What’s the cleanest big city in America? How about the dirtiest? And what about the place where you live — did it make the list?
Reader’s Digest compared data on our 50 most populous metropolitan areas to come up with a ranking of America’s cleanest cities. You might be able to guess some of the winners — and losers. But get ready for plenty of surprises.
First, though, what is a clean city? Ideally, it’s a place where the air quality is good, the water is safe to drink, and factories aren’t dumping harmful chemical waste into the environment. It’s also a place where you look up and down streets that are free of garbage, and stroll through parks without wading through litter. To gauge these things, we used several databases as yardsticks for measuring cleanliness. That data pertained not just to the cities themselves, but to their Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), which include the surrounding suburbs and counties.
We also wanted to dig beneath the data to find out just what our highest-scoring cities were doing right. So we talked with policymakers, economists, activists and government workers in the top five cities. As you’ll see, these places have earned their rankings — and their success holds some lessons for the rest of us.
#5 San Francisco
(Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties)
Background: Once a prominent shipping and manufacturing center, San Francisco now has booming financial and business sectors. Since 1980, the city’s population has increased by more than a third and its per capita income ranks among the nation’s highest. Few places have a citizenry that is more environmentally conscious.
Problems: Like nearly every traffic-clogged urban California area, San Francisco has struggled with high emissions of greenhouse gases and carbon monoxide. Its Hunter’s Point area is home to two polluting power plants and a highly contaminated Naval Shipyard, now defunct. In 2002, a national report found that while San Francisco’s source water was safe, its tap water contained high levels of a cancer-causing contaminant known as total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, a byproduct of chlorinating water.
Solutions: San Francisco has benefited from the state of California’s bold and controversial air-quality regulations. The city’s Environment Department — something many municipalities lack — is seeking to close the power plants at Hunter’s Point, and the federal EPA is overseeing a massive cleanup of the shipyard there. Meanwhile, San Francisco is in the forefront of efforts to promote the use of clean-air vehicles, with its public
transit leading the way. The city’s bus fleet includes over 700 electric-drive vehicles, with plans to convert all the buses to this clean-air technology by 2020. As for concerns about its drinking water, San Francisco responded by modifying its water treatment process, which brought the TTHM levels back down into the safe zone. Finally, the local government is finding ways to push energy savings, including a program that encourages residents to exchange their old strings of holiday lights for a free set of more efficient LED bulbs, courtesy of the city and Pacific Gas and Electric.