Top 10 Climate-Ready Cities in the U.S.

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., CO2 IMPACT

Cities are now home to a majority of the world’s population and are on the front line in the battle against climate change.  While action at the federal level in the U.S. has been painfully slow, cities in the U.S. are starting to lead by example at a local level. Cities must take an active role in helping their constituents (starting with themselves of course) to mitigate their impact on climate change as well as begin investing in appropriate climate change adaptation solutions.

I felt that it was time to do some analysis on U.S. Cities which are positioning themselves to be leaders in climate capitalism. I have used proxies and a methodology for ranking the largest cities in the U.S. based on a range of factors including political commitment (as measured by number of commitments the city has made with the U.S. Mayors, Carbon War Room Cities Challenge, Clinton 40, and ICLEI membership), green buildings (LEED buildings per capita), university leadership (AASHE membership/capita), transit access and use (range of metrics on heavy and light rail usage per capita), clean tech investment (venture funds based in city with clean tech investments in 2010) and energy and GHG emissions (from a range of sources)*.

The Top 10 Metropolitan Climate-Ready Cities in the U.S. are:

10.) Chicago

My recent rankings of low-carbon politicians was in part a tribute to the recently retired former mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.  Under his leadership Chicago made major strides in becoming probably the greenest metropolitan city in the Midwest.  Chicago now boasts more than 300 miles of bikeways, 7 million square feet of green roofs and currently has more green hotels than any city in the U.S. (13).

9.) San Jose
This may be among the most surprising cities to make the Top 10 as San Jose is not known (yet) for its leadership in climate protection.  However, in 2007, the San Jose city council approved a Green Vision which seeks to “transform San Jose into the world center of Clean Technology innovation” and to demonstrate that the goals of economic growth, environmental stewardship and fiscal responsibility are inextricably linked.”  It didn’t hurt San Jose in my rankings that I counted the number of clean tech funds in each city that invested in 2010. Of course being near the epicenter of Silicon Valley San Jose ranked #1 in our list in this category.  Also you gotta love cities that take the bold step of setting big hairy audacious goals and transparently track their performance against them.

(San Jose’s Green Vision Progress)

7.) Philadelphia (tie with New York)
Like San Jose, Philadelphia has taken the appropriate step to develop, track and transparently report its sustainability performance against forward looking targets.  Greenworks Philadelphia established 15 sustainability targets including energy, buildings, GHG reductions, waste, transit and agriculture among others.  Along with Seattle and New York, Philadelphia was listed by Fast Company, as a leading city in the U.S. for its aggressive GHG reduction targets.

7.) New York (tie with Philadelphia)
Conservative Mayor Bloomberg is a strong advocate for climate leadership and, once again, advocating setting targets and tracking performance. In a recent Clinton 40 Climate meeting, Mayor Bloomberg noted: “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.”  New York of course is the envy of most cities in the U.S. when it comes to accessibility and use of rail transit (ranking #1 on transit/capita in this study). It is also the most dense city in North America.

6.) San Diego
Another West Coast city less commonly ranked amongst the top 10 on these lists, San Diego has been making great strides in transitioning to a low-carbon economy.  San Diego intends to take advantage of its great climate and abundant sun by adding 50 megawatts of renewable energy by 2013 (much of it being new solar capacity) while achieving a 50 megawatt reduction in energy use through efficiency and demand side management measures.  San Diego also has a 3-line, 82 kilometers light rail trolley system which has 90,000 daily trips.

5.) Denver
One of the U.S. cities I have had the pleasure to live in, Denver Colorado is famous for its mountain views and big skies.  Denver has made great strides over the past 10 years towards becoming a recognized U.S. leader in the transition to a low carbon economy.  In 2009, former Denver Mayor Hickenlooper was awarded the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Award for Denver’s Fast Track light rail program.  According to a city press release, Denver’s Fast Track “is the most ambitious transit initiative in U.S. history… building 119 miles of new light rail” within just a few years.  Along with strong sustainability objectives, Denver is projecting a 37% increase in job growth by 2030, showing that the low carbon economy is alive and well.

4.) Washington, DC
While our federal law makers and senior political leadership based in Washington have seriously underachieved with respect to progress towards the low-carbon economy, the City, or District I should say, has earned this top 5 position.  Staying on the topic of public transit, DC residents are the 2nd most active users of rail transit in the U.S. and the 3rd highest per capita (behind New York and San Francisco).  The D.C. government has committed to reduce its emissions 30% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 (over 2006 levels), has passed a strong green building code, is 2nd in the country in green roofs (behind Chicago) and is 3rd in the nation in purchase of renewable power.

3.) Portland (OR)
The perennial favorite in all sustainable city rankings, Portland has many admirable features that demonstrate a commitment to the low-carbon economy.  I have been to Portland dozens of times and I can’t get enough of it.  For a relatively small city, it has an impressive public transit system, several (4) universities actively committed to sustainability and an amazing number of LEED certified buildings (127).  With so much going on for them, it is no wonder Portland aims to be “the most sustainable city in the world by investing in high performance buildings and green streets, ecosystem restoration, businesses that create sustainable economic opportunities for all, green and healthy affordable housing, and social equity policies and practices.”

2.) Seattle
Seattle, another Pacific Northwest city used to being on sustainability city rankings, usually behind Portland, occupies second place in this ranking.  Former Mayor Greg Nickels actually launched the U.S. Mayors for Climate Protection (which earned Seattle an extra point in my system).  The Seattle area has 6 universities committed to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and is home to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute one of the first and best MBA programs in the world dedicated exclusively to sustainability education.  Seattle has among the most LEED certified buildings in the U.S. (132), has an active clean tech investing sector, and is home to the country’s first major utility to become carbon neutral.

1.) San Francisco
Where do I start?  I believe it all starts with political leadership and commitment. San Francisco is one of only three cities which made the final screening who are members of the U.S. Mayors for Climate Protection, Clinton 40, the Carbon War Room and ICLEI.  Like Seattle, it has a very proactive university community with 11 members of AASHE and is also home to Presidio Graduate School, another one of the first and best dedicated sustainable MBA programs in the world.  San Francisco also has the largest number of LEED certified buildings per capita in the U.S. and has an active clean tech investment community. It is home to probably the largest impact investment conference in the world, SOCAP.   San Francisco ranked in the top 3 in every category I evaluated and deserves to be crowned the “coolest” Climate-Ready City in the U.S. for 2011.

Here are the breakdowns of the ratings on each category for the top 10 cities.

Political Commitment (1-4 points)University RankingsTransit RankingsInvestment RankingsGreen Building RankingsGHG RankingsCumulative Rankings
San Francisco, CA4123111
Seattle, WA4333332
Portland, OR326None223
Washington, DC4835584
Denver, CO258None445
San Diego, CA347None666
New York, NY29121057
Philadelphia, PA3746977
San Jose, CA410101899
Chicago, IL265None71010


In a previous post I highlighted some of the politically elected leaders, conservative and liberal, who have been taking bold measures to transition their countries and communities towards a low-carbon future.  Some of my top 10 included previous and current U.S. Mayors who are active in theU.S. Mayors for Climate Protection initiative.  This is a group of mayors which now number more than 1,000 who have committed their cities to be leaders in the “war” on climate change as my friends at the Carbon War Room would say.

What is most important about this quest is that if we refocus our efforts on the right solutions soon enough, we can mitigate the worst of climate change while actually improving our city economies and growing corporate profits.  Hunter Lovins and I recently published a book entitled Climate Capitalism to share stories of cities and companies around the world who are profiting from that transition to the low carbon economy.

Just last week, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) announced the launch of its CDP for Cities Program.  At the launch, London’s Mayor Johnson commented: “Cities are firmly at the vanguard of the global charge to deliver large scale carbon reductions and energy efficiencies. In seeking to set the pace and work together, cities have immense clout to stimulate low carbon world markets to unleash economic opportunities for their citizens.”

*No ranking is perfect and I hope to improve on this in coming years and also to do separate rankings for small and medium sized cities.  Of course it would be ideal to find or to generate standardized baseline GHG emissions for each city which hopefully the CDP for Cities will eventually generate.  Also ICLEI and the C40 just announced plans to create a city-based global standard for reporting GHG emissions which should make comparisons in the future much easier.

Please provide us comments on our rankings including suggestions for cities not ranked or new variables we should include for the next iteration.


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

This series uses the hashtag #climatecapitalism


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.Twitter: boydcohen

31 responses

  1. I wonder if the difference between “green” or “more sustainable” cities and “climate-ready” cities could have been parsed out a little more for readers.

    For example, NY is dense and has excellent public transit, making it arguable one of the most green cities in the U.S. as far as efficient use of greenhouse gases per person. However, what is or has the city done to prepare for some of the anticipated impacts of a changing climate? How is the city equipping schools and municipal buildings for hotter summers? How is it preparing to manage increased rainfall and maybe even prepare for rising sea levels? And for other cities, how will they assure water access or food availability with expanding deserts and depleted aquifers?

    Cities like Chicago that do not face rising seas and have plentiful sources of fresh water may be higher ranked on a list that focuses on climate readiness in terms of adaptation. Desert cities and coastal cities will need to have much more ambitious plans than density and good public transit.

    Just some ideas…

  2. There is a conspicuous absence of southern cities on this “Top 10” list. This translates into the need to work much harder to move cities in South in the right direction since we face heightened vulnerabilities, especially among low-income and people of color communities, and remove the legacy of lax enforcement of environmental and civil right laws and regulations.

  3. Great article. Shouldn’t climate-readiness include preparedness for increased incident of climate-triggered disasters: heatwaves, deluges, rising seas, etc? How many cities will be worthy investments for munibond holders when they are faced with climate disaster recovery?

  4. Great comments. Red Green-thanks. James, I couldn’t agree more. In my next ranking I am going to dive deeper into what cities are doing to prepare/adapt to climate change. As you say it will also need to include a factor for risk profile. All cities around the globe face some kind of climate risk from food shortages to flooding but the range of risks and probabilities will vary. Robert B. I agree as well and in fact I have been in talks with a sustainability consultant out of the Southeast regarding a separate ranking for that region and also collaborations with some cities to help them make the transition. Steve B. Agreed and will work on this for next iteration.

  5. As a native San Diegan, I honestly find it nearly impossible to believe that San Diego could be in the top 10 of any list other than “Best Zoos.” Political leadership has been lacking for decades, a corrupt and incompetent city council has done their best to destroy the city’s finances, and a generally apathetic population of transplants and retirees have always voted for the easiest and cheapest solution at every turn. Despite all that, if they have really done enough to warrant a place on this list, then it really goes to show that even in the worst of situations, a dedicated environmental movement can make a difference. Great article!

  6. Great article… obviously reality is a lot more complicated, but this is a good thought provoking start.

    My two cents:

    1) SF as number one in Academics? I love Presidio, but there are only two large scale Universities in the Bay Area, neither of which is in SF. And Stanford is much closer to San Jose.

    2) Agree with commenter on San Diego… just a slower version of LA if you ask me!

    3) Chicago oughtta be much higher on Green Buildings, they practically invented the green room – even city hall has a green roof there!

  7. Paul S, that is far from a glowing endorsement for your city, San Diego. I am sure they are all fair criticisms. Perhaps despite the proper leadership at the top. San Diego is doing some things well (like improved transit and renewables). Maybe in the next iteration of the rankings with more robust metrics San Diego would come out differently. Alton, on the university ranking it was number of universities/capita that are part of AASHE. They were not all large and in fact some were small colleges, but I still counted them. As for Chicago’s green buildings, I would have thought it would come out higher too. However it was not a subjective ranking, this was based on LEED certified buildings/capita.

    Please keep the comments coming!

  8. Great effort!

    Like any list created, there are assumptions made and someone will have a problem with everything that you wrote. What I like about this is someone – you – has taken the time to come up with a methodology and apply it in a first effort. Cities are notoriously competitive with each other, so this list should serve as a source of bragging rights for the top-10 cities.

    I would be curious how U.S. cities compare to cities around the globe. It’s one thing to out-compete areas close to home; it’s another to out-compete areas who have support from their national governments.

  9. Thanks for the feedback Richard B. I agree about an international ranking. It is on my to do list. That is a major undertaking because we do not have the same amount or quality of data in each country. I am on the lookout for organizations who want to support me in doing more of this work so I can do that kind of analysis including obtaining primary information directly from the cities. From my research to date, this won’t shock anyone of course, many of the European cities would supplant most if not all of our top 10. There are even cities in developing countries that would give our cities a run for their money.

    1. With respect to international cities’ ranking compared to ours, I agree that a top-10 list might very well not include any American cities. That’s one reason why I’d like to see such a list. The second is if that were the case, it might spur some good ol’ American can-do attitude to move up the list.

      I hope you’re successful in getting direct data from cities so robust comparisons can be made. Cheers!

  10. I have to say that Chicago’s inclusion on this list is a joke. As a resident, I often ask myself how it can be that in the year 2011, that Chicago, supposedly a green city doesn’t have city-wide recycling?. My low-income neighborhood of Bridgeport doesn’t have the blue bin program / residential recycling. I am fortunate to own a car, so I drop off my recyclables at a recycling center about 2 miles away in a more affluent neighborhood. My neighbors who don’t own cars definitely don’t recycle, and most of them that do own cars don’t recycle either. Chicago, let’s get our acts together and stop embarrassing ourselves.

  11. Go, go Green San Jose (Capital of Silicon Valley). I am a proud resident of you. You also have a state of the art flood control that was finished ahead of time, a state of the art Int’l Airport, City Hall, etc. Thanks SJ. Do you know the way?

  12. Re: Portland ranking.
    You missed the key feature of our success, a regional government that has control over urban growth and transit. City of Portland is only 1/3 of region’s population, our major accomplishments in carbon reduction come from more use of transport choices because of less sprawl on a regional level.

  13. As for Portland (OR), it should not even be mentioned on this list. I’ve lived here for nearly a decade and I have yet to see a single Green initiative actually go through and work. The traffic is a joke; it is not managed and the traffic lights are not interconnected so that you end up stopping your vehicle every 800 feet – this city likely pumps out more CO2 than some southern cities in terms of transportation emissions. The mass transit system is fine as long as you are heading downtown, beyond that it is a confusing list of bus routes. Just try to figure out where you are supposed to take some of the nastier refuse; motor oil, old fuel, used brake pads – only one location in the entire metro area takes them. All of the great, environmental trends which Portland claims are just a bunch of crafty set dressing – there is no substance behind any of it. Someone could make a journalistic career out of uncovering all the Greenwashing the city of Portland does. Someday, I hope they actually start living up to the promises. (Of course, much of this is due to the comment Mr. Burkholder made; the city of Portland is tiny compared to all the cities which surround it. Out west of the city, clear-cutting the land is standard practice in the process of building all the empty single-story, sprawling office buildings which line the roads like weeds out here.)

    Re-evaluate Portland based on reality, not the city’s self-reporting! The Denver area is far ahead of this city.

  14. What happened to California’s first Emerald City? Riverside. How did San Jose get placed ahead of them? It was the first to meet the state’s recycling goals. It has the highest number of alternative vehicles. It has the largest CNG public use refueling site in the state. Its program of assisting residents with solar panel installation is unparalleled in the state.

  15. Anybody notice the trend in population? The top 5 of those cities are tiny by comparison to the others! NYC is literally 10 San Franciscos.

    Does progressive planning, control, policy, and taxation result get you to green? Or would the same effects come about by pure necessity as population increases? Take mass transit for example. In NYC, it’s not just a cleaner way to get around, it’s the only way to feasibly move so many people.

  16. I love this article – but I’m very curious to know how mid-size and small-size cities rank (or IF they rank at all) since I have an allergic reaction to big cities. I long to live in a place where I can WALK to most everything I would ever need. Thank you for the article.

  17. How would Vancouver, Canada, rank, on this same basis?

    It has set a goal to be the world’s greenest city by 2020, and is pursuing it very actively, so it would be interesting to see how they are doing.

  18. For your next iteration, I would suggest revising your approach to transportation. Rail is not the only kind of transit- why don’t you take into account bus ridership? Even more importantly, walking/cycling are much more environmentally friendly than riding transit. Or, if you want to keep it simple, just look at vehicle miles traveled per capita.

  19. Hello to Sundi and Guy. Both of you ask questions about cities not included in this ranking. I have received requests to rank smaller cities in the U.S. and it is on the agenda. The problem is the data is less available and of course smaller cities in the U.S. generally have less investment in transit infrastructure so I would need to change some of the metrics.

    Guy as for Vancouver, you may find out sooner than you think where other global cities would rank. I have been data gathering and number crunching on global cities with city populations of 600,000 or more. My rankings will be coming out on June 28th.

    Stay tuned!

  20. Political and business leaders in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis & Saint Paul) think that they are engaged in regional economic competition with a number of the cities on the top 10 list. When you cranked the numbers, how did the Twin Cities do?

  21. San Francisco! Giants win last year, and this too. Moment of pride!
    The credit for this rests on the people of the city for their activism and wisdom to elect government representitives who aren’t afraid to float some forward-thinking legislation at a time that it still may appear hare-brained to the rest of the country.
    I’m particulary happy with our recycling program: We recycle and compost a much larger percentage of our refuse than any other US city.
    ..And our pro-bike movement. There has been a huge upsurge in cycling over the past few years thanks to the 12,000+-member-strong SF Bike Coalition.
    I’m surprised that SF Muni, our public transportation system, made it to #2. Maybe because we are forced to use it. Most of the time it’s a disfunctional beast that no amount of political pressure can contain. Still, a huge percentage of San Franciscans take public transportation. If it were safe, clean, fast, and reliable, it could be the best transit system in the country. As it stands, LA’s bus and light rail systems are head-over-heels superior to San Franciscos.

  22. Counting numbers of widgets is insignificant – you should only calculate/report percentages/per-capita. Widget numbers are what the politicians love to report (e.g., “We have the largest fleet of electric vehicles” – a pretty easy feat to achieve anywhere, and you only need to have one more than the next guy to maintain the claim), but, if the percentage/per-capita is calculated, the truth is revealed.

    Megalopolisi like NYC, Chicago, LA, etc., are horrible places to “live” because of 100 to 250+ years of infrastructure that’s not going anywhere until a crisis occurs on a piece-meal basis (there are century-plus-old hollowed-out oak logs in NYC’s water-main system that routinely blow out, sending man-hole covers into the sky, flooding out electrical substations, destroying whole intersections, etc.). Without replacing trillions of dollars of such (literally) sunken infrastructure (e.g., replacing all of the ancient buildings and associated internal and external support systems), there’s no way such places can ever achieve even one percent of total consumption green improvements – so far, urban sustainability efforts have all been greenwash, and will continue to be so as long as politicians are in charge.

    Putting grass on roofs is nice, but, it ain’t gonna happen on the skyscraper spires that the fans of Art Deco love and that dominate the vast majority of cities. Plus, if you botanize your roof, there goes the meager area for what few solar collectors you could have put up there (not that they provide any significant power/HVAC contribution, anyway, especially with taller buildings as neighbors to the East/South/West of your roof). A green roof only benefits the top floor of a building, HVAC-wise, and most large buildings have HVAC equipment up there, anyway, which doesn’t like being covered with turf very much. Besides, as buildings get taller, they get less efficient, with their giant HVAC demands, need to pump water vertically, and typical lack of ability to even open windows.

    Counting academic institutions with sustainability programs in a municipality is completely ridiculous, especially in light of the absolutely greenest option in education – you may have heard of it – distance learning! In fact, I would make telecommuting employment/education opportunities as the most heavily-weighted factor of all, since even one day a week of telecommuting completely eliminates 20% of an employee’s pollution/transportation-workplace-energy-consumption contribution. I know that will require gathering yet-more difficult-to-find data bits, but, it’s probably the most important data you could collect.

    If we don’t demand that politicians report the actually-important data, we’ll just get whatever greenwash they decide we should have. “Transparent” reporting of cherry-picked data is still cherry-picked data, and is just as worthless as cherry-picked skeletons-in-the-closets.

    Are any engineers participating in this effort? I’m not talking about urban-planner/architect dreamer types that like to fill in lots of the color-by-number spaces in development “concept” drawings with shades of green, but, real, hard-core, number-crunching engineers who know which end of a supercomputing cluster should have lights blinking on it. That’s what this kind of effort really needs to get to ground truth – let me know if you’re interested and I’ll put you into contact with some highly-qualified real engineers with the right experience.

    Joe Blow (no, I’m not a plumber, why does everyone keep asking that? ;)

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