<i>Green Guide</i> Names America's Top 10 Green Cities

<i>Green Guide</i> Names America's Top 10 Green Cities

Which U.S. cities are kindest both to the environment and to our health? By Jemilah Magnusson

We often think we have to escape the city to get to where it's green and healthy to live, but many cities have advantages including parks, excellent public transport, and walkable commutes to work, unavailable in sprawling suburbs. And facilities such as bike trails that keep people out of cars can also help reduce America's obesity problem. For those seeking outdoor recreation, a big factor for many in where to move, cities such as Seattle, Portland and San Francisco offer quick access to mountains, beaches, and ocean. But what else makes a city green?

With 80% of Americans living in urban areas, The Green Guide naturally wanted to find out which cities are kindest both to the environment and to our health. For our list of the top ten, we sought out good water- and air-quality, efficient use of resources, renewable energy leadership, accessible and reliable public transportation, and green building practices. We also looked for parks and greenbelts and access to locally-grown fresh food through farmers' markets and community supported agriculture groups. Finally, we included affordability in our green criteria, since the health benefits, public parks, and other amenities of living in a greener city need to be available to more than just the wealthy.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates the ten cities below as all having good air quality most days of the year. The exception is Chicago, a city with moderate air quality that is retrofitting diesel engines to improve its standing and provides excellent public transport. John Summerhays, an environmental scientist at Chicago's EPA office, notes that "Though it is difficult to quantify, to the extent that bike traffic and public transport reduce automobile traffic and emissions, air quality will improve as a result."

Water quality, a major concern for most Americans, can be difficult to compare, but we checked EPA water quality reports for levels of neurotoxic lead with all cities below. We also used the Natural Resources Defense Council's most recent "What's On Tap" report. Madison, Wisc., which is currently replacing all service pipes that contain lead, was the only one of these cities to show lead levels that exceeded EPA limits in some samples. (To check their local water quality, consumers can request a water report by going online, or call EPA's safe drinking water hotline 800-426-4791. To find the appropriate filters for water contaminants in your area, see "Three Simple Steps to Clean, Safe Drinking Water".

Based on these criteria, and understanding that no city has a pristine environmental record, the ten cities presented here show initiative and progress and set greener examples for other American cities to follow. Cities are listed alphabetically and are not ranked among themselves.

Austin, Texas
The only southern city to make the list, Austin (pop. 656,562) is clean and affordable with 15% of city space devoted to parks and nature preserves, ranking well in the top tier of green-building cities with 19 building projects registered for LEED- (U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design) certification. Austin really stands out for its commitment to renewable energy, with the most aggressive short-term goal in the nation: 20% of energy needs to be met by renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2020. Austin also aims to take full advantage of the Texas sun with the declared goal of becoming the number one solar manufacturing center in the U.S. For activities, Lake Austin and Town Lake offer canoeing, kayaking and rowing and the city possesses 32 miles of bike trails.

Boulder, Colo.
Boulder (pop. 94,673) is known for its progressive city policies, such as the Green Points Building Program which mandates builders or homeowners to include certain sustainable building components based on the structure's size, and their green-power purchasing initiatives including the Solar Access Ordinance, which limits shading and increases the use of solar power. While only 8% of Boulderites take public transport daily, 26% commute without a car, taking advantage of the city's many bike commuting trails, and pedestrian friendly downtown. Boulder is off the charts on city parkland, surrounded by 60 square miles of public parkland and designated open space, about twice the size of the actual city, containing miles of trails and giving residents unprecedented green spaces access. Boulderites also have some of the best options for outdoor recreation in the country. The surrounding Rockies offer skiing and snowboarding, as well as hiking, biking, camping, and watersports in mountain lakes.

Chicago, Ill.
Chicago (pop. 2,896,016) stands out for showing a remarkable commitment to green design and construction, with 42 building projects registered for LEED certification, and has an excellent integrated public transport system, prompting nearly a third of Chicago's residents to commute using public transport. While the city's transit authority is currently considering cuts in service, John Summerhays notes that it's too early to predict the outcome of funding negotiations with the state legislature. The city has also agreed to purchase 20% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2006. By 2003, the Windy City was well on its way to this goal, taking over 10% of its electricity from renewables. In line with the city's pledge of energy efficiency, Chicago offers tax incentives to city residents who buy historic homes and install energy efficient technologies, showing that a commitment to historic preservation and energy efficiency can go hand in hand. And the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) rates the lakefront city's water quality, compliance and source protection as excellent. For the outdoors enthusiast, Lake Michigan offers windsurfing, kayaking and canoeing while Rock Island State Trail and Sand Ridge State Forest are popular for hiking, biking and camping. Chicago does face year-round problems with small particle pollution, which can trigger heart attacks and cause hardening of the arteries, but this problem is being addressed: According to the EPA, the city is involved a diesel retrofit effort to reduce vehicle emissions and the State of Illinois is evaluating controls of steel mill, power plant, and other industrial emissions.

Honolulu, Hawaii
Honolulu (pop. 372,000) ranks very high in clean air and water standards. In fact, the American Lung Association put Honolulu in second place (behind Santa Fe) on its list of top 25 cleanest cities for year-round small particle pollution. The Hawaiian capital was also rated the most livable, sustainable large city in the world by the United-Nations-endorsed International Awards for Livable Communities in 2004. This rating came in recognition of Honolulu's excellent energy program, which slashed energy use and converted city vehicles to biodiesel, its many sustainable tourism programs, and the fact that the city has become a pioneer in land-use management by establishing urban growth boundaries. The city has moved aggressively to protect shoreline areas, preserve public view plains and support island agriculture by advancing an initiative to save 83,000 acres of agricultural land. And all that shoreline offers excellent opportunities for hiking, surfing, diving and snorkeling.

Madison, Wisc.
Madison has many fine points, but stands out most as a bike-friendly city. The first municipality in the nation to implement curbside recycling of newspapers in 1968, Madison (pop. 208,054) ranks in the top third of affordable cities, has excellent air quality according to the EPA and has several impressive renewable energy incentives. Although only 7% of Madison's residents commute using the bus, 10% commute walking or biking, owing to the city's extensive system of over 100 miles of bikeways. In fact, there are over 150,000 bicycles in Madison, which puts the ratio of bikes to cars in the city at 3:2. And Madison was named one of the 20 best walking cities in 2005 by Prevention Magazine. Downhill skiing and snowboarding are popular at nearby Cascade Mountain and Tyrol Basin and there are many cross-country trails in parks close to the city.

Minneapolis, Minn.
Minneapolis (pop. 382,618), the larger of the twin cities, devotes 15% of its city land to parks and preserves, not counting the thousands of nearby lakes. Those lakes help account for Minneapolis's comparatively high water quality ranking-sixth out of 25 U.S. cities examined-in a 2004 drinking water survey by Organic Style Magazine. Minneapolis ranks in the top third of affordable cities, and its integrated public transit system and bike-friendly-status allow 23% of its population to commute without a car. A successful solar-electric rebate program offered by Minnesota State Department of Commerce encourages businesses and residents to hook solar systems up to the city's grid. Lakes within and around Minneapolis make canoeing popular and a trip into the Iron Range up north offers excellent bird- and wolf-watching as well as ice-fishing, skating and cross-country skiing.

Oakland, Calif.
Oakland (pop 399,484) is more affordable than San Francisco, its Bay Area neighbor, and benefits from San Francisco's transport system, with 20% of Oakland residents commuting by bike or public transport. Oakland devotes 11% of city land to parks, and shares in Bay Area initiatives for renewable energy. Solar energy use has been expedited by an Oakland initiative that allows solar production facilities to waive design review requirements for installation, which has sped up solar energy generation use by the city. Oakland's mayor has also committed the city to installing 5 megawatts of solar power. By reducing reliance on non-renewable energy, this should help mitigate the short-term (within a 24-hour period) small particle pollution problem it shares with San Francisco.

Portland, Ore.
In 1974, Portland (pop. 529,121) began to tear down a six-lane expressway to replace it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park, one of many urban parks that make up almost 16% of the city. Portland's integrated public transit system, its status as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, and its ranking in the top third of affordable cities by the National Association of Homebuilders put it on our Green Guide list. Portland scores extra points by leading the nation in green-building practices: It has the most building projects registered for LEED-certification, in total number 52 and per capita. In 2002, Portland became the first city to gain approval from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to implement their own green building ratings system "Portland LEED", in which local codes were tailored to meet or exceed the USGBC's standards. When it comes to escapes, skiing on Mt. Hood is popular, as are canoeing and hiking along the Columbia and Hood rivers. And right in the city itself, Forest Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the country, provides 74 miles of hiking, running and biking trails.

San Francisco, Calif.
The most expensive city on the list, San Francisco (pop. 776,733), has enacted living wage legislation that includes a city minimum wage of $8.50, and a living wage of $10 per hour. San Francisco ranks just behind New York in public transit ridership, with nearly half of San Franciscans commuting daily with BART, biking, and walking. Over 17% of city land is given to parks and nature preserves. NRDC gave it a good rating for water source protection. The city is also a leader in green building, with 27 building projects registerd for LEED-certification. Perhaps most impressive of all, San Francisco's voters passed two initiatives in 2001 that allow the city to sell $100 million in revenue bonds to support renewable energy. This will hopefully improve the ranking San Francisco shares with Oakland as fifteenth among the ALA's top 25 metropolitan areas most polluted by short-term small particle (PM2.5) pollution. There's hiking, bird-watching and biking in the Golden Gate National Recreation area and Mount Tamalpais just across the Bay, and surfing in the Pacific.

Seattle, Wash.
Seattle (pop. 563,374) keeps a spot on the greenest cities list with its mandate that the city's utility, Seattle City Light, meet growing demand with no net increase in greenhouse gases-achieved through self-generated wind energy thus far. This commitment to renewable energy offsets the city's problems with short-term small particle air pollution, for which it ranked twenty-second out of the ALA's top twenty-five most polluted metropolitan areas. Seattle's water quality ranked seventh out of 25 U.S. cities in Organic Style. Seattle devotes 11% of its city land to public parks, boasts 44 building projects registered for LEED certification, and requires all new city-funded buildings meet LEED standards. An extensive ferry system makes biking in the islands a breeze, the adjacent Cascade mountains offer excellent skiing, and nearby Mt. Rainier presents a challenge to mountaineers.

The Green Guide's runner ups include: Boston, with its extensive and popular public transit system, high percentage of parkland, and commitment to green building. Athens, Ga., with a pedestrian- and bike-friendly downtown, many public parks and gardens, and demonstrated progressive urban planning. Lawrence, Ks., an affordable, bike-friendly city with 52 parks and a commitment to progressive and sustainable urban planning.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of the Green Guide Institute. It was first published on April 20, 2005.