The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently announced their list of the greenest cities in the United States and have released their findings on a new web site, called Smarter Cities.  The survey includes all cities in the United States with populations larger than 50,000. Smarter Cities is considered to be one of the nation’s most comprehensive and robust database of U.S. urban progress toward sustainability.

The cities are grouped into three size categories to enable comparison between those with similar environmental challenges and constraints on social and financial resources.  Seattle ranked number one and San Francisco ranked number two  among the 67 large cities that were evaluated.  Madison, Wisconsin placed first and Santa Rosa, California came in second among the 176 medium cities that were surveyed.  Among the 402 cities that were evaluated, Bellingham, Washington came in first place and Mountain View, California came in second.

Below, we have listed the top ten cities in the large city, medium city and small city categories.  Click on the city and state link below to view the SmarterCities profile of the city you are interested in.   When available, we have provided additional links to each city’s sustainability web site at the bottom of each profile.  At the bottom of the post, there is also a small list of additional resources for people interested in making their city more sustainable.

The following criteria were used to rank the cities: Air Quality; Energy Production and Conservation; Environmental Standards and Participation; Green Building; Green Space; Recycling; Transportation; Standard of Living; and Water Quality and Conservation.
Each city was also ranked separately by each of those criteria and you can see those scores as well below. Click here to find out more about the methodology used.

NRDC sought the advice of academic, non-profit and government experts to come up with a broad set of criteria by which to measure and compare sustainability efforts in cities across the U.S. The ranking scheme, developed with the help of a scholar from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was intended as a tool for identifying, for the purpose of spotlighting, those cities that are taking the lead in addressing the major environmental challenges of our time, from global warming to clean air and water.

The Smarter Cities web site  has a number of interactive features. Visitors can find cities alphabetically or by size and rank.  The Make Your City Smarter is a question and answer section manned by sustainability experts.   To can see what the most recent questions and answers are, review questions and answers by topic, or submit your own questions.  The site has other features like maps,  a green resource locator,  a citizen reporter locatorphoto galleries, city profiles, and a cities to watch section.

What are Smarter Cities? / Test Your City IQ Section which features numerous quizzes that you can take.  They include: Urban Rehabilitation Quiz; Urban Sprawl Quiz; Green Space Quiz; Green Building Quiz; Renewable Energy Quiz; Energy Conservation Quiz; Water Quiz; Transportation Quiz; Food, and the Recycling and Air Quiz.

Smarter Cities is seeking your input as a citizen reporter to share what’s happening in your city, the challenges your town faces and the new initiatives that are being tried. We seek committed reporters to video interview community leaders,  create photo galleries of neighborhood improvements, and post news and events. Your work will provide opportunities for each of us to participate at all levels—local to national—in making our cities more efficient, more responsible, smarter, healthier and saner. Your stories, photos and videos will appear  in the central editorial “well” of the home page and be reachable from every page on the site.

Cities interested in taking part of the next research round are encouraged to contact NRDC for information.  They will be accepting completed surveys from cities until August 15, 2009.  NRDC seeks  to improve this research tool and seeking out your comments on the methodology as well as recommendations for additional data sources .

The Top Ten Greenest Large Cites (population of 250,000 or more)

1.    Seattle, WA – Mayor Greg Nickels launched the US Conference of Mayors Climate Agreement to encourage US cities to meet the goals of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005. Over 900 American cities have signed on.  Over 90 percent of Seattle’s power comes from hydroelectric plants.  Goats have replaced toxic pesticides for clearing the brush and blackberries around the substations.  Residents are encouraged to install solar panels on their homes for energy conservation with incentives.   More than 20 public buildings in Seattle are LEED-certified or under construction for LEED certification.

Seattle Top 10 by Criteria: Standard of Living (#4); Green Building (#1); Air Quality (#1); Environmental Standards and Participation (#9); Transportation (#5); Recycling (#3); Green Space (#2); Energy Production and Conservation (#1); and Water Quality (#4).

Find out more about Seattle’s sustainability efforts.

2.    San Francisco. San Francisco is closer than any other city to reaching a zero-waste goal and also  diverts 70 percent of its waste from the landfill. It is the first U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags, which is part of plan to divert 75 percent of landfill waste by 2010.     It has also banned plastic kids’ toys laced with questionable chemicals.  San Francisco is also creating a local carbon offset fund to which city employees must contribute 13 percent of air travel costs to offset their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In 2001, San Francisco voters approved a $100 million bond initiative to finance solar panels, energy efficiency, and wind turbines for public facilities. In 2008 it implemented the largest solar incentive program in the country.  The city also has more than 70 projects registered under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification system.

Farm production in the area creates about 20 million tons of diverse food each year, which is about 20 times what the city consumes in a year.   Mayor Newsom and the nonprofit Garden for the Environment have also established edible urban gardens.  Over 17 percent of the city is devoted to parks and green space and almost half of the city’s residents take public transit, bike or walk each day.  Every summer, the City hall’s front lawn is turned into a vegetable garden.

San Francisco Top 10 by Criteria: Standard of Living (#2); Green Building (#5); Air Quality (#2); Transportation (#1); Recycling (#1); Energy Production and Conservation (#4)and Water Quality (#6).

Find out more about San Francisco’s sustainability efforts.

3.    Portland, OR. Portland is the first U.S. city to enact a comprehensive plan to reduce CO2 emissions. Half of the city’s power comes from renewable sources.  Portland’s residents recycle over half of their waste. The city also runs a comprehensive system of light rail, buses, and bike lanes ; a quarter of the workforce commutes by bike, carpool or public transportation. Portland has aggressively pushed green building initiatives and has 35 buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.  The city also has 92,000 acres of green space and more than 74 miles of hiking, running, and biking trails.  It also has over 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes.

Portland Top 10 by Criteria: Standard of Living (#10); Green Building (#2); Air Quality (#3); Transportation (#9); Recycling (#9); Green Space (#1) and Energy Production and Conservation (#5).

Find out more about Portland’s sustainability efforts.

4.    Oakland. The City of Oakland provides free technical assistance  to Oakland businesses to start or expand their recycling programs. East Oakland  provide residents with free energy conservation services and hardware. They hire and train local youth to provide free in-home energy audits, education, and hardware installation to low income homeowners and renters.   The City of Oakland now requires nonresidential or apartment house addition or alteration projects to recycle 100% of all Asphalt & Concrete (A/C) materials and 65% of all other materials. In March 2006 the Oakland City Council adopted a Zero Waste Goal by 2020 .  The city prohibits the use of polystyrene foam disposable food service ware and requires, when cost neutral, the use of biodegradable or compostable disposable food service ware by food vendors and city facilities. It’s also home to the nation’s cleanest tap water, hydrogen-powered public transit and the country’s oldest wildlife refuge.

Oakland Top 10 by Criteria: Green Building (#6); Air Quality (#4); Recycling (#2); Green Space (#5); Energy Production and Conservation (#6); and Water Quality (#7).

Find out more about Oakland’s sustainability efforts.

5.    San Jose. San Jose has adopted the most aggressive municipal greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals in the nation. Within 15 years the city plans to reduce per capita energy use by 50 percent, receive 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, divert 100 percent of its solid waste, and recycle or reuse 100 percent of its wastewater. San Jose currently diverts 62 percent of their waste to recycling.
It is the first city to test electric-car charging stations and is developing the infrastructure for them, including plug-in charging stations and battery-swapping. The city hosts numerous large solar manufacturers including Nanosolar, Solopower and SunPower. Underwriters Laboratory opened the world’s largest testing facility for solar products in San José in August 2008.   San José has more than doubled the number of its green jobs since October 2007

San Jose Top 10 by Criteria: Standard of Living (#1); Green Building (#7); Air Quality (#5); Environmental Standards and Participation (#10); Transportation (#10); Recycling (#6) and Water Quality (#8) 6. Austin,

Find out more about San Jose’s sustainability efforts.

6. Austin, TX. Austin is about to become the No. 1 solar manufacturing center in the U.S and its utility company, Austin Energy, is the nation’s top seller of renewable energy.  Fifteen percent of the city’s land is devoted to green space that includes  50 miles of trails, parks, 206 parks, 12 preserves, 26 greenbelts, and 32 miles of bike trails. They have set the goal for all city vehicles to be powered by electricity and non-petroleum fuel by 2020, and for all city-owned and operated buildings to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2012. Austin also has the Clean Energy Incubator, a consortium of business, academic and state government leaders devoted to helping clean-energy companies succeed.

Top 10 by Criteria: Green Building (#3)l Air Quality (#6);  Recycling (#5); Green Space (#6); and  Water Quality (#1)

Find out more about Austin’s sustainability efforts.

7. Sacramento, CA. Sacramento plans to add 20,000 clean energy sector jobs by 2015. Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) uses geothermal energy, hydropower and solar power for electricity, offering a 100 percent clean and renewable power option for a few more dollars a month than its conventional power plant. SMUD also offers free shade trees to residents to create passive cooling in homes and increase the canopy cover in the city.

Sacramento Top 10 by Criteria: Green Building (#8); Environmental Standards and Participation (#1); Recycling (#10); Energy Production and Conservation (#3); and Water Quality (#9)

Find out more about Sacramento’s sustainability efforts.

8. Boston, MA. 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.  They also have a plan to recycle trash to power homes, use more solar panels, and use more electric motorbikes for transportation.  The City has new zoning laws that requiring LEED certification for certain developments and a requirement that all taxicabs go hybrid by 2015.  Boston also has a mandate to assess all city buildings for alternative energy potential. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is in the process of establishing zoning regulations for the erection and operation of both ground-mounted and building-integrated wind energy facilities within the city.

Boston Top 10 by Criteria: Green Building (#9); Transportation (#2); and Energy Production and Conservation (#7)

Find out more about Boston’s sustainability efforts.

9.  Denver, CO. 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.  The Denver Zoo is planning the nation’s first LEED Gold certified habitat, which will be powered by trash. The habitat, which should be completed in 2011, will primarily house Asian elephants, Indian rhinoceroses, and Malayan tapirs.  Denver was recently ranked as the 10th Most Walkable City.  Denver has more than 850 miles of off-road bike trails, 200 city parks, and 14,000 acres of mountain parkland.

Denver Top 10 by Criteria: Energy Production and Conservation (#2); and Water Quality (#2).

Find out more about Denver’s sustainability efforts.

10. Chicago, IL. Chicago has planted 500,000 new trees, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the revitalization of parks and neighborhoods, removed traffic lanes in favor of green medians and bulldozed a downtown airport to put in its place, a 100-acre park.  The city has also added more than than 2.5 million square feet of rooftop gardens,  more than all other U.S. cities combined. This includes including Willis Tower (formerly called Sears Tower) and the city hall building.   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. The city provides incentives for homeowners to be more energy efficient, and helps low-income families get solar power.  Mayor Daley has had huge solar panels installed on municipal properties, and low-cost housing complexes have been retrofitted to reduce water and energy use.

Chicago Top 10 by Criteria: Green Building (#4); and Environmental Standards and Participation (#2).

Find out more about Chicago’s sustainability efforts.

Top Green Medium Cities  (Populations between 100,000–249,999)

1.    Madison, WI. Find out more about Madison’s sustainability efforts.

2.    Santa Rosa, CA

3.    Fort Collins, CO Find out more about Fort Collins’s sustainability efforts.

4.    Springfield, IL Find out more about x’s sustainability efforts

5.    Eugene OR Find out more about Eugene’s sustainability efforts.

6.    Spokane Find out more about Spokane’s sustainability efforts.

7.   Huntsville , AL Find out more about Huntsville’s sustainability efforts.

9.    Scottsdale, AZ

9.    Tallahassee, FL Find out more about Tallahassee’s sustainability efforts.

10.    Laredo, TX

View the full rankings and profiles of176 medium sized cities at Smarter Cities

Top Green Small Cities (Population between 50,000–99,999)

1.    Bellingham, WA Find out more about Bellingham’s sustainability efforts.

2.    Mountain View, CA Find out more about Mountain View’s sustainability efforts.

3.    Norwalk, CT

4.    Sarasota, FL
Find out more about Sarasota’s sustainability efforts.

5.    Burnsville, MN Find out more about Burnsville’s sustainability efforts.

6.    Fayetteville, AR. Find out more about Fayetteville’s sustainability efforts.

7.    Mission Viejo, CA

8.    Arlington Heights, IL

9.    Nashua, NH

10.    Redmond,WA

View the full rankings and profiles of 402 small cities at Smarter Cities

For those working to green your own city, check out the resources below

EPA Smart Growth Program. The EPA helps communities grow in ways that expand economic opportunity, protect public health and the environment, and create and enhance the places that people love. Through research, tools, partnerships, case studies, grants, and technical assistance, EPA is helping America’s communities turn their visions of the future into reality.  Financial assistance is available to organizations and communities.

Green Cities. Green Cities is designed to  advance the business and science of sustainability in a conference format.  Conferences promise to deliver impressive, relevant, and interactive experiences to governments and businesses providing tools and resources needed to improve policies, operations, and materials for sustainable decisions that save money, generate jobs, and protect the environment.    Green Cities conferences bring together nationally acclaimed leaders in sustainable business and government and provide expert perspectiv eand advice on how the private and public sectors can take advantage of the emerging green opportunities.  Programs include interactive and collaborative workshops, best practices case studies, roundtable discussions, and open space technology sessions to continue momentum and build enthusiasm so the community will stay active when the event ends.     We invite you consider hosting a Green Cities™ event in your area and appreciate your commitment to making your community more sustainable.

How Green is My Town? How Green is My Town?  is a 200-plus page online initiative that draws together resources from government agencies and non-profits across America to address the issues of climate change, sustainability and environmental health in one user-friendly site. It’s designed to give local citizens and decision makers the tools they need to bring about meaningful and lasting change. As part of the national launch, Grassroots has issued a 10-Point “Green Town Challenge” to help people test the “greenness” of their towns.

ICLEI. Local Governments for Sustainability is an international association of local governments as well as national and regional local government organizations that have made a commitment to sustainable development.

Living Cities. Founded in 1991, Living Cities is a unique philanthropic collaborative of 21 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions. Over the past 18 years, Living Cities has invested more than $600 million in American cities-leveraged into $16 billion and making a demonstrable difference in neighborhoods throughout the nation. Our members are not simply funders. They participate at the senior management level on the Living Cities Board of Directors and contribute the time of 80+ expert staff toward crafting and implementing an agenda that is squarely focused on improving the lives of low-income people and the urban areas in which they live.

© 2009, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine,, Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine,, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.

  • Jennifer Wong

    Nice article!

    Working in the construction/renovation industry in Los Angeles keeps me very conscious of GREEN trends. More and more clients are asking me about what types of materials we use, what green certification we have, what green processes do we go through…

    Keep spreading the word!

    .-= Jennifer Wong´s last blog ..August’s Monthly Garage Contest! Show Us Your Pix! =-.

  • Derald

    I like that the rankings are separated by city size. It gives one an idea of what small and medium cities might be focused on creating sustainable growth.

    • Tracey

      Me too! That is what stood out the most for me when researching the article. It is impossible for small and medium cities to dedicate the resources to green initiatives that big cities have. I have seen six other top green cities lists and this one by far is the most comprehensive and meaningful

  • Green Garage Guy

    I live in Salt Lake City and see a lot of green people and initiative, but it’s slow going. The city has been great about public transportation (Trax Light Rail), bike lanes, and community gardens, but it has a long way to go. The smog here is the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve spent a lot of time in LA. It’s debilitating in the winter. Thanks for your list of towns we should emulate!