04/17/2012 12:22 EDT | Updated 06/17/2012 05:12 EDT

How the Big Apple Became the Greenest City

Cleaning and greening up the environment can seem like a daunting task when you think of how vast our world is. But the source for a majority of environmental issues is actually very tightly focused -- and that makes the solutions for tackling these issues far more manageable than you might think.

The tight focus? Cities. In 2008, for the very first time, more than half of the world's population lived in cities. It's where nearly 80 per cent of the economy exists, and where up to 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions occur.

The challenge for cities is to meet the urgent need to reduce emissions while creating jobs and maintaining the vibrant activity that makes urban areas the engine of our economy. The good news is that it's a challenge many cities are taking action on, both individually and collectively.

And a city that's leading the way? None other than New York -- and that surprises a lot of people. How can a city so dense and populated be the most sustainable city on the planet? The answer is a simple one: New York is environmentally sustainable precisely because of its density -- along with its great leadership and the unparalleled engagement of its residents.

The core of New York City -- Manhattan -- is built for people who walk and take transit, not for people who drive. The number of people who drive to work versus taking transit, walking or riding a bike is low. Only five per cent of Manhattan residents who work in the city drive to work. In fact, with the exception of Staten Island, all New York boroughs are below 50 per cent when it comes to car commuting.

Contrast that with U.S. cities like Dallas, Columbus and Indianapolis, where the commuting split is 90 per cent in favour of the car, and you can see why New York is a special place. Historic decisions -- and the scarcity of real estate -- have made New York a walkable city with an excellent transit network.

But there is much more to being a world leading environmental city that creates sustainable employment for all -- and that's where leadership and engaged residents come in.

Few people viewed Mayor Bloomberg as an environmental leader when he was first elected, but he has been -- and to the highest standards. Early in his mandate, the city adopted the revolutionary PlaNYC, the city's official plan that is explicitly based on leading environmental criteria.

All decisions -- about density, transportation, and economic investments to create jobs -- are viewed through PlaNYC and its approach to sustainability. Some of his initiatives have garnered international attention (and controversy) -- for example, reclaiming road space for bicycles and pedestrians and requiring all commercial buildings to post their energy consumption. None of this would have happened without the underlying strategy.

Leadership isn't enough though -- and the truly successful cities also have engaged citizens. New York is the home of people like Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, which fights to overcome environmental issues in a way that creates jobs and hope. I explored some of these issues in a recent CBC Radio documentary.

New York isn't alone. Copenhagen, for example, has both engaged citizenry and strong leadership and is acting to fight climate change and create jobs. While nations talk, cities are taking action -- and cities like New York are showing us the way.