the world who are profiting from that transition to the low carbon economy. Furthermore, the longer we wait the more we will have to pay for adaptation.

Just a few weeks ago, I published research on the top 10 Climate-Ready U.S. cities. The response was great and I also received some very valuable feedback which fed into my ongoing research on global cities. While no ranking is perfect, I believe there is real value in identifying metrics and applying them to global cities to contribute to the discussion of how cities can and are intelligently preparing to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

I have used proxies and a methodology for ranking global cities with populations of 600,000 plus based on a range of factors including political commitment, density, transit access and use, renewable energy capacity, GHG emissions, GHG reduction targets, climate change mitigation and adaptation planning, and acreage of parks (adaptation best practice).

Caveat: I have lived in two of the cities on this list (Vancouver and Copenhagen, and spent significant amounts of time in 6 others on the list.)

TOP 10 Resilient Cities around the Globe

10. Tokyo, Japan
The most populated city in this ranking, Tokyo also is amongst the most dense and most used transit systems of any city in the world. Tokyo is of course the only Asian city which made the top 10 this year. Tokyo met a key screen (political commitment) by being members of the C40 and ICLEI while also having a published climate action plan. Tokyo, like all cities, still has plenty to work on including an apparent lack of a climate adaptation plan-CAP (or meaningful inclusion within the climate action plan), grow its focus on renewables and increase its green spaces as pat of an adaptation initiative. However, I am keen on their focus on private sector innovation and profitable solutions to mitigate climate change. For example in their CAP, the first initiative is: “Promote Private Enterprises’ Efforts to Achieve CO2 Reductions”.

9. London, UK
London is accustomed to showing up on sustainable city rankings and for good reason. Like Tokyo, London met the political commitment threshold for this ranking and is a very dense city (in fact the most in the ranking). London also stood out in this analysis for its early planning and integration of adaptation into its CAP. And of course congestion zone introduced by former Mayor Livingstone was a bold move which has led to significant reduction in traffic, increased revenue for public transit and is now serving to encourage greener vehicle purchases (since low emitting vehicles are eligible for a 100% discount). London also was an early mover in adaptation by erecting the second largest movable flood barrier in the world. The Thames Barrier, operational since 1982, “protects 125 square kilometers of central London from flooding caused by tidal surges.”

8. New York, USA
Conservative Mayor Bloomberg is a strong advocate for climate leadership. NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg is the Current Chair of the Clinton 40 initiative. In a recent Clinton 40 Climate meeting, Mayor Bloomberg noted: “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.” New York of course is the envy of most cities in the U.S. when it comes to accessibility and use of rail transit. New York also scored quite well on my adaptation ranking for its integration of adaptation into its development permitting process and relatedly NYC scores relatively high on park space/capita.

7. San Francisco, USA
San Francisco of course was number 1 in my recent U.S. ranking and continues to be the highest rated U.S. city on the list. San Francisco is doing a lot of things well including substantial political commitment. Unfortunately I could not keep the green building ranking in this study because there is insufficient data from other green building certification groups outside of the Green Building Councils in North America and BREEAM in the UK. (San Francisco has the highest number of LEED certified buildings/capita in the U.S.). San Francisco did however score well on some key metrics in this study including having one of the more aggressive GHG reduction targets (20% below 1990 levels by 2012 and 80% reduction by 2050). They are also among the first cities working to introduce a group purchasing program for solar energy.

6. Paris, France
The “City of Light” is also making headway towards being a resilient city. Paris shows significant political commitment despite for some reason not being a member of ICLEI. Paris is among the few global cities that have a CAP, are members of C40 and the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, and are signatories to the Mexico City Pact which includes a voluntary commitment to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Paris scored highest on my ranking of rail transit use/capita and was among the leaders in my study on adaptation due to both its “adjustment to climate change” plan as well as being one of the only cities in the study to have tangible adaptation projects underway such as having recently completed planting 100,000 trees and 20,000 square meters of rooftop gardens.

5. Vancouver, Canada
Vancouver scores the highest amongst all North American cities in this study. Vancouver was already on its way before its current Mayor, Mayor Robertson took office. However behind his leadership Vancouver is striving to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. Not surprisingly, Vancouver scored among the highest on political commitment, losing just one point for not being affiliated with C40 (although I understand that Vancouver has applied). Like San Francisco, Vancouver aspires to reduce its emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. A big difference however is that Vancouver’s per capita emissions (4.9 Tons CO2e) are already much lower than San Francisco’s (10.1). Vancouver also scores off the charts on renewable energy with approximately 90% of its energy from renewable sources. It has also been investing in its own district energy systems. Two items not included in the rankings because I could not obtain valid comparable data also show that Vancouver is on the right track: 1.) It has the highest number of LEED certified green buildings of any city in North America; 2.) Vancouver would score very high marks for food security as48% of the food supply for the Province is sourced locally.

4. Stockholm, Sweden
Not surprisingly two Scandinavian cities made the top 5 of this ranking (see Copenhagen below). Stockholm scored high on the political commitment scale and came second only to Paris in its rail transit/capita use. Stockholm also has the second most impressive goal for GHG reductions, carbon neutral by 2050. Stockholm has completed less adaptation planning compared with other cities but also scored first on park area per capita in the study with over 21,000 acres (a whopping 40% of its land mass) dedicated to city parks.

3. Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona only came up one short on political commitment as it is not part of the Carbon War Room’s Green Capital Global Challenge. Barcelona does have a CAP, is a member of ICLEI, C40, and the World Mayors Council on Climate Change and is a signatory to the Mexico Pact. While Barcelona currently has a low percentage of renewables, it is a global leader and innovator with respect to the introduction of asolar thermal ordinance which requires all new and renovated buildings in the city to incorporate solar thermal energy, usually in the form of solar water heating. Barcelona also scored high for its adaptation planning because it has integrated adaptation into its plans and has identified key stakeholders and metrics associated with ensuring successful adaptation.

2. Curitiba, Brazil
While not a major capital city, Curitiba has the size (1.7m) to qualify for this ranking and is obviously very deserving of consideration. Curitiba is often the “poster child” for sustainable urban revitalization. Curitiba, through its former mayor, Jamie Lerner, introduced the world’s first bus rapid transit system which is used for 70% of Curitiba’s daily commuters. Curitiba is tied with Copenhagen for the lowest emissions per capita (2.1 Tons CO2e). Curitiba also comes second (to Vancouver) with its renewable energy contribution (82% of electricity generation). Despite being the highest elevation city in this ranking (i.e. no risk of sea level rise) it has the longest running adaptation program of any city in the study. In the 1970’s, Curitiba implemented a flood prevention plan from its nearby rivers by creating a win-win solution-creating 5,000+ acres of parks alongside their waterways.

1. Copenhagen, Denmark
It can’t be much of a surprise that the city where nearly 40% of its citizens cycle to work scores the number one posting in this first ever ranking of resilient cities. Copenhagen was the only city obtaining a perfect score on political commitment. That’s not all of course. Copenhagen tied Curitiba with the lowest per capita emissions and also sets the global standard by seeking to be the first major capital city in the world to achieve carbon neutrality (by 2025). Copenhagen has some work to do on its adaptation planning but does score second in this ranking for parks/capita.

Many other global cities are worthy of praise and made the initial screen in the ranking process.

Runners up across the globe (alphabetical order by region):


  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Johannesburg, South Africa


  • Kyoto, Japan
  • Melbourne, Australia
  • Sydney, Australia
  • Seoul, South Korea
  • Tapei City


  • Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Brussels, Belgium
  • Madrid, Spain
  • Rome, Italy

Latin America

  • Bogota, Columbia
  • Mexico City, Mexico
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Sao Paolo, Brazil

North America

  • Austin, USA
  • Chicago, USA
  • Seattle, USA
  • Toronto, Canada

"Cities are firmly at the vanguard of the global charge to deliver large scale carbon reductions and energy efficiencies. In seeking to set the pace and work together, cities have immense clout to stimulate low carbon world markets to unleash economic opportunities for their citizens." - London Mayor Boris Johnson

For more information on Resilient Cities, please check out Arup’s recent report in conjunction with C40 and/or join David Cadman, President of ICLEI, and me for a webinar on July 13th where will discuss these rankings and a how cities can make the transition to a low-carbon, resilient future.

(Icon photo courtesy of Kenneth Lu, Flickr)

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