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SmartAsset: Most (and Least) Sustainable Cities - 2022 Study

A recent report on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demonstrates the importance of local measures when it comes to furthering sustainability efforts. Local sustainability means cleaner, more efficient and resilient communities. For residents, that translates into more opportunities for a higher quality of life – specifically, economic growth, a smaller carbon footprint and better health. And while U.S. cities lag behind global cities in their likelihood to meet the SDGs, some cities are making larger strides towards environmental sustainability than others. 

In this study, SmartAsset uncovered the most sustainable cities, comparing 94 of the largest cities across three categories considering topics of transportation, green efficiency and climate resilience. Our analysis does not account for projections for the future and only reflects current and historic sustainability. For more details on how we analyzed the data and compiled the rankings, read the data and methodology section below.

Key Findings

  • Northeast and Pacific Northwest cities make up the majority of the top 10. Boston, Massachusetts takes the top spot overall, ranking well in both our transportation and green efficiency categories. Other Northeastern cities also rank well for the percentage of workers who commute using public transportation while Pacific Northwest cities rank high for our green efficiency category, with high numbers of green buildings per capita and city-wide plastic bag bans.
  • In total, 18 cities have more than 100 green buildings per 100,000 people. Green buildings are built to meet LEED certification standards and address topics such as environmental quality, health and efficiency. A majority of the 18 cities are located in the West and Southern regions. Gilbert, Arizona is No. 1 for this metric with about 586 green buildings per 100,000 residents.

1. Boston, MA

Boston, Massachusetts ranks as the most sustainable city, scoring especially high in transportation (No. 2) and green efficiency (No. 1). The city is particularly walkable for residents and nearly 18% of workers in the city rely on public transit to commute (third-highest). Electric vehicle owners also have access to the fifth-highest number of charging ports available per capita (roughly 16 ports for every 100 EVs). Additionally, in 2020, renewable energy production made up all of total energy production in the state of Massachusetts.

2. Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, New York also scores well for transportation, with the eighth-highest number of charging ports available to electric vehicle owners (nearly 16 for every 100 EVs). Buffalo also has the ninth-highest percentage of workers that use public transit (8.65%) and percentage of households with less than two cars (68.66%).

3. San Francisco, CA

The Golden City is also a shade of green, ranking as the third-most sustainable city in our study. San Francisco has the highest walk score - a measure of walkability. Additionally, the city has the 10th-highest number of green buildings - those built to improve efficiency, save money and limit its negative impact on the environment - the latter of which is also a goal behind San Francisco’s city-wide ban on plastic bags.

4. New York, NY

The Big Apple takes a spot in the top five cities due to its high scores in the transportation and green efficiency categories. Specifically, New York City ranks first for the percentage of workers who commute using public transit (36.65%) and the percentage of households with less than two cars (87.01%). Moreover, New York City has the ninth-lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

5. Arlington, VA

Arlington, Virginia has the seventh-highest number of green buildings per capita (roughly 175 buildings per 100,000 people) and also has a tax on certain types of plastic bags. In terms of climate resilience, air pollution is low and extreme weather events such as tornadoes are few. The city is also walkable, ranking with the 14th-highest walk score and more than 6% of workers use public transit for their commute.

6. Portland, OR

Portland, Oregon has roughly 146 green buildings per 100,000 residents (11th-highest) and a city-wide ban on plastic bags. Oregon almost completely relies on renewable energy with 99.91% of its total energy production coming from biofuels, wood and other renewable energy. Additionally, the city ranks high for walkability (16th-highest) and has the 25th-highest percentage of households with less than two cars (56.13%).

7. Milwaukee, WI

The probability of hurricanes, flooding and wildfires is low in The Brew City, ranking in the top six for these metrics. Milwaukee’s climate resilience is not the only reason why it ranked in the top 10 overall - the city offers top 25 rankings across all four transportation-related metrics. Of these, Milwaukee ranks highest for the percent of households with less than two cars (61.01%, taking the No. 21 spot).

8. Washington, DC

Washington, DC ranks in the top 10 across all four transportation-related metrics and stands out in two green efficiency metrics, ranking third for both the number of green buildings per 100,000 people (418.03) and the percentage of households with less than two cars (81.55%). Washington, DC also is very walkable and ranks sixth for this metric.

9. St. Paul, MN

In St. Paul, Minnesota, more than half of households have less than two cars (37th-highest) and almost 5% of the working population rely on public transit for their commute (22nd-best). With the city’s low probability of extreme weather events, it ranks in the top 35 cities for all five climate resilience metrics. Additionally, renewable energy production that makes up roughly 70% of total energy production in the state of Minnesota.

10. Seattle, WA

Seattle, Washington scores high in green efficiency with a top 12 ranking in three out of five metrics for this category. First, there are roughly 136 green buildings for every 100,000 people in the city (12th-highest) and a city-wide ban on plastic bags (plus a fee on paper bags). Finally, in Washington, renewable energy production makes up 89.84% of total energy production.

Data and Methodology

To find the most sustainable cities, we analyzed data on the 100 largest U.S., 94 of which had complete data. We examined 14 metrics across three categories:

Transportation Metrics

  • Percentage of commuters using public transit. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 1-year American Community Survey.
  • Percentage of households with less than two cars. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 1-Year American Community Survey.
  • Walk score. This measures the walkability of any address based on the distance to nearby places and pedestrian friendliness and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100. Data comes from walkscore.com and is for 2022.
  • Charging ports per 100 electric vehicles (EVs). Data comes from the Department of Energy and is for 2022.

Green Efficiency Metrics

  • Renewable output as a percentage of total energy production. This is renewable energy production divided by total energy produced in each state. Data is for 2020 and comes from the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
  • Green buildings per 100,000 people. Data comes from the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Plastic bag bans. This is a score based on whether the state has legislation for plastic bag bans or fees on plastic bags. Data comes from the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance’s Bag the Ban.
  • Number of policies and incentives encouraging renewable energy development. This includes grants, loans, rebates and tax credits. Data comes from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) and is as of October 2022.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions per capita. Data comes from Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy's Data Portal for Cities.

Climate Resilience Metrics

  • Air pollution. This is the average daily particulate matter (PM2.5) in each city. Data is from the 2022 County Health Rankings.
  • Average number of days with extreme heat. Data comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and represents 20-year averages from 2001-2020.
  • Probability of hurricanes and flooding. Annualized average frequency of hurricanes and flooding. Data comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Risk Index.
  • Probability of wildfires. Annualized average frequency of wildfires. Data comes from the FEMA National Risk Index.
  • Probability of tornadoes. Annualized average frequency of tornadoes. Data comes from the FEMA National Risk Index.

First, we ranked each city in each metric, assigning equal weight to every metric. Then we averaged the rankings across the three categories listed above. For each category, the city with the highest average ranking received a score of 100. The city with the lowest average ranking received a score of 0. We created our final ranking by calculating each city’s average score for all three categories.

Tips for Relocation to Greener Pastures

  • Learn how local expenses will change your budget. No one city is alike and that includes basic necessities. Use our cost of living calculator to understand how moving will impact your housing, food and tax costs.
  • Limit the impact to your personal finances. As cities are working to limit their environmental impact, you can limit the impact to your finances when moving. A financial advisor can help make sense of your financial picture and guide you through your major move. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Questions about our study? Contact press@smartasset.com.

Photo credit: ©iStock/t_kimura

Anja Solum Anja Solum is a data journalist at SmartAsset covering a variety of personal finance topics, including retirement and debt management. Before joining SmartAsset, she worked on both agency and in-house content marketing teams where she developed her love for data analysis and visualization. In her free time, she nurtures a passion for gaming, a recent addiction to anime & KDramas, and a mischievous labrador retriever. A bit of a nomad, she’s lived in Norway, Jamaica, and Denmark in addition to the U.S. but now resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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