Buffalo, New York skyline at sunset.

The 12 Greenest Cities Across The US

Jan 3, 2023

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American cities are going green and reducing their carbon footprints. Many cities were once synonymous with the detrimental effects of 20th century industrial production, such as polluted waterways and poor air quality. Now many of the nation’s metropolises are cleaning up and becoming eco-friendly. These cities are taking a leading role in embracing clean energy, better air and water quality, and the importance of green spaces in urban environments.

After collecting data on seven key sustainability metrics from the largest 157 metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S., Rocket SolarSM identified the top three greenest cities in the Northeast, Midwest, South and West regions of the country. The study looked for initiatives to combat climate change and improve quality of life. Factors included things like community solar power projects, the reduction of carbon emissions, parks and greenspaces, air quality, green energy, and more (see the Methodology at the end of this article).

The Top 3 Greenest Cities In The Northeast

Large building in center frame in Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.

1. Buffalo, New York

  • Metro Area Population: 1,166,902
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 380
  • Median Air Quality Index: 36 out of 100

Buffalo ranks as the #1 city for parks per capita in the Northeast. A true jewel of Buffalo is the Olmsted Park System, a sprawling 850-acre urban greenspace that includes parks, circles and parkways weaving throughout the city. Buffalo also makes a strong contribution to the air quality index of New York state, which ranks first in limiting greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the Northeast, with 143.4 million metric tons a year. Buffalo has the third-best air quality of any city in the region.

Buffalo also takes a lead on sustainability. The Western New York Sustainable Business Roundtable (SBR) is a collaborative of public and private sector organizations working together to demonstrate how western New York businesses can take a lead in integrating sustainability into their operations to benefit staff, the environment, and their bottom line.

2. New York City, New York

  • Metro Area Population: 20,140,470
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 2,492
  • Median Air Quality Index: 37 out of 100

New York City ranks 10th in the Northeast in the number of parks per capita. There are several massive greenspaces throughout this sprawling urban construct, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Van Cortlandt Park in Woodlawn Heights, Central Park in Manhattan, and the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. But there are also hundreds of smaller neighborhood parks that prevent this huge city from becoming a concrete jungle. Bryant Park next to the New York Public Library is a perfect example of the many beloved urban parks that grant the refuge of green space in one of the world’s busiest cities.

New York state is a leader nationwide in the pursuit of renewable energy sources, particularly solar power. In a state that gets nearly 10% of its energy from renewable sources, its largest metropolitan area boasts the largest solar footprint in the northeast, producing nearly 11,000 kilowatts of electricity from community solar projects.

3. Albany, New York

  • Metro Area Population: 899,262
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 82
  • Median Air Quality Index: 37 out of 100

Albany has the 2nd largest community solar project in the Northeast. In a state that ranks first in total production of fossil fuel alternatives in the region (9.4 million megawatt hours produced) and 9th in the Northeast for percentage of electricity that comes from solar (3.6%), its capital city helps lead the way by adding 10,359 kW-AC to the grid. The City of Albany Sustainability Department estimates that 37% of all carbon emissions come from transportation, so it has implemented plans to replace all city vehicles with electric cars and trucks, and to ensure that 70% of electric-grid power comes from renewable energy sources by 2030.

Albany residents have ready access to green spaces. Located in east central New York state on the banks of the historic Hudson River, the capital Albany is within an easy drive of six major state parks, including the Max V. Shaul, Cherry Plain, and Peebles Island state parks.

The Top 3 Greenest Cities In The Midwest

Aerial view of the Duluth skyline at dusk.

1. Duluth, Minnesota

  • Metro Area Population: 291,638
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 76
  • Median Air Quality Index: 36 out of 100

Duluth, Minnesota, enjoys an abundance of clean air, fresh water and green spaces. Duluth is home to 76 parks, with six right on the shore of Lake Superior, and 28 rivers. Duluth has the best median Air Quality Index of any metropolitan area in the Midwest. The region benefits from a high value placed on carbon-neutral renewable energies. The state of Minnesota ranks fourth in the Midwest in percentage of electricity coming from solar power, and Duluth has the 5th largest community solar project among Midwestern cities.

In 2022 Duluth enacted its first Climate Action Work Plan, with goals to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and eliminate them entirely by 2050. The Duluth Natural Areas Program works with state and local land conservancy organizations to identify, preserve, and protect key natural areas from any future development. The city is aggressively pursuing “green infrastructure” projects that not only bring natural beauty but also help with storm water runoff and flood control.

2. Ann Arbor, Michigan

  • Metro Area Population: 372,258
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 173
  • Median Air Quality Index: 40 out of 100

With a nickname of “Tree Town” (estimates of more than 50,000 trees) and more parks per capita than any other metro area in the Midwest, Ann Arbor is one of America’s top green cities. Ann Arbor ranked 1st in the Midwest for number of parks per capita. Located on the campus of the University of Michigan, the Nichols Arboretum is co-owned by the city and has 123 acres of rolling greenspace situated on the shores of the Huron River. The university also maintains the 300-acre Matthei Botanical Gardens outside town in rural eastern Washtenaw County. The largest city-owned park, with 161 acres along the Huron River, is the Bird Hills Nature Area.

Ann Arbor’s well-funded Sustainability office promotes a circular economy that can vastly reduce waste sent to landfills. The city currently diverts 50% of waste to recycling or composting. It even found that fully 40% of the city’s waste could be composted further if separated out. And how did they deduce this? By digging through 100 random trash bins!

3. Rockford, Illinois

  • Metro Area Population: 338,798
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 67
  • Median Air Quality Index: 43 out of 100

Rockford, known as “The Forest City,” has several large green spaces located in or near the city center. The Anderson Japanese Gardens is one of the most acclaimed of its kind in North America, with a 12-acre landscape of trees, flowers, and water features. The Klehm Arboretum is in the city and has 155 acres of natural area and botanical gardens. Just south of the city is the Severson Dells Nature Center on a 394-acre green preserve, and the downtown Sinnissippi Park has sprawling green spaces and a riverwalk. It hosts festivals, concerts, and other civic events.

The nonprofit Sustain Rockford is a volunteer-led, community-driven organization that supports numerous programs to protect the city’s air, water and greenspaces. It helps implement free local solar power systems for low-income residents, nonprofit facilities, and local community solar programs through the Illinois Solar for All program. In terms of green commuters, the state of Illinois also has the most registered electric vehicles per capita in the Midwest, as well as one of the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the Midwest.

The Top 3 Greenest Cities In The South

Aerial view of Naples, Florida.

1. Naples, Florida

  • Metro Area Population: 375,752
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 72
  • Median Air Quality Index: 36 out of 100

The land-and-sea coastline of Naples includes swamps, estuaries, mangrove forests and marshes that create a paradise for wildlife and a natural filter for the abundant waters. In addition to being an international destination for fishing and waterfowl hunting, the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is also known for its spectacular birdwatching and photography opportunities.

In 2020 the city of Naples completed a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment to address the area’s unique exposure to risks of sea-level rise and severe tropical storms. The need for such forward thinking was emphasized in September 2022 when the region took a direct hit from a powerful Hurricane Ian.

2. Tallahassee, Florida

  • Metro Area Population: 384,298
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 88
  • Median Air Quality Index: 40 out of 100

Tallahassee has the largest community solar project in the South. The Tallahassee Solar program features a 60-megawatt solar farm near the airport that residents can buy into, at reduced electrical rates, rather than having to invest in a home solar system. Additionally, Florida has the 3rd highest number of registered electric vehicles in the South, with 95,640 registrations. The volunteer-run Sustainable Tallahassee group promotes the greening of the region’s environment by focusing on renewable energy, carbon-neutral transportation, waste reduction and promoting local food sources.

Tallahassee has a massive integrated park system that includes 4,000 acres and 70 miles of trails. Among the favorite city greenspaces are the San Luis Mission Park, Cascades and Meyer Parks, and the Landis Green on the campus of Florida State University.

3. Durham, North Carolina

  • Metro Area Population: 649,903
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 172
  • Median Air Quality Index: 40 out of 100

With its 1,800 acres of parkland and 29 miles of paved trail, Durham, North Carolina is a city just small enough to be airy and walkable, and just large enough to have the diversity and culture of a modern American city. The American Tobacco Campus is an urban renewal success, a mix of green spaces, walkways, and businesses reclaimed from an old cigarette factory complex. The Eno River State Park has more than 30 miles of trails winding through the city.

North Carolina is a leader among U.S. states in the adoption of renewable energies. The state ranks 3rd best for adding solar power to the grid, with 8.49% of their electricity use coming from solar. Durham’s department of Sustainability and Energy Management has a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2040. The city recently was named a 4-STAR Community by the STAR Community Rating System, the country’s leading framework and certification program for evaluating local sustainability across eight metrics related to environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

The Top 3 Greenest Cities In The West

Hills in Santa Rosa, CA, at sunset.

1. Santa Rosa, California

  • Metro Area Population: 488,863
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 168
  • Median Air Quality Index: 41 out of 100

The Santa Rosa metro area ranks as the 4th best city for parks per capita in the West. There are multiple regulations and incentive programs in both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County that seek to protect natural resources and reduce carbon emissions in both the public and private sectors. Santa Rosa Build It Green promotes environmental protection through building and remodeling sustainability. The County has established parameters that grant a Green Business Certification, which helps local businesses save money and promote themselves to an eco-conscious community.

2. San Jose, California

  • Metro Area Population: 2,000,468
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 486
  • Median Air Quality Index: 46 out of 100

San Jose has nearly 16,000 acres of parks and, as it’s situated on the southern end of San Francisco Bay, access to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Among the 100 largest American cities, San Jose ranked 26th for public parks by The Trust for Public Land.

San Jose doubles down on solar panel incentives in California, which ranks 1st among U.S. states in percentage of electricity coming from solar at 26.2%. The city’s Solar Access program offers residents 20% off their electric bill, which, combined with state programs, can add up to 55% savings on electricity total. In 2007 San Jose launched a climate action plan called Green Vision, one of the most ambitious municipal sustainability plans in the United States. As its 15-year vision expires, the city launched Climate Smart San Jose, the first detailed city plan to reach the targets of the International Paris Agreement.

3. Ventura, California

  • Metro Area Population: 843,843
  • Number of Greenspaces or Parks: 229
  • Median Air Quality Index: 48 out of 100

Ventura has the 9th highest number of parks per capita across the West. Even for a state known for its natural beauty, Ventura stands out with its stunning geographical interplay of land, sea, mountains, desert and forest. Its harbor has direct access to the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, which is an easy one-hour boat ride away and a natural habitat so diverse it has been called the “American Galapagos.”

Through its Environmental Sustainability department, the city of Ventura takes a multi-pronged approach to reduce carbon emissions and ensure clean air and water. Programs address stormwater and ocean water quality, management of hazardous waste and construction and demolition waste, and the promotion of green businesses, green schools, and implementation of renewable energy sources.

Methodology: Finding The Most Sustainable Cities In Each Region Of The US

Rocket Solar collected and analyzed the most recent data on seven local and statewide sustainability metrics to give insight into the most eco-friendly cities. The 157 metropolitan statistical areas analyzed accounting for 87% of U.S. residents.

Each metric had data collected on it for the metropolitan statistical area and that area was ranked for each metric from best (1) to worst. The metrics used in this study include the number of parks in each metro area, the percentage of state electricity generated from solar, number of community solar projects, median air quality index, carbon dioxide emissions, number of registered electric vehicles, and production of alternative energy sources.

Once all the metro areas were ranked from best to worst for each metric, weights were then applied to each metric depending on their individual importance. The final scores are sorted to produce the final rankings.

Metric

Weight

Level

Source

Number of public parks

18%

City

The Trust For Public Land

Percentage of state electricity from solar

15%

State

Solar Energy Industries Association

Total community solar projects system size (Kw-AC)

10%

City

The National Renewable Energy Laboratories

Median air quality index

20%

City

United States Environmental Protection Agency

Energy related carbon dioxide emissions

15%

State

U.S. Energy Information Administration

Number of registered electric vehicles

5%

State

U.S. Department of Energy

Total production of fossil fuel alternatives (Millions of megawatt-hours produced)

17%

State

U.S. Energy Information Administration

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