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What Are The Most Eco-Friendly Cities in the US?

city with solar panels
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Sustainability has evolved into an important part of city planning due to the growing threat of climate change. Meeting the needs of a city’s citizens in an environmentally friendly manner is possible, and there are five metro areas in the U.S. that excel at this: New York, New Orleans, Seattle, Boston, and Philadelphia.

To determine this list, we use the Arcadis Sustainability 2018 Study (in particular, the planet sub-index) as our source and guide in ranking the greenest cities in the U.S.

Sustainability, however, can be a vague umbrella term, so it’s important to look at what sustainability means in this context. The Arcadis study looks at more than just a city’s pollution metrics. If a city has a low index of greenhouse gas emissions but has poorly planned and congested public transportation, it d

es not meet the required sustainability index. In other words, not only do cities have to meet environmental requirements, but they must also meet the needs of its citizens overall.

While our list focuses on sustainability, we also take note of each city’s performance in the other accompanying areas.

How does “sustainability” differ from “eco-friendly?”

As mentioned, the Arcadis study looks at sustainability as a whole. To qualify as one of the most sustainable and greenest cities in America, urban environments must reflect social mobility and high quality of life, have low pollution metrics, and demonstrate strong economic performance. The study takes into account three important factors — “people,” “planet,” and “profit” — when ranking the most sustainable cities in the U.S.

“Eco-friendly” focuses primarily on a city’s environmental impact, such as its carbon emissions, energy use, and pollution. Because we’re taking the planet index (or pollution metrics) most into account, eco-friendliness features strongly in our list.

Now that we know the parameters of sustainability used, here are five of the most eco-friendly and most sustainable cities in the U.S.

The top 5 greenest cities in the U.S.:

New York, NY

Ranking 20 out of 100 on the planet sub-index, New York, NY, is a leading city in the U.S. for sustainability in terms of eco-friendliness. It’s been at the forefront of large environmental initiatives aimed at reducing its overall greenhouse gas emissions.

It has implemented the NYC carbon challenge, a voluntary leadership program striving to reduce overall carbon emissions. It also promotes a zero-waste program, an energy performance map, a greenhouse gas data set, and a GreeNYC program that works to educate and mobilize citizens toward sustainability. The city has also passed laws enforcing energy efficiency.

Eco-friendliness score:

New York excels at air pollution measures, waste management, and overall water and sanitation.

Sustainability score:

For overall sustainability, New York ranks 14 out of 100 global cities, a high measure. As the first American city listed, it is the most sustainable city in the U.S.

Fast facts:

Population: 8,398,748

Median per capita income: $37,693

Median rent: $1,396/mo.

New Orleans, LA

After Katrina in 2010, New Orleans took a major step in implementing city-wide sustainability reforms. One of the most notable is GreeNola, a part of the Louisiana Disaster Relief for a sustainable New Orleans.

It also has an office of Resiliency and Sustainability that helps implement efficient, sustainable, environmentally-friendly infrastructure.

Eco-friendliness score:

New Orleans ranks 23 out of 100 for all global cities considered in the planet sub-index.

Sustainability score:

While it ranks high on the eco-friendliness measure, it comes in at 61 out of 100 for overall sustainability. It appears too heavily biased towards profit and not enough toward social mobility.

Fast facts:

Population: 343,829

Median per capita income: $30,177

Median rent: $973/mo.

Seattle, WA

Seattle is well-known for its environmentally friendly persona. This is backed up by a variety of greening programs that help boost its rank on the Arcadis study. It has multiple gardening, compost, and greening programs that help neighborhoods delve further into environmentalism.

It also has various bike programs, camps, environmental learning programs, sustainable landscaping initiatives, and water conservation measures.

Eco-friendliness score:

Seattle ranks 26 out of 100 on the planet sub-index.

Sustainability score:

Seattle is one of the greenest cities in the U.S. due to its high rank for overall sustainability. It’s 19 out of 100 cities for all three factors.

Fast facts:

Population: 753,675

Median per capita income: $55,789

Median rent: $1,496/mo.

Boston, MA

Boston has been making major headway as one of the most environmentally friendly cities over the past few years. Its Climate of Progress is an ambitious plan to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

It also integrates climate change into all future planning, has a framework to engage communities in sustainability, and a growing energy efficiency program called Renew Boston.

Eco-friendliness score:

Boston sits at 29 out of 100 global cities for overall environmentalism.

Sustainability score:

Boston is high on the list — 22 out of 100 — for overall sustainability because it engages as much of its diverse community as possible in sustainability measures.

Fast facts:

Population: 692,600

Median per capita income: $42,101

Median rent: $1,539/mo.

Philadelphia, PA

Last but not least, Philadelphia ranks as one of the greenest cities in the U.S. due to its comprehensive Greenworks Philadelphia initiative. It’s made up of eight distinct visions: zero-waste, healthy air, accessible food and water, engaged stewards, quality natural resources, clean energy, carbon-neutral communities, and accessible transportation.

The city also has an energy benchmark and solar rebate program to further incentivize clean energy use.

Eco-friendliness score:

Philadelphia rests at 36 out of 100 global cities on the planet sub-index.

Sustainability score:

While it is known for decent social sustainability programs, Philadelphia has only recently started investing in this area, leaving it behind other, more equitable cities. It sits at just 52 out of 100.

Fast facts:

Population: 1,584,064

Median per capita income: $26,557

Median rent: $1,007/mo.

Note: Data for population, median per capita income, and median rent were all pulled from the U.S. Census. The population estimates were from 2019, and income and rent estimates were pulled from 2014-2018 data.

The bottom line

Some of these cities ranked high on the eco-friendly scale but low on the overall sustainability scale, usually due to a lack of equal access to sustainable measures. It’s important to keep this in mind when analyzing which of the aforementioned cities are the greenest cities in the U.S.

In other words, will moving there with a below-average income afford you equal access to the sustainable measures that the city has implemented? In the case of Philadelphia and New Orleans, probably not. While they rank high for sweeping air quality and water sanitation measures, their lack of social mobility programs weakens their sustainability profile.

There has been substantial progress over the last several years for many U.S. cities, and our selections hold a few high spots in the Arcadis study. This is an encouraging trend. As the country continues to delve further into sustainability, we can help by delving equally into all three pillars: people, planet, and profitability.

Note: On the international scale, taking social equity, environmentalism, and economic prowess into consideration, Arcadis found that London tops the list for overall, balanced sustainability. Edinburgh was first in the people sub-index. Stockholm was first on the planet sub-index. Last but not least, Singapore claimed the top spot for economic prowess. Learn more about the study here.

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