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America’s Top 10 Sustainable Cities

Updated on March 24, 2012

Sometimes it’s good to take a breath from the world’s problems, look around and say: ok, where are we doing things right? Sustainability issues can feel overwhelming, and sometimes it seems like we’re not making progress – most of what we hear is how bad it all is. But people do care, and there are initiatives in place. Cities are a great place to start, where policies can coordinate many people and industries to reduce their environmental impact.

What are the most sustainable cities in the United States?

By ranking cities on their environmental performance, we reward cities for doing well, and encourage some friendly competition to do better. Depending on the indices used, different ranking systems will rate the sustainability of cities differently. The Economist Intelligence Unit did a well-calculated sustainability ranking of US and Canadian cities. The indicators they measured were: energy, carbon dioxide emissions, transportation, land use, air, water, waste, buildings, and environmental governance.

Here I've listed just the United States cities ranked in the report, and highlight some of their more awesome initiatives!


0) Portland, OR

A shout out to Portlandia! It may seem like a hub of hipsters, outdoor enthusiasts and organic farmers, but…well, it is. It clearly is a national leader, but sadly not big enough to fit the Economist Intelligence Unit ranking criteria (thus the zero). But perhaps Portland’s smallness is a sign of its success: back in the `70s Portland’s urban planners drew boundaries around the city, protecting the surrounding farmland and forest from urban sprawl. Urban planning also revolves around mass transit considerations – Portland has more bicycle commuters than any other city, with 22,000 people making daily use of over 400 miles of bike paths!

1) San Francisco, CA

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: the three Rs to minimizing resource consumption. San Francisco has got the Recycle part in the bag (hardy-har), recycling 77% of its waste! In 2009 they also mandated the separation of compostable waste, being the first in the US to impose such a regulation. They’ve also tackled the Reduce part by prohibiting grocery stores from giving out plastic shopping bags.

2) New York, NY

Some people love the big city some hate it. But you have to give it credit – it really knows how to pack those people in. New York’s high population density and simultaneously high proportion of greenery (20% of the city is designated green space!) gives it very good land use ratings. And they only plan on getting better with their MillionTreesNYC project, a plan to plant one million more trees by 2017.

New York's subway system
New York's subway system | Source

3) Seattle, WA

Best in building efficiency (even when Canadian cities are included!), Seattle has a policy that every building over a certain size must be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) silver certified.

Denver bike share
Denver bike share | Source

4) Denver, CO

Denver is getting sustainability credit for its introduction of T-Rex. Oh sorry no, not the sustainable dinosaur, it’s their Inter-modal Transport Expansion Program (which also sounds pretty cool). Under this program they majorly expanded their light rail, bus and bike infrastructure and have a goal to expand it even more – making it the largest American public transportation project since Washington, DC’s metro system in the 1970s.

5) Boston, MA

Boston’s best performance was in water consumption. I was still shocked to see how much that was – 74 gallons per person per day (and the average is 155 among these top 10 cities!). Boston's success is partly due to state efforts to reduce leakage, promote low-flow toilets, and low-flow faucet and shower heads. The state gives rebates to citizens that use these water efficiency measures.

6) Los Angeles, CA

Say what? The city of smog makes the top 10? LA in fact has made incredible strides in the renewable energy department: by 2020 they plan to eliminate their usage of coal, which currently makes up 40% of their energy profile, and replace it with renewables.


7) Washington, DC

The capital has been noted for its public participation in city greening projects. The mayor frequently holds hearings and public meetings to get maximum citizen input. Of course, this doesn’t amount to much if you don’t actually implement those projects, but DC has been making headway in green buildings and public transport - currently its bike share system is the largest of any US city.

8) Minneapolis, MN

The first city in the US to incorporate environmental sustainability in their city planning, Minneapolis enjoys an excellent proportion of green space. They also do well in energy – back in 2005 citizens successfully pressured two of their power plants to switch from coal to natural gas, effectively reducing the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions from the power plants by 90%!

Chicago | Source

9) Chicago, IL

The windy city aims to tap into its natural potential for wind power. Already 14 different wind power companies have taken root in Chicago, and the city aims to source a quarter of its energy from renewables by 2025.

10) Philadelphia, PA

It’s always sunny….Philly has its eye on solar power, planning to power 9,000 homes by 2021 with new large scale solar installations. They also rank very well in air quality, due to the city’s efforts promoting high efficiency vehicles and replacement of polluting diesel engines.

Share with us: what's your town or city doing to be more sustainable?

Do you live in one of these cities? What's your city or town doing to become more sustainable? Please do share!

Photovoltaic solar panels
Photovoltaic solar panels | Source


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      YAY FOR SAN FRANCISCO! Hehee, I feel so proud! Really enjoyed this Hub- it also reminds me that I've GOT to visit Portland, Seattle... and heck- a LOT of these cities someday soon!