What makes a place green? Well, that depends on how you define it. For some countries, like Indonesia, it’s all about building a school with sustainable natural materials and implementing more than 100 solar panels. In the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, it means creating a dazzling garden on areas leased from the city. Then, there are the great American cities like Denver, where Mayor Michael Hancock made it his mission to do what he can to fight climate change.
However you choose to define the word “green,” we’ve found a place that will suit it. From Iceland, which is green in nearly every sense of the word, to Seoul, South Korea, where the Skygarden entices travelers to a once-derelict highway, there is green to be seen all over the world. All you have to do is get out and find it.
1. Bali, Indonesia
Obviously we had to include the home of the world’s greenest school. Founded in 2006 by former jewelry maker John Hardy, Green School was built with sustainable natural materials and is powered by over 100 solar panels. Located in the Sibang Kajha area north of the Badung Regency, each classroom has its own rice paddy, which children are tasked with maintaining as they learn how to live sustainably.
2. Santa Barbara, California
Floodwaters have shaped the steep canyons and cliffs along the Cuyama River in the northeastern corner of Santa Barbara County. But while its population is scarce, the area is one of the most dynamic producers of oil and gas in the country. Its green claim to fame are healthy crops like pistachios, wine grapes, and lettuce.
3. Helsinki, Finland
Not only does this port city off the Baltic aim to rid itself of cars by 2050, it completed a pedestrian and bicycle corridor in 2012. The Baanas, or “rail” as it’s known in colloquial Finnish, conserved as much of its original rail line structures as possible while adding new lighting, foliage, and bike lanes. At the southern end of the trail, you’ll find ping pong tables, pétanque pitches, and basketball courts.
4. Berlin, Germany
In the Kreuzberg neighborhood of former West Berlin, where gentrification and rising rents are a hard reality, the nonprofit Nomadisch Grün (Nomadic Green) has built a vibrant garden on brownfield leased from the city. The aim of Prinzessinnengarten, which is entirely mobile, is to encourage others to start a garden of their own. The 25-person nonprofit makes money by selling food and soil.
5. Llanarthney, Wales
The National Botanic Garden of Wales, set in the Carmarthenshire countryside, may be one of the most forward-thinking historic gardens around. Dating back to the early 1600s, the Middleton estate now features the world’s largest single-span glasshouse, a national nature reserve, and the new tropical butterfly house, among other wonders.
6. Denver, Colorado
Not everyone in Denver loves Ordinance 300, which mandates that building owners install rooftop gardens or solar panels. However, Mayor Michael Hancock remains a proponent of battling climate change, which many residents are behind. Not only did he vow to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement, but last year he unveiled a three-year project to jumpstart entrepreneurship in Denver.
7. San Diego, California
With the addition of a 77-acre property in Encinitas, the Nature Collective, a Southern California nonprofit land trust, remains devoted to natural land preservation. Next year, the collective’s habitat restoration staff will work with volunteers to rejuvenate the property’s native plants and animals while creating trail connections for people to enjoy the space.
Among the endangered species that live there are the San Diego pocket mouse and the California gnatcatcher.
8. Vancouver, Canada
This city is serious about tackling waste — a June report found 2.6 million disposable cups wind up in the trash every week — and it recently approved a controversial modular housing project to help the homeless.
According to Mayor Gregor Robertson, walking, biking, and public transportation trump cars when it comes to transit.
9. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“My message to winter is, ‘Bring it on,’” said Mayor Tom Barrett, who recently did away with Milwaukee’s four-inch rule. Before, certain residential streets prohibited parking when snowfall reached four inches or more. But with the formal rule no longer in place, the city is unleashing new “green” salt to prepare for the winter, which has magnesium chloride and a rust inhibitor.
10. Phoenix, Arizona
When he was reelected mayor of Phoenix in 2015, Greg Stanton, a former councilman, didn’t just work to triple the city’s light rail system. In June, he vowed to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement and reiterated his ambitious goal to cut the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025.
He’s off to a good start: By 2015, he had cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 15 percent.
Iceland is green in nearly every sense of the word. It’s the only country in the world whose electricity and heat are entirely generated from renewable sources, and thanks to its sparse population, air pollution is hardly an issue. Despite its baffling name — a trick by the Vikings to discourage future settlers — Iceland’s summers are green and warmer than Greenland’s.
12. Växjö, Sweden
Don’t knock the Southern Swedish city that calls itself “Europe’s greenest.” In the 1990s, long before anyone was talking about climate change, Växjö’s city council vowed to ditch fossil fuels by 2030 and halve carbon emissions in less than 20 years.
As of 2015, waste wood from nearby forests provided 90 percent of Växjö’s heat, and the rest of its electricity came from locally produced small hydro, wind, biogas, and solar power.
13. Seoul, South Korea
Like New York City’s High Line, the Skygarden in Seoul turned a derelict highway into something magical. The dazzling space, which is open 24-hours a day, has bridges that connect it to adjacent commercial buildings, along with performance spaces, street markets, and libraries. One “library” of 24,000 plants, grouped according to the Korean alphabet, denotes the use of certain spaces — like a rose, which compelled Dutch architects MVRDV to build a theater nearby.
14. La Fortuna, Costa Rica
This sleepy agricultural town is a tourist destination thanks to its easy accessibility and spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano. Beyond the parks, reserves, and rainforests, ecotourism is booming. The country grades lodging on sustainability, and nature-focused projects like Finca Luna Nueva, a 207-acre biodynamic farm and ecolodge built from fallen trees, continue to pop up.
This island off the Western Pacific is one of the top ecotourism destinations in the world — with a dynamic coral reef system and tropical landscape. As part of the Palau Expedition run by Blue Planet United’s Palau Project, American university students can study the natural and social systems of the island.
Palau also encourages tourists to engage with the locals, be it by sipping tea with nomads or staying at an ecolodge.
16. Manú National Park, Peru
There’s biodiversity, and then there’s the mosaic of altitudes, microclimates, animals, and plants of Manú National Park. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the massive park at the Tropical Andes and Amazon Basin in Southwestern Peru has some 850 species of birds, between 2,000 and 5,000 plant types, and at least 200 species of mammals. However, those are just estimates — some scientists believe Manú’s numbers are even higher.
17. Hubei Shennongjia, China
One of three centers of biodiversity in China, this site was once the object of international plant collecting expeditions in the 19th and 20th centuries, per UNESCO. Its location in Hubei Province in Central-Eastern China has two components — Shennongjia/Badong to the west and Laojunshan to the east — which are home to the largest remaining primary forests in Central China and many rare animals.
18. Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, India
Located in the western part of the Himalayan Mountains in the Indian State of Himachal Pradash, this park includes 25 forest types, “a rich assemblage of fauna series,” and some 31 species of mammals, says UNESCO. Among the mammals you’ll find here are the Himalayan tahr, blue sheep, and Himalayan black bears.
The first country to fully legalize marijuana has all sorts of eco-friendly lodging; a sustainable school, Una Escuela Sustenable, which is mostly built from waste; and sound energy policies. It obtains a sizable portion of its electricity from wind power and has invested part of its GDP into overhauling its energy system for the planet.
20. Azores Islands
This Portuguese archipelago, which is comprised of nine volcanic islands, is one of the greenest places around, with policies that promote renewable energies and hardly any built-up environments. Three Azores islands have been designated as UNESCO biospheres — Graciosa, Flores, and Corvo — and there are 13 Ramsar sites (major wetlands) and over 30 Blue Flag beaches to explore.