Sustainable, Resilient Cities

In the international alliance to fight climate change, the United States is considered the sullen loner. But in the seven years since it rejected Kyoto, changes have begun. Not at the federal level, however. It’s the locals who are making it happen.

In everything from emissions control to environmental stewardship, cities across the country are far ahead of the federal government, and they’re achieving their successes with ready-made technology.

Austin has pledged to meet 30 percent of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2020, aided by planned wind-power installations that will surpass their predecessors in efficiency.

Seattle has retrofitted its municipal heavy-duty diesel vehicles with devices that will reduce particulate pollution by 50 percent.

Boulder has enacted the country’s first electricity tax to pay for greenhouse-gas emission reductions. Something about the comparative speed of city government—a city-council member can greenlight a project and be cutting the ribbon a year later—leads to bold action, and as cities trade ideas, a very positive sort of mimicry is spreading.

The 10 trailblazing civic projects profiled in our list of the top green cities in America are among the most impressive success stories to date—examples of what’s possible when elected officials and local business leaders back up their green visions with scientific know-how, clout and creative funding.

How the Sustainability Rankings Work

We used raw data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Geographic Society’s Green Guide, which collected survey data and government statistics for American cities of over 100,000 people in more than 30 categories, including air quality, electricity use and transportation habits. We then compiled these statistics into four broad categories, each scored out of either 5 or 10 possible points. The sum of these four scores determines a city’s place in the rankings. Our categories are:

  • Electricity (E; 10 points): Cities score points for drawing their energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power, as well as for offering incentives for residents to invest in their own power sources, like roof-mounted solar panels.
  • Transportation (T; 10 points): High scores go to cities whose commuters take public transportation or carpool. Air quality also plays a role.
  • Green living (G; 5 points): Cities earn points for the number of buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, as well as for devoting area to green space, such as public parks and nature preserves.
  • Recycling and green perspective (R; 5 points): This measures how comprehensive a city’s recycling program is (if the city collects old electronics, for example) and how important its citizens consider environmental issues.

Sustainable Cities Ranking

1. Portland, Ore. 23.1. Electricity: 7.1 Transportation: 6.4 Green Living: 4.8 Recycling/Perspective: 4.8. America’s top green city has it all: Half its power comes from renewable sources, a quarter of the workforce commutes by bike, carpool or public transportation, and it has 35 buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

2. San Francisco, California 23.0. Electricity: 6.8 Transportation: 8.8 Green Living: 3.5 Recycling/Perspective: 3.9. San Francisco turns wasted roof space into power.

3. Boston, Massachusetts 22.7. Electricity: 5.7 Transportation: 8.7 Green Living: 3.4 Recycling/Perspective: 4.9. Grass Power. Boston has preliminary plans for a plant that would turn 50,000 tons of fall color into power and fertilizer. The facility would first separate yard clippings into grass and leaves. Anaerobic bacteria feeding on the grass would make enough methane to power at least 1.5 megawatts’ worth of generators, while heat and agitation would hasten the breakdown of leaves and twigs into compost.

4. Oakland, California 22.5. Electricity: 7.0 Transportation: 7.5 Green Living: 3.1 Recycling/Perspective: 4.9. Oakland’s hydrogen-powered transit helps the city cut pollution.

5. Eugene, Oregon 22.4. Electricity: 10.0 Transportation: 4.7 Green Living: 2.9 Recycling/Perspective: 4.8. Much of the wet Pacific Northwest draws its energy from hydroelectric dams. But Eugene draws an additional 9 percent of its municipal electricity from wind farms. It also buys back excess power from residents who install solar panel

6. Cambridge, Massachusetts 22.2. Electricity: 6.1 Transportation: 7.5 Green Living: 3.9 Recycling/Perspective: 4.7.

7. Berkeley, California 22.2. Electricity: 6.2 Transportation: 8.4 Green Living: 2.9 Recycling/Perspective: 4.7.

8. Seattle, Washington 22.1. Electricity: 6.2 Transportation: 7.3 Green Living: 4.7 Recycling/Perspective: 3.9

9. Chicago, Illinois 21.3. Electricity: 5.4 Transportation: 7.3 Green Living: 5.0 Recycling/Perspective: 3.6. In addition to the 12,000 acres Chicago has devoted to public parks and waterfront space, the U.S. Green Building Council has awarded four city projects with a “Platinum” rating, its highest award. Chicago’s power plants produce twice the energy with a third the carbon.

10. Austin, Texas 21.0. Electricity: 6.9 Transportation: 5.9 Green Living: 3.3 Recycling/Perspective: 4.9.

11. Minneapolis, Minnesota 20.3. Electricity: 7.8 Transportation: 7.4 Green Living: 2.8 Recycling/Perspective: 2.3. If you’ve got a world-saving idea, the City of Lakes will give you, your church or your community group the money to get it done. Twenty $1,000 mini-grants and five $10,000 awards were distributed last year to programs ranging from household power-consumption monitors to “block club talks” about global warming. 

12. St. Paul, Minnesota 20.2. Electricity: 8.0 Transportation: 4.0 Green Living: 3.5 Recycling/Perspective: 4.7.

13. Sunnyvale, California 19.9. Electricity: 7.3 Transportation: 6.8 Green Living: 2.2 Recycling/Perspective: 3.6.

14. Honolulu, Hawaii 19.9. Electricity: 6.0 Transportation: 7.8 Green Living: 2.6 Recycling/Perspective: 3.5.

15. Fort Worth, Texas 19.7. Electricity: 8.3 Transportation: 4.6 Green Living: 2.4 Recycling/Perspective: 4.4. 

16. Albuquerque, New Mexico 19.1. Electricity: 7.6 Transportation: 5.5 Green Living: 2.4 Recycling/Perspective: 3.6.

17. Syracuse, New York 18.9. Electricity: 7.0 Transportation: 4.9 Green Living: 2.6 Recycling/Perspective: 4.4.

18. Huntsville, Alabama 18.4. Electricity: 6.2 Transportation: 4.1 Green Living: 3.6 Recycling/Perspective: 4.5.

19. Denver, Colorado 18.2. Electricity: 5.9 Transportation: 5.2 Green Living: 3.0 Recycling/Perspective: 4.1. Fly ash, a by-product of coal-burning power plants, usually ends up in landfills. Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver found a way to reuse this industrial by-product. They add it at concentrations of about 20 percent to a new green concrete mix. The addition of fly ash also reduces the amount of sulfur- and carbon-spewing concrete production needed to finish a job. The mayor has signed an executive order requiring the use of green concrete in new city projects, and a $550-million infrastructure bond makes demand for the mix likely to grow.

20. New York, New York 18.2. Electricity: 2.8 Transportation: 10.0 Green Living: 3.4 Recycling/Perspective: 2.0. More than 54 percent of New Yorkers take public transportation to work, beating the next-best metropolis, Washington, D.C., by 17 percent. New York City also turns its tides into electricity.

21. Irvine, California 18.1. Electricity: 4.2 Transportation: 6.8 Green Living: 2.9 Recycling/Perspective: 4.2.

22. Milwaukee, Wisconsin 17.3. Electricity: 5.0 Transportation: 4.9 Green Living: 3.1 Recycling/Perspective: 4.3.

23. Santa Rosa, California 17.2. Electricity: 7.0 Transportation: 3.4 Green Living: 2.4 Recycling/Perspective: 4.4. Santa Rosa taps geysers for electricity.

24. Ann Arbor, Michigan 17.2. Electricity: 4.6 Transportation: 4.8 Green Living: 2.9 Recycling/Perspective: 4.9. 

25. Lexington, Kentucky 16.8. Electricity: 5.9 Transportation: 3.6 Green Living: 2.3 Recycling/Perspective: 5.0. Lexingtonians recycle everything from surplus electronics to scrap metal, and they listed the environment as their third most important concern (behind only employment and public safety)—the highest ranking in our survey.

26. Tulsa, Oklahoma 16.7. Electricity: 5.0 Transportation: 3.9 Green Living: 3.4 Recycling/Perspective: 4.4.

27. Rochester, New York 16.1. Electricity: 4.5 Transportation: 4.4 Green Living: 3.1 Recycling/Perspective: 4.1. 

28. Riverside, California 16.0. Electricity: 7.5 Transportation: 3.1 Green Living: 2.1 Recycling/Perspective: 3.3.

29. Springfield, Illinois 15.7. Electricity: 5.3 Transportation: 3.0 Green Living: 3.2 Recycling/Perspective: 4.2. 

30. Alexandria, Virginia 15.7. Electricity: 2.7 Transportation: 6.3 Green Living: 3.1 Recycling/Perspective: 3.6

31. St. Louis, Missouri 15.0. Electricity: 2.7 Transportation: 5.0 Green Living: 3.7 Recycling/Perspective: 3.6. 

32. Anchorage, Alaska 14.4. Electricity: 2.7 Transportation: 4.7 Green Living: 2.1 Recycling/Perspective: 4.9. Since Anchorage spends a good part of the year buried under highly reflective snow, it doesn’t make sense to keep the street lamps at full bore when moonlight can do the job. The city installed citywide dimmers. On top of that, the city is planning to upgrade its 16,000 street lamps to either LED or induction bulbs, depending on the results of computer simulations designed to find the type of light that helps humans see best and disturbs wildlife the least. The swap should be complete by year’s end, and the initial $5-million investment is expected to save up to $3 million in energy costs annually.

33. Athens-Clarke, Georgia 14.1. Electricity: 2.4 Transportation: 4.7 Green Living: 3.2 Recycling/Perspective: 3.8.

34. Amarillo, Texas 14.0. Electricity: 5.2 Transportation: 2.9 Green Living: 2.3 Recycling/Perspective: 3.6.

35. Kansas City, Missouri 13.8. Electricity: 2.7 Transportation: 3.7 Green Living: 2.7 Recycling/Perspective: 4.7.

36. Salt Lake City, Utah 13.5. Electricity: 3.6 Transportation: 4.1 Green Living: 2.3 Recycling/Perspective: 3.5. Salt Lake City heats homes from waste.

37. Pasadena, California 13.2. Electricity: 5.8 Transportation: 3.1 Green Living: 1.8 Recycling/Perspective: 2.5.

38. Norwalk, California 13.0. Electricity: 3.5 Transportation: 3.1 Green Living: 2.5 Recycling/Perspective: 3.9.

39. Laredo, Texas 12.9. Electricity: 4.4 Transportation: 2.5 Green Living: 1.7 Recycling/Perspective: 4.3.

40. Joliet, Illinois 12.0. Electricity: 1.3 Transportation: 4.3 Green Living: 2.6 Recycling/Perspective: 3.8.

41. Newport News, Virginia 11.9. Electricity: 2.7 Transportation: 2.7 Green Living: 2.7 Recycling/Perspective: 3.8.

42. Louisville, Kentucky 11.9. Electricity: 1.3 Transportation: 4.0 Green Living: 2.5 Recycling/Perspective: 4.1.

43. Concord, California 11.9. Electricity: 3.0 Transportation: 3.2 Green Living: 2.2 Recycling/Perspective: 3.5.

44. Fremont, California 11.3. Electricity: 3.0 Transportation: 3.0 Green Living: 1.5 Recycling/Perspective: 3.8

45. Elizabeth, New Jersey 10.5. Electricity: 2.6 Transportation: 2.8 Green Living: 1.8 Recycling/Perspective: 3.3

46. Livonia, Michigan 10.2. Electricity: 2.7 Transportation: 2.1 Green Living: 1.8 Recycling/Perspective: 3.6.

47. San Bernardino, California 10.2. Electricity: 2.8 Transportation: 2.3 Green Living: 1.6 Recycling/Perspective: 3.5.

48. Thousand Oaks, California 10.2. Electricity: 2.9 Transportation: 2.9 Green Living: 1.6 Recycling/Perspective: 2.8.

49. Stockton, California 10.1. Electricity: 2.8 Transportation: 2.5 Green Living: 1.0 Recycling/Perspective: 3.8.

50. Greensboro, North Carolina 10.0. Electricity: 2.0 Transportation: 2.0 Green Living: 2.1 Recycling/Perspective: 3.9.

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Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. We are developing Greener Cities as a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world. We seek best practices, case studies, significant announcements and collaboration. We also seek sponsors, donors, members and volunteers. The battle against global warming and climate change will be won or lost in our cities.