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13 Greenest Cities in the US Re-defining The Concrete Jungle


Think your city is one of the greenest cities in the US?

If not, how does your city compare? 

Even though, as a nation, the United States sustainability credentials lag behind many other countries, the greenest cities in the US are nonetheless inspiring. 

And these concrete jungles go to show that cities the world over need not be responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

So, just what are the greenest cities in the US?

We’ve compiled a list of 13 of them, but bear in mind that this list is constantly in flux. The most sustainable US city today likely won’t be the same next year—or even next month.

That’s where you come in. 

We could all do more to level-up our hometowns eco-conscious efforts. By voting for green-leaning leaders or taking advantage of curbside composting services (if you’re lucky enough to have them).

After perusing this list for inspo, consider adopting some low waste living hacks or zero waste tips.

Who knows your collective input could have your home joining the ever-growing cohort of the greenest cities in the world

WHAT DOES A SUSTAINABLE CITY IN THE US LOOK LIKE?

WalletHub’s 100 eco cities in America list is perhaps the most data-driven of all thanks to their exhaustive number of “green indicators” (28 in total) for what makes a green city.

Some of these indicators include:

  • Environment: Greenhouse gas emissions per capita; water quality; daily water consumption per capita; urban heat island effect; green space; and air-quality index
  • Transportation: Miles of bicycle lanes; walk score; accessibility of jobs by public transit; and alternative fuel stations
  • Energy Sources: Solar photovoltaic (PV) installations per capita; share of electricity from renewable energy sources; and number of smart-energy policies and initiatives
  • Lifestyle & Policy: Farmers markets and CSA programs per capita; community garden plots per capita; presence of plastic bag bans; and “green” job opportunities

Other sources also consider nature and biodiversity, economic growth, waste production and management, sustainable land use, and climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

These include:

  • ACEEE’s City Energy Efficiency Scorecard 
  • Rocket Homes The 15 Most Sustainable Cities In The US
  • LawnStarter 2021’s Most Sustainable Cities

If you were to peruse their lists of greenest places in the US, you’d see many Californian cities, as well as multiple entries for Oregon and Washington.

There’s no doubt the West Coast is blessed with a mild climate (reduced heating and cooling needs and easier use of alternative transportation), higher access to renewable energy, and a long history of climate change policies and action.

While not all make the cut here, in California alone, Santa Barbara, San Diego, San Francisco, Irvine, Fremont, Oakland, Sacramento, Salinas, San Jose, Los Angeles, Fresno, and Riverside are regulars among those voted the most eco friendly cities in the US. 

Our Methodology

Ultimately, there’s no agreed framework for establishing the top greenest cities in the US

We wandered off the beaten West Coast path to seek out cities both small and large across varied regions of the country.

We took inspiration from the sources mentioned above, but also considered how the locals can access sustainable initiatives and sought out policies that envision a more sustainable and equitable future.

1. SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

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The Locals

More than 3,300 San Diegans have shared their priorities, needs, and concerns to help develop the city’s Climate Action Plan.

The city is home to a “clean tech” job concentration that’s twice as high as the national average.

Environmental & Legal Policies

San Diego’s impressive Zero Waste Plan calls for 90% waste diversion by 2035 and zero by 2040. 

As a result of curbside recycling and greenery collection, they’ve already diverted 75%, per their 2020 goals—and used residents’ food scraps and green waste to make sellable landscape products.

They also have Climate Resilient SD, a plan for preparing and responding to climate change hazards and protecting historically underserved communities.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Considered the greenest city in America by WalletHub, San Diego was the first major US city to commit to 100% renewable energy (which they should achieve any moment).

Currently, rooftop installations generate 37 megawatts, making San Diego a solar industry over-achiever.

By 2035, the city plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% (compared to 2010 levels), and this year marks SD’s goal to reduce daily per capita water consumption by at least 9 gallons.


2. PORTLAND, OREGON

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The Locals

Residents “Keep Portland Weird,” yes, well done. 

But they’re also doing a good job of keeping it one of the most environmentally sustainable cities, too. 

Portlanders have access to pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, over 315 miles of bicycle paths, the highest number of urban parks per capita in the US, and the greatest concentration of vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants. 

Residents drive 20% less than those in comparably-sized cities and largely embrace the FLOSS lifestyle—Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal, and Sustainable. 

Generally, one of the greenest places to eat, move, play and shop (considering the plethora of wacky Portland thrift stores).

Environmental & Legal Policies

With a vision for a prosperous, connected, equitable, healthy, and resilient future, Portland has many sustainability initiatives, including a Climate Action Plan, Climate Change Preparation Strategy, and an Environment and Justice Framework.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By 2050, Portland will be completely powered by 100% renewable energy, and will meet the community’s electricity needs with clean energy by 2035.

They also have 2030 goals regarding reducing energy use, eliminating harmful pollutants, and reducing water to 2006-07 levels.


3. SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

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The Locals

Seattleites help the city by recycling and composting nearly 60% of its waste.

They’ve also embraced the plastic bag ban and the many thrift stores Seattle has to offer.

Environmental & Legal Policies

Seattle’s Climate Action Plan was one of the first of its kind in the US and focuses on improvements in waste, building energy, and transportation—all while supporting vibrant neighborhoods and social equity.

Standing apart from other cities, they’ve also incorporated marginalized residents in decision-making roles for energy policies.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Just a hop and a skip away from Portland, Seattle is also often recognized as one of the most eco friendly cities in the US and the first to establish a carbon neutral electric utility.

Around 90% of Seattle’s electricity is generated from hydropower, yet they still have plans to cut emissions by 58% by 2030 and become totally carbon neutral by 2050.


4. HONOLULU, HAWAII

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The Locals

Surrounding beaches, lush vegetation, and commanding presence of volcanic landforms, Honolulu’s unmistakable character sets the stage for one of most environmentally friendly cities in the US.

Not only do 66.1% of Honolulu residents consider themselves eco-conscious, but the city also boasts some of the highest percentages of green spaces and farmers markets.

Environmental & Legal Policies

The Climate Action Plan highlights efforts towards greenifying transportation, waste, and electricity generation.

Including access to renewable energy and the support of locally grown food, the Resilience Strategy sets out 44 actions to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By 2025, the island of O’ahu will transition to renewable energy, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% on the way to becoming totally carbon neutral by 2045.

Its per capita emissions are steadily decreasing.


5. BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

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The Locals

Less than half of Bostonians use a car to get to work, with many opting for public transit, walking, or cycling instead. A large portion embrace the circular economy supporting the many thrift stores in Boston.

Environmental & Legal Policies

Boston’s Climate Action Plan highlights strategies to reduce emissions in the city’s transportation systems, buildings, and energy supply. 

It was updated a couple of years ago to include an equity component for each action.

The Zero Waste Boston strategy aims to increase the city’s recycling rate from 25% to 80% by 2035 and 90% by 2050.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Often recognized as one of the greenest cities in the US in terms of energy use, Boston met its 2020 carbon reduction goal early—by 60% lower than planned.

By 2050, the “Cradle of Liberty” plans to be carbon-neutral and climate-ready.


6. ITHACA, NEW YORK

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The Locals

Loved by locals for its proximity to waterfalls and state parks (including Taughannock Falls State Park which combines the best of both), Ithaca attracts nature-loving New Yorkers.

Ithaca’s first bike route was established in 1978 and since then, community support has made it easier for alternative modes of transportation to thrive. 

They also have an iconic farmers’ market that operates an impressive four days a week for 11 months of the year.

Environmental & Legal Policies

The city has its own Green New Deal, with commitments to power government operations with 100% regionally-sourced renewable energy by 2025 and become carbon neutral town-wide by 2030.

It also ensures that all initiatives are fair and inclusive, with benefits and burdens that are distributed evenly.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

For over a decade, Ithaca has been purchasing certified renewable energy credits for 100% of its electricity. 

Often considered one of the most sustainable small cities in the US, Ithaca was also the first US city to begin 100% decarbonization of all of its buildings.

Part of this process involves the installation of geothermal heating and cooling systems, solar thermal hot water systems, LED bulbs, and low-energy asphalt throughout the city.


7. MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

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The Locals

With 105,843 sq. ft. of green areas per capita and 14.9% comprised of parkland, Minneapolis isn’t just one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the US; it’s #1 for green space. 

Previously named America’s Best City for Parkland and Green Spaces, 95% of residents can walk to a park in under 10 minutes.

Minneapolitans play a key role in keeping the city green, with the Green Cost Share program they can make buildings more energy efficient, reduce pollution, or receive benefits if disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Environmental & Legal Policies

In addition to a Climate Action Plan, the city also has a Sustainable Building Policy, Pollinator Friendly Policy, and Community Garden Lease and Urban Farm Policy—to list just a few community-wide efforts to advance environmental quality.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Minneapolis seeks to reduce emissions by 30% by 2025 and 80% by 2050, based on 2006 levels. 

Steadily moving away from fossil fuels, the city plans to use 100% renewable energy by 2030.


8. GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA

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Environmental & Legal Policies

Spearheaded by the Community Sustainability Council—whose meetings are open to any and all—Greensboro has put their Sustainability Action Plan at the forefront of their goals.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Greensboro could be considered one of the most sustainable cities in the Southern US owing to its genuine efforts to tackle greenhouse emissions.

They recently replaced diesel buses with efficient, all-electric ones, installed solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles, and made efficiency upgrades throughout the city, earning them a LEED Silver® certification from the US Green Building Council.

As part of the Strategic Energy Plan, all city operations will run on 100% renewable energy by 2040.


9. BURLINGTON, VERMONT

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The Locals

Burlington is the top city in the state for sustainable living due to its high percentage of wilderness preserve areas, dedication to renewable energy infrastructure, and property affordability. 

Burlington residents are big on buying local, and the city hosts an impressive number of farmers markets, including the massive Burlington Farmers Market which has been around since 1980.

In pursuit of zero waste, locals also support several zero waste shops, including a 90’s themed refill shop called The Restock Shop.

Environmental & Legal Policies

With the implementation of energy efficiency improvements, car-sharing programs, and experimentation with a Pay As You Throw trash service, Burlington’s Climate Action Plan highlights efforts to reduce the city’s impact by 2025.

Additionally, the Burlington Sustainability Partnership is recognized as a 4 STAR Community for its sustainability-minded governmental framework.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In 2015, Burlington became the first US city to be completely powered by renewables and to this day, it still remains one of the most sustainable cities in the US.

100% of the city’s energy comes from one of the following renewable sources: biomass (sustainable local wood), hydroelectric power, wind, and solar.


10. NEW YORK, NEW YORK

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The Locals

The Big Apple is a regular contender in lists governing the greenest big cities in the US.

NYC is the nation’s largest city with the lowest emissions per capita among large cities. 

This is in large part due to the city’s impressive public transportation system, which means that New Yorkers are least likely to drive to work, with more than half its huge population using alternative forms of commuting.

Environmental & Legal Policies

The OneNYC strategy includes goals to reduce the city’s emissions by 80% of 2005 levels by 2050 and eliminate waste sent to landfills by 2030. 

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The city has plans to retrofit public buildings with energy efficient upgrades, divest the city’s pension funds from fossil fuel reserve owners, and utilize 100% clean electricity to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.


11. INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA

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The Locals

The city’s sustainability action plan was developed with the city’s people in mind.

Equity was at the forefront, so they reached out to more than 265,000 people to be sure their climate actions address inequality.

Environmental & Legal Policies

According to the plan, Thrive Indianapolis, the city will double its number of green buildings and bike lanes and quadruple the number of EVs by 2025—among other efforts involving health insurance, living wages, and recycling. 

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Indianapolis typically isn’t first to come to mind when thinking of the most sustainable city in the US—but they’re trying to be much greener. Which is the point.

The city plans to source 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025 and has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.


12. DENVER, COLORADO

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The Locals

The Mile High City is one of the Rocky Mountain region’s most well-loved concrete jungles.

Avid outdoorsmen come from far and wide to relocate to Denver for its close proximity to rugged mountains, rock climbing, and much more.

No wonder locals value this surrounding nature and want to protect it.

Denver is home to hybrid taxis, more than 200 urban parks, a partially solar-powered airport, several privately owned composting drop-off sites, an impressive recycling system, and a tree planting program that will have planted one million new trees by 2025. 

Locals join in the eco-efforts by helping to sustain all manner of sustainable businesses, from vegan-friendly eateries to zero waste restaurants and grocery stores.

The Sustainable Neighborhood Network allows locals to get together and strengthen sustainability on a small scale through collaboration and community.

Environmental & Legal Policies

The 80 x 50 Climate Action Plan is the city’s plan highlighting a pathway towards an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (based on 2005 levels) by mid-century. 

This will happen through optimized energy efficiency in buildings, decarbonization of the electricity grid, next-generation mobility, and improved waste management.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By 2030, Denver hopes to source 100% renewable energy for the community’s electricity supply. 


13. WASHINGTON, DC

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Image by Eric Dekker via Unsplash

The Locals

58% of commuter trips in the city are by bike, public transport, or walking and DC was the first city to adopt a bike share program. 

Does that paint the picture?

DC is also home to many LEED-certified hotels and restaurants and the city itself was the first to achieve a Platinum LEED Rating.

Environmental & Legal Policies

The country’s capital is often considered one of the greenest cities in the US and last year they became the only US city to participate in the Global Destination Sustainability-Index Assessment—an evaluation to share best practices regarding social and environmental sustainability.  

Sustainable DC 2.0 is the plan to transform the city into one of the greenest, healthiest, and most liveable by 2032. 

It includes actions to restore the natural environment, address climate change, and support the social and economic needs of locals.

Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Tied into one of the largest municipal onsite solar projects in the country, Climate Ready DC and the Clean Energy DC Act serve as some of the fastest-activating and most aggressive climate change legislation. 

By 2032, 100% of the District’s energy will come from renewables. By 2050, DC is committed to carbon neutrality


FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE MOST SUSTAINABLE CITIES IN THE US

Putting the greenest cities on the map is one of the best ways in which to encourage more metropolises to follow suit.

These cities are paving the way. 

When we stay curious and committed to sustainability wherever we are in the world, we keep the momentum moving in the right direction.

So let’s keep the most sustainable cities in the US trending.

Share this article with friends and family and who knows…maybe your city will make the cut next year. 


Think your city is one of the greenest cities in the US? These concrete jungles go to show that cities the world over… Image by Eric Dekker via Unsplash #greenestcitiesintheUS #whatarethegreenestcitiesintheUS #greenestbigcitiesintheUS #topgreenestcitiesintheUS #greenestcityinAmerica #mostsustainablecitiesintheUS #mostenvironmentallysustainablecitiesintheUS #mostecofriendlycitiesintheUS #sustainablejungle

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