America’s Greenest Cities

Written by Carolyn Albee

You've probably heard the news: waste and consumption are out, and green cities are in. These days, it seems that every city has initiatives like reducing energy consumption, saving water, and creating sustainable transportation. We wanted to look at America's most sustainable cities and communities through a different lens: upcycling and creative reuse.

From upcycled art to recycled fashion shows and DIY co-ops, embracing creative trends in eco-friendliness puts these cities and regions at the forefront of sustainability. In no particular order, here are the cities that are proving why your possessions are made to keep.

1. San Francisco, CA

San Francisco weaver upcycling textiles
Via Nicolás Boullosa/Flickr

It's no secret that San Francisco is one of America's most sustainable cities and a leader in LEED certification, recycling, sustainable transportation, water conservation, and more. But did you know it's also paving the way for upcycling fashion? SFMade promotes local designers like Prisma Guitars, which makes its instruments from broken skateboards, and Àplat, which creates zero-waste totes and more. In nearby San Geronimo, Rebecca Burgess founded Fibershed, dedicated to a completely sustainable fashion life cycle. There's San Francisco Sustainable Fashion Week each year around Earth Day, and the city also committed to the I:CO City Initiative, which aims to create an infrastructure so residents can easily recycle textiles. Bottom line: San Francisco is committed to sustainability in every way.

2. Bend, OR

Bicycles leaning against cabin in Bend Oregon
Via Joey Doll/Flickr

The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to the eco-friendly lifestyle. This area is full of sustainable cities and communities, and Bend, Oregon is one of the best. This small mountain town has big sustainability goals, from upcycling to organic farming. Residents don't throw out old boots or damaged tents. They get them repaired—and buy quality second-hand sports equipment—at resale shop Gear Fix. After a day enjoying the great outdoors, they grab a pint at Deschutes Brewery, which turns its spent grain into pizza crust, or dinner at Jackson's Corner for locally grown, organic meals. Speaking of beer, check out The Environmental Center's Green Drinks program, which pairs eco-sustainability education with adult beverages. It's a match made in environmentalist heaven.

3. King County, WA

Farmers market in Woodinville Washington
Via Glenda J./Yelp.com

Sprawling King County is home to Seattle, which is certainly no slouch when it comes to sustainable cities. But we want to talk about the amazing things that a couple of sleepy suburbs are doing. In Redmond's Marymoor Park, the CHOMP! festival celebrates local food and eco-friendly lifestyles. Learn how to build a pollinator hotel and rain garden, talk to local farmers, and visit the Upcycle Bazaar; it's happening on August 17 this year. For year-round education, head to 21 Acres in Woodinville for the farmers market, tours of their sustainable farm, and classes from beekeeping to organic cooking. Top off your visit with a stop at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, a Washington State certified EnviroStars business. Now that's a Seattle day trip that's fun and educational.

4. Alexandria, VA

Gazebo in Alexandria Virginia garden
Via ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

This D.C. suburb is making a name for itself outside the shadow of the nation's capital, especially when it comes to sustainability. With almost 50 miles of bike lanes and trails, cycling is a great, green way to get around Alexandria. Need repairs? Vélocity Bicycle Cooperative will teach you how to do it yourself. When it's time for a new ride, they'll also recycle your old bike. Another cool DIY organization is the UpCycle Creative Reuse Center, which takes donations of everything from corks and bottle caps to fabric, greeting cards, and paint, then uses them in its art classes and summer camps. That's creativity at its eco-friendly best.

5. Gainesville, FL

The Repurpose Project in Gainesville, Florida
Via Nan T./Yelp.com

This central Florida city has always been ahead of the DIY trend. Its rock and roll roots gave rise to Tom Petty, Less Than Jake, and Against Me!, and this damn-the-man attitude leads to all sorts of interesting upcycling projects. Snap a photo of the Shipping Container House, which is made of 12 shipping containers and runs entirely on solar energy. Perhaps owner Tom Fox furnished it with items from The Repurpose Project store, which salvages building supplies, art materials, and office supplies for resale, or from the University of Florida's furniture collection program.

6. Oxford, MS

Oxford Mississippi Ole Miss Rebels football game
Via Ken Lund/Flickr

Speaking of colleges taking the lead on green city initiatives, in Oxford, the University of Mississippi, aka "Ole Miss," combines football and recycling to create a win for the environment. The Green Grove Program uses a beloved tradition—tailgating, of course!—to collect recyclables and educate the public. The college's Office of Sustainability hosts the Sustainability Fair during the week of Earth Day every year, and runs composting, transportation, and general awareness initiatives.

7. Chattanooga, TN

An artist at Chattanooga WorkSpace
Via Chattanooga WorkSpace/Flickr

Tennessee's fourth-largest city is first when it comes to upcycling programs. Local store The Gear Closet has an awesome program that upcycles tents, chairs, grills, and more that are leftover from the Bonnaroo festival each year. You can find even more upcycled goods over at Chattanooga Mercantile in East Ridge. Its shops include Farmhouse Family for crafts made from old barn doors and more, and Revamped & Reclaimed for antiques and vintage pieces. Finally, check out the makers and artists at Chattanooga WorkSpace, and take a course on upcycling crafts, like embroidery with found objects.

8. Pittsburgh, PA

Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh campus
Via Jiuguang Wang/Flickr

The days of Pittsburgh being known as "Steel City" are over. It's reinvented itself as a place for research and education, especially in robotics and medicine. Pittsburgh's universities have been at the forefront of these changes—and their green city initiatives, too. Carnegie Mellon University's Metro21 Smart Cities Institute develops technology to solve the problems of the modern-day city, like water and energy use, and efficient transportation. And Chatham University's upcycling and recycling programs keep the city green by composting, providing energy-efficient transportation, and running annual recycling competitions.

9. Cleveland, OH

Cleveland skyline with beer
Via Erik Drost/Flickr

Like its neighbor Pittsburgh, Cleveland may not typically be known as one of the most sustainable cities. But there is a lot of innovation happening here, especially when it comes to environmentally friendly food systems and upcycling programs. Look no further than Great Lakes Brewing Co. They use spelt from the brewing process to feed their livestock, and also use old french fry oil to fuel the "Fatty Wagon," which delivers their beer to area pubs. More into art? Upcycle Parts Shop in St. Clair has saved 25 tons of art and craft supplies from going to the landfill through its creative reuse initiatives.

10. Charlotte, NC

Tulips and Charlotte NC skyline
Via Toby Horn/Shutterstock.com

North Carolina's biggest city is keeping its famous flowers blooming through its eco-friendly initiatives. It aims to become a Zero Waste City by 2050, and is well on its way thanks to two big players in town, Envision Charlotte and Healthy Communities. Envision Charlotte focuses on sustainable energy through business outreach. Its most ambitious project to date is the Innovation Barn, opening in August 2019, which will house an entirely zero-waste restaurant, craft beer bar, retail space, and offices for innovative circular economy companies. Healthy Communities focuses on waste reduction and upcycling through composting programs, fashion shows, and more. Who knew Charlotte was so sustainable?

11. Kilauea, HI

Exploring gardens in Kilauea, Kauai
Via Mike D/Flickr

The Hawaiian island of Kaua'i is also called the "Garden Isle," and residents are working hard to keep it that way. Sustainable construction is all the rage, and Kilauea is on the cutting edge. The playground at Anaina Hou Community Park was made from recycled plastic and natural materials from the local area. The new Kilauea Lighthouse Village was built using green design strategies, and includes a sustainable wastewater treatment system. And local builder SOL Projex has completed projects like a sustainable tiny home and eco-friendly remodels in town. It's all part of the local philosophy of aloha āina, or "love for the land."

12. Atlantic County, NJ

Hammonton auto parts sculpture
Via John Theibault/Flickr

If you're into upcycled art, what we're about to say next may surprise you. Atlantic County, New Jersey, is a perfect road trip destination! Start your journey at Beardfest in Hammonton, which runs June 13–15 this year. You'll find workshops on upcycling clothes and more, plus tips on how to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Then take a tour of the Robot Auto Parts Sculptures, crafted by local William Clark (find the dog above at Caruso’s Auto Parts), as well as the Junk Sculptures by Tom Peterson at Peterson’s Service Center in Egg Harbor Township. End your road trip at Arts Garage Atlantic City and get inspiration from artists like Ron Ross Cohen, who creates art with found objects, and Heather Howley, who refurbishes furniture in creative ways.

13. Pasco County, FL

A lake in Pasco County, Florida
Via Michel Curi/Flickr

South of Gainesville lies another Florida area that's just getting started on being green. Pasco County's "Keep Pasco Beautiful" organization is doing tons of good work, with cleanup events, nature seminars, Earth Day celebrations, and more. The Pasco Upcycle & Art Festival won a national award from Keep America Beautiful in 2018 and features vendors of pallet furniture, spoon bracelets, and more. It doesn't take place until November 16 this year, but that just gives you plenty of time to submit your application to display your own upcycled fashion or art.

14. Park City, UT

Sunrise over Park City Utah
Via Johnny Adolphson/Shutterstock.com

Outdoorsy Park City is known for its beautiful landscapes and world-class ski slopes, and it wants to keep them pristine. The Sustainability Department has a goal of net zero carbon emissions and 100% renewable energy by 2030—the most ambitious goal in North America. The city is also reducing its footprint by recycling and upcycling, thanks to organizations like the Kimball Art Center, which hosts makerspaces and events, and Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which educates the public on eco-friendly practices like repurposing furniture.

15. Santa Fe, NM

Santa Fe architecture and street art
Via psyberartist/Flickr

This artsy city is the perfect intersection of creativity and eco-sustainability. It has festivals: the Recycle Art Festival, taking place this year from November 15–17. It has upcyling stores: Native Son to help you repurpose furniture, and Hyperclash for 100% repurposed clothes. It has organizations like Upcycle Santa Fe, which runs workshops and other events. And Santa Fe has lots and lots of upcycled art. It is the original home of Meow Wolf, after all, the legendary collective that makes immersive art out of found objects. And don't miss Geoffrey Gorman, Gilbert Candelaria, and Doug Adams, who also create unique sculptures from found objects. Santa Fe is art with heart—and environmental concern.

16. Atlanta, GA

Sculptures by Atlanta artist Corinna Sephora
Via North Charleston/Flickr

Atlanta might use a different name for its sustainability department, but its objectives are just as green. The Office of Resilience aims for 100% clean energy by 2035 through solar projects, sustainable transportation, and the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge for energy efficiency. Plus, Atlanta serves as headquarters for environmentally friendly companies, like Interface, which makes textiles from recycled fishing nets, and FLOR, which creates recyclable carpet tiles. Add in artists like Corrina Sephora, who makes sculptures with upcycled metal, and you've got a well-rounded green city that's going places.

17. Boston, MA

Boston SoWa Open Market
Via Vernaccia/Flickr

Boston is more than baseball and Sam Adams. It's making history with its Greenovate initiative, which aims to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. Along with public education and smart energy use programs, innovations include Project Oscar, a community compost program. Sustainable fashion is alive and well in Boston, too. Boston University's Fashion Revolution Week took place in April with a variety of panels and workshops to inspire the community to look beyond "fast fashion." And in the South End neighborhood, the SoWa Vintage Market and Open Market feature upcycled items and local makers.

18. New York, NY

Sunrise over the New York City subway
Via oneinchpunch/Shutterstock.com

New York and Boston are often rivals, but when it comes to green city programs, they're rivals in the best way. New York has sustainable fashion initiatives of its own, like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Make Fashion Circular project. It brings together big names in fashion to create an eco-friendly fashion cycle through programs like #WearNext, which set up more than 1,100 drop-off points for used clothing at retailers throughout the city. New York has its share of upcycling fairs and markets, too, like The Other Art Fair, which featured local talent upcycling unwanted art into works that are made to keep.

These sustainable cities and communities are proving there's value in your stuff—and proving the importance of well-rounded green city initiatives. So whether you store it, donate it, or upcycle it, whatever you do, don't throw it away!

Header image via Ventu Photo/Shutterstock.com

About the author

Carolyn Albee

Carolyn is a writer, editor, and fan of the Chicago Manual of Style. She's based in Southern California (the greatest place on earth), but she lives by the belief that every city, and every person, has a story to tell. When she's not telling those stories, you'll find her visiting craft breweries and exploring new hikes with her best friend—her dog, of course.

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