50 Cleanest (Dirtiest) Cities in America

from Reader's Digest Magazine | July 2005

What’s the cleanest big city in the U.S.? How about the dirtiest? In our July issue, we decided to find out, by analyzing data to score each of the 50 largest cities on air quality, water quality, industrial pollution (toxics), Superfund sites, and sanitation. Rather than just the cities themselves, we looked at metropolitan areas, which include surrounding counties and suburbs. (This can have a real effect on a place’s score; Chicago, for example, has excellent water but its score is brought down by problems in the outlying areas). Because we only looked at the 50 largest places, there may be smaller cities that are much cleaner or dirtier than these—and because the scores represent relative rankings, that a city comes in first or last in a given category does not necessarily mean it’s perfectly pristine or dangerously filthy.

HOW WE SCORED: Metro areas earned points on a scale from 1 to 50 in each category, with the numbers reflecting a city’s ranking next to the other places. Since it’s a 50-city survey, the cleanest in a category got 50 points. Next, to get a preliminary score, we weighted the five categories in terms of the health threat each one posed relative to the others (the weighting was further adjusted for cities with no sanitation data.) Water and air scores, for example, got twice the weight of sanitation scores, since it’s of little value to have pristine streets if what you drink and breathe are killing you. To get final scores, we averaged all the points for each city.

Here, then, is our list of the 50 largest metro areas in America and how they compare. Higher total numbers mean a cleaner city.

NAME Air Water Toxics Hazardous
Waste
Sanitation Total
Portland (OR) 49 50 35 32 43 44.00
San Jose 41 50 50 21 32 40.71
Buffalo 34 50 27 26 47 38.29
Columbus 24 50 31 45 NA 37.33
San Francisco 47 50 34 16 12 36.57
Denver 27 50 44 19 NA 36.17
Rochester (NY) 46 32 32 43 19 35.71
Austin 44 9 48 50 NA 34.00
Orlando 48 23 9 38 48 33.86
San Diego 13 50 46 42 14 32.57
Hartford 32 29 47 9 44 31.71
Sacramento 4 50 49 40 24 31.57
Las Vegas 12 50 40 49 7 31.43
San Antonio 42 18 42 47 8 31.00
Oklahoma City 43 1 45 41 40 30.57
Minneapolis 33 30 21 35 31 30.43
Indianapolis 23 31 33 44 27 30.29
Salt Lake City 26 50 2 14 42 30.00
Jacksonville 45 24 19 20 NA 29.50
Charlotte 28 34 22 27 28 28.71
Virginia Beach 35 17 29 33 30 28.00
Cincinnati 19 35 11 38 34 27.29
Nashville 30 14 18 46 38 27.14
Riverside (CA) 1 50 43 25 15 26.43
New Orleans 39 13 10 48 21 26.14
Milwaukee 37 10 38 38 10 25.71
Seattle 36 21 37 15 13 25.57
Baltimore 16 33 14 24 41 25.29
Miami 50 11 36 8 9 25.00
Dallas 20 28 30 31 16 24.71
Tampa 40 3 17 17 50 24.29
Memphis 22 12 24 29 46 23.86
Providence 39 8 41 7 22 23.43
Louisville 21 15 15 39 35 23.00
Washington (DC) 25 19 12 13 45 22.57
Phoenix 17 37 1 22 23 22.00
Detroit 10 27 20 10 49 21.86
Richmond 31 4 13 34 36 21.86
Cleveland 9 25 26 31 26 21.57
Atlanta 15 26 4 11 39 19.43
Houston 7 39 3 19 20 19.14
Los Angeles 2 38 28 3 17 18.29
Boston 29 7 39 5 11 18.14
Philadelphia 14 22 16 2 37 18.14
Kansas City 19 16 25 13 NA 18.00
Birmingham 8 20 8 28 33 17.86
St. Louis 5 36 6 6 25 17.00
Pittsburgh 6 5 5 23 29 11.29
New York 11 2 23 1 NA 8.33
Chicago 3 6 7 4 18 6.71
  • Your Comments

    • cole

      I live in Portland. I’ve been to Chicago, Indiana, Tennessee, Cali, Florida and new York. Portland has by far the cleanest water, sanitation and air.

    • eric

      i live in san jose n its not clean its horrible

    • Poofs

      It is simple more people, more problems.  People suck

    • Aag

      hmm think… is new york cleaner than oregon? think about this. 

    • Alejandra Doon

      chicago is cleaner than new york this thing sucks

    • JC

      Cleanest has higher number for those who cannot read…..nice how Calif has 4 of the top 12…..tight EPA rules keep California clean and a model for those dirty states that no one wants to visit.