Green Cities

These urban areas are working to make their neighborhoods (and the planet) healthier and more sustainable.

By Beth Huxta


If you live where every home has room for a garden and your milk and eggs come from a local farmer, you may be thinking that "green" and "city" do not belong in the same sentence. But as we learn more about the threats to the environment and rediscover the benefits of regular interaction with nature, urban dwellers are demanding that their leaders make cities more sustainable, with more green space.

From energy conservation initiatives to community gardens to carbon offsets, municipalities big and small are focusing their attention on the environment and quality of life for their residents. Naturally, we support these efforts and wanted to recognize the cities that are leading the way toward a more sustainable future. When you think of the greenest cities, places like Portland, Oregon, "The City of Roses," or Seattle, "The Emerald City," likely come to mind. But when we set up our criteria (see "Our Scoring System") and then gathered the data, we found that Salt Lake City, "The Salty Lagoon City," or Fargo, "The Little Windy City," earn a spot on the list, too. Now check out our rankings of the small, midsize, and large cities with the lowest environmental impact score, and learn about green initiatives that could improve life where you live.

Small Cities (population less than 150,000)
Portland, Maine
Score: 4.514
Population: 63,000

Green is growing all over this coastal city—it has acres of parkland and trails. Portland was among the first communities to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to take steps to reduce CO2 emissions by 7 percent over five years. Now all city-owned diesel vehicles run on a mix of 20 percent vegetable-based biodiesel fuel and 80 percent regular diesel, and must adhere to an anti-idling ordinance. Fall visitors take time to learn about sustainable living by attending the Common Ground Country Fair, the largest organic festival in the country, about two hours away from Portland in Unity, Maine (

Burlington, Vermont
Score: 5.729
Population: 38,500

The city's Alliance for Climate Action has initiated the 10% Challenge, a voluntary sign-up program to help households and businesses reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 10 percent (

At the Intervale Center, 354 acres of farmland, nursery, compost production, trails, and wildlife corridors are set along the Winooski River. Founded by Will Raap of Gardener's Supply Company, Intervale brings together corporations, nonprofits, and local government to help keep farming viable in the region, make organic food accessible, and protect water quality through waste management and stream-bank restoration. The compost pile at Intervale is the biggest, richest-looking pile you'll ever see (

Burlington has developed an Urban Forestry Master Plan that guides the parks department's care of "street trees," makes sustainability a priority, and sets a goal of maintaining "a multi-aged and diverse forest" for the city.

Ice cream aficionados know that Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream factory is outside Burlington, just north of Waterbury, Vermont. Visit and get free samples of their brand-new Organic Ben & Jerry's (

Fargo, North Dakota
Score: 7.646
Population: 90,000

This prairie city promotes biodiesel fuel by using it to power transit buses—which is one reason Fargo's Air Quality Index is one of the country's best. Landfill space produces electricity: A wind generator and solar panels convert natural elements, and methane gas is harvested from garbage. "Fargo Recycles" cloth bags for shoppers are distributed by the city.

For Earth Day 2007, 500 volunteers planted 2,000 trees and shrubs to reduce Red River soil erosion.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Score: 9.450
Population: 142,000

The intercity waterfalls in Falls Park are unique on the prairie. To revitalize downtown, the Phillips to the Falls Project is working with the EPA to decontaminate, redevelop, and reuse acres of brownfields along the Big Sioux River Corridor.

From April to October, the Nature Conservancy's Makoce Washte ("beautiful earth") prairie preserve blooms with unique native plants such as the violet-blue pasqueflower, purple leadplant, and white aster. The Sertoma Butterfly House boasts 800 free-flying butterflies from all over the world (

Billings, Montana
Score: 8.214
Population: 100,000

In the heart of Big Sky Country, Billings has 2,600 acres of green space and the ever-expanding Heritage Trail system for biking, walking, jogging, or hiking. The Trash into Trees program has diverted 3.9 million pounds of newspaper and 68 tons of aluminum cans from landfills, and has earned $112,060 to purchase and plant 2,152 trees in Billings.

One of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the United States houses the Northern Plains Resource Council. A solar-paneled roof, composting toilets, and many other green features have earned the building a Platinum LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Continue reading to read about the greenest midsized cities and large metropolitan areas.