Immense, crowded and polluted, London may not be David Suzuki's dream vacation destination. But for Cate Trotter, the English capital is a wonderland of environmentally friendly attractions. The twentysomething tour guide runs a small company called Insider London, and one of its most popular excursions is its Cutting Edge Green Tour, a three-hour walking tour of the city's sustainable buildings and businesses - from London's first five-star green hotel to writer Jeanette Winterson's organic food shop.
"The rate of change is amazing," Trotter says of London's burgeoning green development. She could be talking about urban ecotourism itself. From Delhi to Portland, increasing numbers of specialized operators are offering tours - on foot, bicycle or public transportation - of metropolitan green spaces, infrastructure and businesses. Ecotourism has long been a buzzword in travel circles, but ecotourism of an urban stripe is enjoying a growth spurt thanks to ever-growing global environmental awareness, a vogue for localism - and the simple fact that more of us are living in cities than ever before.
"It's definitely not a fad," says Serena Bartlett, a guide with Oakland-based GrassRoutes Travel and the author of several urban eco-travel guidebooks. "It's a shift in mentality. People are trying to change their lives, but they want to have fun with that change."
In London, Trotter's tour is all about fun, provided you get more of a thrill out of Norman Foster's solar-heated City Hall than Big Ben. Trotter, a former trend-spotter and marketer, began conducting her green tours last year, noting that no one else was offering excursions that emphasized what a progressive city London really is. "They were all still doing Jack the Ripper tours," she says.
The eclectic, educational itinerary for the Cutting Edge Green Tour includes Coin Street, an energy-efficient housing co-operative, eco-friendly floating gardens on barges and Montezuma's, an organic chocolate shop. A relatively new stop is the building site of the Tate Modern 2, an extension of the renowned art gallery that is scheduled to open in 2012 and is purportedly more sustainable, using 40 per cent less energy.
Trotter emphasizes, however, that the attractions must still be sightseeing-worthy.
"There's a big difference between what
a business would say is green," Trotter explains, "and what we'd find interesting to show people on a tour."
A comparable excursion in Manhattan, the Green Boroughs Walking Tour, introduces visitors and locals alike to some of New York's most eco-friendly stores (ABC Carpet and Home - who knew?) and projects like Solar One, a solar-powered education and arts centre.
Closer to home, Toronto's Urban Expeditions offers a two-day bicycle tour of the entire city, traversing its park system. "We want people to look at Toronto as a park with a bunch of buildings in it," executive director Peter Odle says.
The Green is Gold tour also takes in various eco-friendly establishments along the way, from the green roof of the Fairmont Royal York hotel (complete with its own beehives) to the Evergreen Brick Works, a clutch of revitalized industrial buildings now
being retrofitted to house farmers markets, gardens
and green conference
Not surprisingly, the customers for all of these tours tend to be, in Odle's words, "hip to the green": design professionals, urban planners and environmental experts. Trotter, who now offers her tours on a daily basis, plans to conduct additional specialized tours during London Sustainability Week in June.
Several famously progressive cities on the American West Coast - Seattle, Portland and San Francisco - also seek to spread the word about sustainable architecture by offering annual tours of energy and resource-efficient buildings and homes.
But increasing numbers of casual travellers are simply hoping to reduce their footprint - in a new city, they want to know the best places to responsibly eat, stay and play, and these tours are often the best sources for such information.
Many locals are taking these tours as well, eager to discover new nooks of their own cities; an urban ecotour promises a guilt-free and offbeat "staycation." Bartlett, in fact, recommends that when travellers are planning an urban ecotour, they look to their own backyards first: "There are fabulous things happening in your own city that you might not know about."
A new bus tour in Delhi hopes to do just that: introduce its citizens to the Indian capital's nearly hidden natural wonders - and environmental eyesores. Since December of last year, a group of young activists called the Delhi Greens has been conducting a monthly jaunt across the wetlands of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and also the horrific Ghazipur landfill.
"There always seems to be a sort of disconnect and people don't really feel responsible for Delhi," project co-ordinator Vidya Subramanian says. "When people see it, they begin to feel for it.
"We wanted to show the people of Delhi what Delhi really was."
It's a mantra that the entire tourism industry might be wise to adopt. What traveller - whether she's in a Costa Rican rain forest or a Park Slope café selling fair trade Costa Rican coffee - doesn't want the most authentic
Pack your bags
Delhi Greens 91 (98)111-47754; http://www.delhigreens.org. Urban ecotours from $25.
Green Boroughs Walking Tours New York; 718-530-5074; http://www.greenboroughs.com. Walking tours $25, $15 for students.
Insider London 44 (0) 844 504 8080; http://www.insider-london.co.uk. Cutting Edge Green Tour, $63.
Urban Expeditions 416-427-7227; http://www.urbanexpeditions.com. The two-day Green is Gold tour costs $325 per person including bike rentals, accommodations on the Toronto Islands and all meals.