10 Greenest Cities In The US Making Sustainable Waves

Some of the greenest cities in the US, such as Portland and Seattle.

The sobering reality of climate change is that there’s no real way to hide from it.

But just because all of us will be affected by our changing planet, doesn’t mean you can’t live in or visit communities trying to make a difference.

Let’s dive in and explore the green cities leading the way.

This list is going to cover the greenest cities in the United States – urban centers making waves in the world of sustainable urbanism by committing to net-zero goals, actively pursuing decarbonization, and keeping things running with clean energy.

But it’s not just about the environment, and we’ll also be talking about the liveability of these cities from a holistic angle – considering crucial factors like social equity, worker’s rights, and the presence of vibrant vegan food scenes.

What do most green cities have in common?

The United States is no different than anywhere else in the world when it comes to sustainable city planning, at least in terms of what’s needed to be considered truly green.

Jose Rizal Park in downtown Seattle, Washington.

Transforming urban environments with sustainable technology is a huge topic, but some of the basic ideas behind these cities include:

Sustainable buildings and architectural styles. Buildings need to be energy efficient in uncertain times, and cities need to prioritize cooler temperatures instead of trapping heat or abusing freshwater supplies – as well as embracing new architectural styles like eco brutalism.

Green and blue spaces. Parks, nature preserves, trees, and clean water; these are incredibly important features for environmentally friendly cities, and they offer us a break from soaring temperatures while improving living standards overall.

Renewable energy and public transportation. Powering a city using renewable sources of energy, especially public transportation, is one of the most sought-after perks for most of us living through the climate crisis.

Sustainable food systems and education. Having access to locally-grown food, or the ability to learn from experts in all areas of sustainability will be key for residents of cities in the future – many green cities are known for sustainability programs at local universities and colleges.

With that being said, let’s get into the best examples of sustainable cities in the US:

What are the most sustainable cities in the US?

1. Portland, Oregon

Downtown Portland, Oregon seen from Hilton Portland.

Welcome to Portland; a city well-known for having it all when it comes to sustainability. Almost, anyways.

Situated near the meeting point of two of the largest rivers in the US, the Columbia and the Willamette, Portland is widely recognized for its approach to green stormwater infrastructure (GSI); and when it comes to adapting to climate change, access to clean water is a top priority for all urban centers.

Green roofs, ecoroofs, rooftop gardens – whatever you want to call them, Portland has them. It’s a city where you can find biophilic design around every corner, and much of this is due to its effective water policies which allow green spaces to flourish.

With nearly 12,000 acres of greenery in its parks systems, both urban explorers and those simply looking for greener places to live tend to have Portland at the very top of their travel bucket lists.

But green spaces are just one facet of Portland’s progressive policies, which extend into social equity and blend into the city’s education system. The University of Portland has an impressive selection of sustainability-focused programs and services, with things like dorm composting being commonplace.

No city is perfect, but solutions that combine socio-environmental concerns and health are a focal point within Portland’s community – including the city’s food scene.

For vegan and eco-conscious foodies, Portland is simply a slice of heaven. According to an interesting report put out by WalletHub, the city comes in first in regard to access to affordable plant based restaurants.

Portland’s public transportation infrastructure is equally impressive, with 315 miles of bicycle paths, making Portland a leader in US-based bike commuting.

When it comes to energy, Multnomah County and the City of Portland have adopted a resolution aimed at achieving 100% renewable energy by 2050, through initiatives like community solar gardens as well as partnering with native Oregon tribes, low-income communities, and communities of color.

2. San Diego, California

North San Diego, California seen from the San Diego Bay.

A state below, San Diego is one of greenest cities in California, and it’s a community with a particularly keen eye for sustainable waste management. In 2015, the city proposed a comprehensive Zero Waste Plan with goals of reaching 90% waste diversion by 2035, and “zero waste” by 2040.

The city even exceeded its own emission reduction predictions, with close to a 25% reduction in GHG emissions between 2010 and 2018 (PDF).

Located within one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, San Diego is also making strides in natural resource management, especially freshwater infrastructure. Much of this can be credited to the high-ranking sustainability programs offered at the University of San Diego.

San Diego is much more than just a sun-kissed destination for ocean lovers – it’s also home to a thriving clean tech industry. If you’re someone looking for a career change, it’s one of the better options for networking within the best paying jobs in energy and related industries.

3. San Francisco, California

An impressive view of San Francisco, California from the south.

San Francisco was one of the earliest trailblazers of environmental policies, adopting its first Climate Action Plan in 2004 – a legacy that continues to this day.

On the cutting edge of sustainable living, San Francisco is an ideal candidate when it comes to a future filled with 15-minute cities. Popularized by Carlos Moreno in his viral TED Talk, the 15-minute city aims to provide everything you need within a short walk or bike ride including jobs, schools, food, green spaces, and community health services.

San Francisco also ranked first on The Ascent’s list of the most socially equitable cities in the US; with strong protections for LGBTQ+ equality, labor policies, and the rights of immigrant workers – although the steadily rising costs of living around the US do muddy the waters a bit.

Similar to Portland, San Francisco is another top spot for vegans and those pursuing a plant based diet or lifestyle, thanks to a thriving vegan scene and strong animal welfare laws.

While SF is the birthplace of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, mass transit is still a popular option for residents. In fact, 16% of San Franciscans bike to work at least twice weekly, and the city aims to have an all-electric fleet of buses and trolleys by 2040.

The city has even been pioneering plastic bag bans and the use of compostable bioplastics as far back as 2008, spurring similar plans into action across the United States ever since.

4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania seen from the Schuylkill River.

Nestled in southeastern Pennsylvania, Philadelphia is considered one of the most sustainable cities on the east coast of the US for a variety of reasons.

Philadelphia is a hub for green water initiatives like rain gardens and urban wetlands – which makes sense, as it rains quite often in America’s Garden Capital.

But it’s not just about Philly’s gardens. The Green City, Clean Water project is a 25-year effort in partnership with the EPA; a plan with social, economic, and environmental goals that address the growing issue of water scarcity in the US.

While cities traditionally use gray infrastructure to tackle this problem, Philadelphia has instead opted for nature-based solutions in a bid to enhance climate resilience, setting an example for other cities to follow.

Philadelphia is also leading the way in energy reporting and resource efficiency, and was one of the first US cities to require building owners to measure energy usage and invest in resource efficiency.

5. Seattle, Washington

The beautiful blue daytime skyline of Seattle, Washington.

Ranking near the top of the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index of 2022, Seattle is an example of a city world-renowned for its track record in areas like public transportation, water, and air quality.

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), a water management organization in Washington State, has been pioneering methods to adapt to a rapidly changing climate since 1997. Located in a unique area, managing the Emerald City’s freshwater is a battle between technology and rising sea levels, tons of rain, drought, and increasingly large wildfires.

Nearly 90% of Seattle’s electricity is generated from hydropower, with around 40% of the city’s yearly power needs produced from city-owned hydroelectric projects.

When it comes to social equity, Seattle has taken a unique approach by incorporating voices of marginalized residents in decision-making processes for energy policies, setting an example of what equitable energy transitions can look like with the Duwamish Valley Project.

Discovery Park, a 500 acre Seattle favorite, has even been featured in case studies for those interested in how urban parks can improve our lives, and the parks system of Seattle acquires around 200 acres of new land for wildlife habitat conservation each year.

6. Burlington, Vermont

Locals and tourists enjoying a sunny day in downtown Burlington, Vermont.

At one point in time, Burlington was the third-largest logging port in the United States – but as of 2015, it became the nation’s first city fully powered by renewables.

A world-class model of a city that knows how to adapt to changing times, Burlington’s decades-long commitment to sustainability has paid off with cheap electricity and energy prices that rarely increase.

Surrounded by large swaths of wilderness preserve areas, the residents of Burlington are fans of nature, too – with a 2020 study reporting that around 70% of city residents relied on nearby natural environments to get through the COVID-19 climate lockdowns.

Hidden away amongst a treasure trove of natural wonders, Burlington is also a prime destination for students interested in sustainability, with the University of Vermont offering a variety of top-tier climate related programs.

7. Minneapolis, Minnesota

A shot of Minneapolis, Minnesota seen from across the Mississippi River at night.

Nearly 15% of Minneapolis is parkland, and 98% of residents live within 10 minutes of a green space – something that still eludes many of the most eco eco friendly cities around the world.

Equal access to natural spaces is a complex issue, but Minneapolis is a city that tends to embrace inclusive climate solutions. Increasing native pollinator habitats, reducing pesticide usage, and even encouraging urban farming; these are just a few reasons why Minneapolis is such a popular destination for sustainability nerds.

The Green Cost Share program is another example of the city’s commitment to socio-environmental equity; through the program, Minneapolitans can receive state-funded support to make their buildings more energy efficient, reduce pollution, and even receive benefits if they’ve been impacted by climate change.

Consistently ranked as one of the top bike cities in the nation, Minneapolis also boasts a strong cycling network with popular routes like the Midtown Greenway and the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway.

8. Boulder, Colorado

An aerial shot of the tree-covered mountain town of Boulder, Colorado.

This Colorado city is one of the country’s most important hubs for green start-ups, and is home to the highest density of sustainable companies, averaging 115 businesses per 100,000 residents.

This makes sense when you consider the government of Boulder actively encourages and funds sustainable business ventures, with one notable brand being Eco Products, who’s bioplastic and compostable goods are used all over the world (although bioplastics can be non-compostable).

Boulder has also pledged to become net-zero by 2035, and its transportation infrastructure reflects this goal. One of only five cities in the US to earn the League of American Bicyclists platinum ranking, Boulder has made cycling a convenient and sustainable mode of transportation thanks to its green city-planning.

As of 2019, the University of Colorado Boulder has a program dedicated to educating future generations of Native American students with an interest in climate science, through its Tribal Climate Leaders Program.

9. Denver, Colorado

The night skyline of Denver, Colorado, one of the greenest cities in America.

Just 30 miles from Boulder lies the Mile-High City of Denver, Colorado.

Denver has earned its spot as the most climate-resilient city in the US, according to the Architectural Digest, and is a well-known hub for ecotourism adventures. It’s not hard to see why – sitting at a high elevation, the city remains relatively safe from climate tipping points like sea level rise and extreme weather events.

But Denver’s sustainability efforts don’t stop there; the city has an extensive catalog of environmentally focused initiatives. In 2020, Denver diverted around 25% of waste from landfills (PDF), an ongoing effort with goals of reaching 70% by 2032.

2020 was a busy year for Denver, with NatGeo UK placing it fourth on its list of sustainable towns and cities – and part of this is due to the city offering free, customizable plans for businesses who want to make the switch to renewables.

10. Buffalo, New York

An aerial view of Buffalo, NY from the townhouse, located downtown.

Buffalo is a lesser-known city compared to others on this list, but it remains a hidden gem in the world of sustainable urbanism.

For starters, the city boasts excellent air quality, with just one high ozone day a year. And it’s also blessed with a close proximity to Lake Erie, the fourth-largest of the Great Lakes and an abundant source of freshwater.

It’s also been recognized as the fourth safest city in the US when it comes to natural disasters. Data suggests that the city might experience only eight days of extreme heat a year in the coming decades, alongside significantly low risks of hurricanes and wildfires.

This is helping Buffalo reverse a long-term trend of population decline by positioning itself as a “climate refuge city”, as The City of Good Neighbors has also increasingly become a hub of equitable climate action. Affordable, net-zero energy houses are now a reality thanks to the tireless work of activist organizations like People United for Sustainable Housing, also known as PUSH.

An interesting thing to note – historically, Buffalo has suffered from soils polluted with lead and heavy metals; but major efforts have been made through the University of Buffalo’s Safe Roots program to clean up the mess using fungal mycelium networks, with plans to spread the technology around the world.

Final thoughts

The United States has its fair share of climate-related issues, but it’s also a country working towards a future filled with sustainable places and cities.

So whether you’re a digital nomad or someone looking for a pleasant, green vacation – consider checking out a few of the most eco friendly cities in the US.

Which of these green cities have you been to?

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