Is Your City One of the Greenest in America?

An analysis reveals which urban areas are making a commitment to sustainability.
Honolulu. (Photo: Rolf Schulten/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Oct 16, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sophia Lepore is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Composting, biking to work instead of driving, installing solar panels—those are just some of the choices you might make to green your lifestyle. But as a new ranking released this week of the most and least green cities in the United States reveals, when it comes to entire municipalities making a commitment to sustainable living, some urban areas are farther along than others.

For their “2016’s Greenest Cities in America” ranking, analysts from Washington, D.C.–based personal finance website WalletHub crunched data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a dozen other government agencies and organizations on the 100 largest cities in the United States. They examined data along 20 metrics placed in four broad categories: Environment, Transportation, Energy Sources, and Lifestyle and Policy.

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Each category was ranked on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the most green. The categories were also weighted in importance, with environmental indicators—such as the Median Air-Quality Index and the Greenhouse-Gas Emissions per Capita—receiving the most weight. Lifestyle and policy indicators, such as Number of Farmers Markets per Capita and Community Garden Plots per Capita, received the least weight. Because of data limitations, metrics measuring recycled waste and the availability of recycling programs were not used in the analysis.

San Francisco took the No. 1 slot, with the highest median score across all four categories. Honolulu came in second place, in large part because it has the lowest median air-quality index, 34 (which is 2.9 times lower than in Riverside and San Bernardino, California, the cities with the highest—97). California cities San Jose, Fremont, and San Diego rounded out the top five, followed by Washington, D.C.; Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; and Minneapolis closing out the top 10.

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Surprised by the dominance of cities in the Golden State? “California has a very temperate climate, so it is quite beneficial,” Stefan Al, an associate professor of urban design at the University of Pennsylvania, told TakePart. Al was one of a panel of experts asked by WalletHub to share advice on ways to reduce America’s carbon footprint. “But at the same time, a lot of cities in California are relatively low-density and require transportation around their car, so it requires a lot of energy for transportation,” he said.

With low rankings across all four broad categories, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, came in last place, making it the least green city in the nation. Two cities in Oklahoma—Oklahoma City and Tulsa—were second and third from the bottom.

People should keep in mind that where a city lands on the ranking “depends on what indicators you choose and how you weigh them,” Al said. The analysis included transportation factors, such as the percentage of residents who drive and how walkable and bikeable a city is, but Al cautioned that those may not be the best indicators of greenness. “Some cities are just bigger than others or more sprawling, so it’s likely they’ll have more bike lanes; it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more green,” he said.

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More compact cities, such as San Francisco and New York City, might score higher because there’s less need to own a car, which can decrease carbon emissions per capita. Maintaining compact cities also often leads to preservation of land for agricultural or recreational purposes. “Having more compact cities makes it more beneficial from a governing perspective because you have relatively more resources for a relatively small area,” Al said. “I think cities should limit sprawl and preserve as much environmental land around them as possible.”

As for what officials should think about to make their cities more sustainable, Al offered up a common-sense solution: “Reduce, reuse, and renew,” particularly around energy and water usage.

To see where your hometown ranks, click on the graphic below.