What makes a city sustainable and “green” and which U.S. cities are among the highest ranking in this category? A list of “Top Greenest US Cities” can have many different results depending on what is consider important in sustainability and eco-friendliness.

One particular list is based off of the idea of Urban Metabolism, which is a model that mimics the circle of life: extraction of resources, use of resources, creation of waste, use of waste to develop more resources, etc. So what cities are developing a way of living that enables them to extract their resources in the most sustainable way, create almost no waste and limit their impact on the earth by utilizing the waste they do emit?

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San Francisco, California makes the list because of its use of solar energy and its “Zero Waste” goal, hoped to be reached by 2020.  It also has an Artist in Residence Program that gets artists involved in finding creative ways to make art from trash. The city has reached its goal of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emission by more than 20 percent from the levels that were being emitted in 1990, according to San Francisco Travel, and it has installed almost 2,000 solar energy systems that are able to supply enough energy to 9,000 residences. San Francisco also passed the “Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance,” which requires all residents and businesses to separate recyclables, compostables and trash into separate bins and Mayor Newsom developed a green building ordinance in 2008, where new residential and commercial buildings must meet green requirements and old buildings are to receive green renovations.  It was also the first city to ban plastic shopping bags and it also has the largest compost program in the U.S.

Portland, Oregon definitely makes the list of one of the greenest cities in the nation since it is usually number one on every other list with its planning and sustainabilty initiatives. Portland is consistently working towards becoming the strongest role model in sustainability through its planning of eco-friendly urban design, environmental research, decrease of energy use, development of more green buildings, reduction of waste, compost and recycle programs, use of solar and renewable energy, supply of local sustainable food, programs to mitigate climate change, and the list goes on. The city also has 200 miles of bike lanes and classes where you can learn how to grow your own food. It also has a great Watershed Management Plan that will help reduce storm water runoff, a huge contributor to water pollution, by implementing green streets, roofs and rain gardens.

Austin, Texas makes the list because of its “Green Alley Initiative,” climate program, green roof developments and local and sustainable food. Its Green Alley Initiative is quite creative, by taking an ordinary alley and changes it into sustainable features. It demonstrates how we can live in an eco-friendly world with the use of a pervious pavement, energy-efficient lights, rain gardens and other features conducive to that neighborhood, such as rain barrels, drought-tolerant gardens and other non-environmental related characteristics (local art, decorative fences, furniture, etc.) The Office of Sustainability’s Climate Program is working towards making Austin the leader in fighting global warming by developing its own city initiatives and is working with the rest of the world to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The city also has a green business network that helps companies become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly and aware that can help them save money and support their local communities. Businesses and residents who decide to build a green roof receive great incentives from the government and Austin’s Community Gardens produce over 100,000 pounds of fresh local, organic food where the Sustainable Food Policy Board developed its own recommendations for Austin’s urban farm code in order to encourage the production of local, sustainably grown food with the cooperation of the city’s government, non-profit organizations and food and farming businesses.

Oakland, California is one of the greenest cities in the U.S. because it provides its residents with fresh, local, organic food, has the cleanest tap water in the nation, contains hydrogen-powered public transit, maintains the country’s oldest wildlife refuge and plans on having zero waste and oil independency by 2020. The Sustainable Oakland 2012-2013 Report states that it is helping local businesses become more sustainable with energy-efficient methods that can help each business save money. The city is working on multiple initiatives to help protect aquatic habitats and taking steps to fight climate change. Oakland is doing its best to protect natural resources and the health of the environment that are known to be easily influenced by a growing population. By closely watching traffic flow in the city they are helping to decrease air pollution from places where cars often idle from traffic jams and encourage public transportation. Oakland’s streets are becoming more bicycle friendly and the city is also ensuring that many residents have accessibility to local parks.

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Another city that has great green initiatives is Chicago, IL. CityofChicago.org is dedicated to explaining each of the goals that the city is currently working towards in order to make it one of “the greenest cities in the world,” a personal goal of Mayor Emanuel. So what is Chicago doing in order to reach this goal? It encourages its residents to save water through the MeterSave program and urges the public to plant trees and native plants, as well as use compost bins and rain barrels, by giving rebate incentives through the Sustainable Backyard Program. The city is working to educates people on how to reduce storm water runoff from their property with green design, downspout disconnection, permeable alleys and other storm water control methods. It is also working towards reducing energy use by encouraging renewable energy sources, such as solar energy and green technology, and working towards improving public transportation.

There are multiple ways of ranking cities when it comes to which are the most eco-friendly, but those who are finding ways to use renewable resources and limit their impact are those listed here. Nonetheless, everyone should do their part in promoting sustainability and finding ways to live a “greener” lifestyle regardless of where they live. 

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Stephanie Siemek is a freelance writer whose work can be found on Examiner.com.