Green Cities

These urban areas are working to make their neighborhoods (and the planet) healthier and more sustainable.

December 13, 2010

If you live where every home has room for a garden and your milk and eggs come from a local farmer, you may be thinking that "green" and "city" do not belong in the same sentence. But as we learn more about the threats to the environment and rediscover the benefits of regular interaction with nature, urban dwellers are demanding that their leaders make cities more sustainable, with more green space.

From energy conservation initiatives to community gardens to carbon offsets, municipalities big and small are focusing their attention on the environment and quality of life for their residents. Naturally, we support these efforts and wanted to recognize the cities that are leading the way toward a more sustainable future. When you think of the greenest cities, places like Portland, Oregon, "The City of Roses," or Seattle, "The Emerald City," likely come to mind. But when we set up our criteria (see "Our Scoring System") and then gathered the data, we found that Salt Lake City, "The Salty Lagoon City," or Fargo, "The Little Windy City," earn a spot on the list, too. Now check out our rankings of the small, midsize, and large cities with the lowest environmental impact score, and learn about green initiatives that could improve life where you live.


Small Cities (population less than 150,000)
Portland, Maine
Score: 4.514
Population: 63,000

Green is growing all over this coastal city—it has acres of parkland and trails. Portland was among the first communities to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to take steps to reduce CO2 emissions by 7 percent over five years. Now all city-owned diesel vehicles run on a mix of 20 percent vegetable-based biodiesel fuel and 80 percent regular diesel, and must adhere to an anti-idling ordinance. Fall visitors take time to learn about sustainable living by attending the Common Ground Country Fair, the largest organic festival in the country, about two hours away from Portland in Unity, Maine (

Burlington, Vermont
Score: 5.729
Population: 38,500

The city's Alliance for Climate Action has initiated the 10% Challenge, a voluntary sign-up program to help households and businesses reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 10 percent (

At the Intervale Center, 354 acres of farmland, nursery, compost production, trails, and wildlife corridors are set along the Winooski River. Founded by Will Raap of Gardener's Supply Company, Intervale brings together corporations, nonprofits, and local government to help keep farming viable in the region, make organic food accessible, and protect water quality through waste management and stream-bank restoration. The compost pile at Intervale is the biggest, richest-looking pile you'll ever see (

Burlington has developed an Urban Forestry Master Plan that guides the parks department's care of "street trees," makes sustainability a priority, and sets a goal of maintaining "a multi-aged and diverse forest" for the city.


Ice cream aficionados know that Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory is outside Burlington, just north of Waterbury, Vermont. Visit and get free samples of their brand-new Organic Ben & Jerry's (

Fargo, North Dakota
Score: 7.646
Population: 90,000

This prairie city promotes biodiesel fuel by using it to power transit buses—which is one reason Fargo's Air Quality Index is one of the country's best. Landfill space produces electricity: A wind generator and solar panels convert natural elements, and methane gas is harvested from garbage. "Fargo Recycles" cloth bags for shoppers are distributed by the city.

For Earth Day 2007, 500 volunteers planted 2,000 trees and shrubs to reduce Red River soil erosion.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Score: 9.450
Population: 142,000

The intercity waterfalls in Falls Park are unique on the prairie. To revitalize downtown, the Phillips to the Falls Project is working with the EPA to decontaminate, redevelop, and reuse acres of brownfields along the Big Sioux River Corridor.

From April to October, the Nature Conservancy's Makoce Washte ("beautiful earth") prairie preserve blooms with unique native plants such as the violet-blue pasqueflower, purple leadplant, and white aster. The Sertoma Butterfly House boasts 800 free-flying butterflies from all over the world (

Billings, Montana
Score: 8.214
Population: 100,000

In the heart of Big Sky Country, Billings has 2,600 acres of green space and the ever-expanding Heritage Trail system for biking, walking, jogging, or hiking. The Trash into Trees program has diverted 3.9 million pounds of newspaper and 68 tons of aluminum cans from landfills, and has earned $112,060 to purchase and plant 2,152 trees in Billings.


One of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the United States houses the Northern Plains Resource Council. A solar-paneled roof, composting toilets, and many other green features have earned the building a Platinum LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Continue reading to read about the greenest midsized cities and large metropolitan areas.

Midsize Cities (population between 150,000 and 500,000)
Boise, Idaho
Score: 8.039
Population: 198,500

The "City of Trees" got its name when a French guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition caught sight of the lush, wooded valley and exclaimed, "Les Bois! Les Bois!" Much of the downtown area relies on geothermal heating (captured from sources of hot water and steam near the earth's surface). Boise's geothermal heating system—set up in 1892—is the largest of its kind, warming more than 360 buildings, or 4.4 million square feet (equivalent to 1,700 houses). The new Banner Bank, an 11-story office, was featured in the documentary Green Is the Color of Money, by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ben Shedd. It is said to be one of the world's most energy-efficient high-performance buildings constructed at standard costs. For those who want fresh food with their green buildings, Capital City Public Market offers produce from local growers and artisanal foods crafted by Boise-based producers (

Little Rock, Arkansas
Score: 13.296
Population: 184,000

City in a Park is an initiative to get a green space within eight blocks of every residence. Little Rock is well on its way, with 5,800 acres of park space, including Little Rock's largest public green space—1,700-acre Fourche Creek Bottoms. The city hosts the headquarters building for Heifer International, a nonprofit dedicated to combating hunger. The structure was named one of the 10 greenest buildings in the United States by the American Institute of Architects. Designed to use up to 55 percent less energy than standard, it boasts such enviro-friendly features as a restored wetland to collect stormwater for irrigation.

Anchorage, Alaska
Score: 12.186
Population: 278,000

City government cut energy usage by programming 3,000 of its computers to "hibernate" when not in use—saving $84,000 in energy costs and reducing CO2 emissions by 1,104 tons a year (the equivalent of taking 251 cars off the road). In this coastal city (set among six mountain ranges), gardeners get compost from a local facility that keeps 5,000 tons of waste out of landfills.

Des Moines, Iowa
Score: 10.768
Population: 194,000

Operation Downtown is a project aiming to increase the number of green spaces, plantings, and streetscapes. One example: 120 hanging baskets in the East Village neighborhood.

The parks department funds the Urban Prairie Project, which builds pockets of native prairie plants in the city, and a Rain Gardens initiative to promote the benefits of natural stormwater management.

Salt Lake City, Utah
Score: 14.289
Population: 179,000

The Mormons who settled here in 1847 set up an ingenious irrigation system that has made the city a green oasis in the desert. In 2001, Mayor Rocky Anderson (who has solar panels at his home) launched the Salt Lake City Green program, which has cut the city government's greenhouse-gas emissions by 36,200 tons, built popular support for the new light-rail system, and made the city more walker- and cyclist-friendly.

Red Butte Botanical Garden's SpringFest offers demonstrations on organic gardening, composting, and native Utah plants.

Major Metropolitan Areas (population more than 500,000) Portland, Oregon
Score: 6.736
Population: 537,000

Progressive local businesses send their food and paper waste to Portland Composts! Recycling rates in the city are at almost 60 percent (the highest in the country), there are 43 miles of rail transit—public-transport commuters make up 13.3 percent of the population—and Portland has the largest wooded park within city limits in the United States.

Now Portland is starting the next wave in renewable energy. Researchers at Oregon State University are studying how to use buoys off Oregon's rocky coast to generate electricity through wave power.

Score: 10.704
Population: 591,000

Another mayor up to green good is Boston's Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who wants to turn "Bean Town into Green Town." For City Hall Plaza, he proposed putting in a 150-foot wind turbine that could generate up to one-quarter of the electricity used in the building. Boston's annual AltWheels transportation festival presents information on all forms of sustainable transportation.

The Green Monster in renowned Fenway Park will no longer be the only green thing at the 95-year-old baseball stadium. Plans include making the lighting more energy-efficient, installing solar panels, and offering fans locally grown, organic food.

Score: 9.736
Population: 582,000

A city of firsts: "The Emerald City" was the first city in the United States to adopt a green building law—all new city construction must achieve a LEED Silver rating or better—and City Light, Seattle's energy utility, was the first utility to attain zero net emissions of climate pollution. Mayor Greg Nickels started the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which now has more than 600 mayors pledging to cut CO2 emissions by 7 percent in the next five years. For the 2008 budget, the mayor proposed $7 million for the Orphaned Parks Wish Fund. And he didn't stop there—this fall, he launched the Seattle Climate Action Now grassroots campaign to raise public awareness about global warming.

Score: 10.832
Population: 567,000

The Tree by Tree, Mile High Million program aims to plant 1 million trees in Denver and surrounding areas by 2025. In just the first year, 65,000 trees were planted.

San Francisco
Score: 12.493
Population: 744,000

On October 20, 2007, Alcatraz, City Hall, the Golden Gate Bridge, and other San Francisco areas went dark for an hour from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., as part of the Lights Out San Francisco campaign to raise awareness of energy usage. The city also distributed 100,000 compact fluorescent lightbulbs to residents. Cleaning the San Francisco air is the 197,000-square-foot roof of the California Academy of Science, now planted with native California plants that also help to insulate the building.

In March 2007, the city government banned nonbiodegradable plastic shopping bags—the first law of its kind in the country. Mayor Gavin Newsom is cracking down on plastic water bottles, too, with plans to prohibit the purchase of single-serving bottled water with city funds.

Score: 15.686
Population: 1,450,000

Since 1974, Philadelphia Green, a pioneer urban greening program, has advocated for the development and care of community gardens and open spaces all over the city. The Mill Creek Farm has turned a once-vacant lot into a source of affordable organic food—and a model for sustainable living—in its low-income community in West Philadelphia. Helping to clean the Philadelphia air are the more than 25,000 residents that participate in PhillyCarShare, the world's largest regional car-sharing organization.

The Philadelphia Flower Show is the world's largest indoor flower show.

Our Scoring System
How do you compare one city's "greenness" with another's? We decided to rank our 50 biggest cities, along with the largest city in each state (if that state wasn't already represented). We gathered data for each city from Earthday Network's Urban Environmental Report,* SustainLane 2006 US City Ranking, the Standard Rate and Data Service, and other public data sources in these categories:

  • Air quality
  • Water quality
  • Green space
  • Number of U.S. Green Building Council rated buildings
  • Percentages of residents who walk, bicycle, and/or use public transit as their primary mode of transportation
  • Percentages of households with flower and/or vegetable gardens
  • Percentage of population that eats natural foods
  • Availability of locally grown food
  • Municipal government's climate change policy

Scoring. We assigned each city points for each category—the city in first place received one point, second place two points, and so on. Then we gave each city an overall average score by dividing the total point count by the number of categories. The lower the final score, the better.

*A ranking based on a broad range of public data from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Lung Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Geological Survey, and others.

Green World
On every continent, people are coming up with ideas for improving the environment. Here are a few of the most interesting.

Vancouver, Canada, manages growth while reducing its ecological footprint through its EcoDensity Plan. Smart transportation planning has resulted in a 44 percent increase in walking, a 180 percent increase in bike trips, and a 20 percent increase in transit use.

Mexico City suffers from traffic congestion and thick smog. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard launched the Plan Verde ("Green Plan") in 2007 to expand public transportation, create new parks and pedestrian-only zones, manage water pollution, and control the traffic problem.

Tuvalu, a tiny Polynesian island nation with just 10,500 inhabitants, is threatened by rising sea waters due to climate change. Tuvaluans and environmental groups have initiated a 10-year plan involving two biogas digesters, a bio-diesel project using copra (coconut palm), solar streetlights, composting toilets, and numerous wind projects.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, has set a course to become the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city by creating a pedestrian-friendly environment, starting a national carbon dioxide capture and storage network to cut CO2 emissions, and investing $350 million in a 100-to-500-megawatt solar power plant (500 megawatts could generate power for 500,000 households).

Dongguan, People's Republic of China, won the International Awards for Liveable Communities competition last year. The city boasts 951 parks, totaling more than 7,000 acres, and a vegetation coverage rate of 41 percent.

Greening in Progress
These cities didn't make the grade in our research, but we see hopeful signs of change.

Los Angeles
Population: 3,849,000

Smog and celebrities—that's what L.A. is known for. And while the City of Angels has the nation's worst air quality (according to the American Lung Association), many Hollywood celebrities are using their star power to generate attention for green power. More and more of them are arriving on the red carpet in hybrid- and biodiesel-fueled cars and electric sports cars, instead of gas-guzzling limos. It's a start.

Population: 871,000

Forbes magazine rated Detroit one of America's dirtiest cities. The flight of industry and residents has left 40,000 vacant lots behind. By joining the forces of the Detroit Agriculture Network, the Greening of Detroit group, and the Earthworks Garden, the Urban Gardening Resource Program is converting once-fallow land into vibrant urban farms to feed and educate residents

Population: 2,144,000

Urban Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to building communities through gardening, offers classes on organic gardening, supports outdoor learning in schools, and organizes the Bayou City Farmer's Market (

Las Vegas
Population: 552,000

The driest city in the United States—averaging only 4.5 inches of rainfall a year—and the fastest-growing population-wise (according to the 2000 census) faces serious environmental challenges just to sustain its current rate of growth. But just 3 miles from The Strip is the new 180-acre Springs Preserve, which features an 8-acre desert garden and 2 miles of trails through Las Vegas valley's diverse landscape. The preserve offers a variety of workshops for residents and visitors, from birdwatching to composting (