In a world that is changing faster than ever before, some cities are adapting more easily than others. Cities that look forward and anticipate the needs of their citizens within the context of an evolving planet will have an easier time adjusting as things change. Cities that take proactive steps in the present will have the easiest time of all.
We wanted to find which American cities are best and worst when it comes to this kind of forward-thinking. To do this, we looked at major American cities spread across the country and evaluated them according to eight different metrics relating to sustainability, environmental friendliness, and citizen-focused infrastructure.
How we chose these factors and cities
We collected hard data and statistics for each factor for 50 of America's biggest cities, then compared the cities to one another. Each city was given a score relative to all other cities for each factor. Those scores were then weighted based on importance. Weighted scores across all categories were added together to assign a final score to each city, on a 0-100 scale, with the highest scores going to the most future-focused cities.
The factors we chose were:
- Pollution index: A commitment to preserving the environment is a sure sign of a city focused on the future and sustainability, so cities with lower levels of pollution score better in this category. We used Numbeo’s Pollution Index to score this factor, which is based on extensive surveys focused on air quality.
- Number of B Corporations: Per the official B Corporation site, Certified B Corporations are forward-thinking businesses that “balance purpose and profit” and are legally “required to consider the impact of their decisions on workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.” This factor was based on the number of B Corps located in each city according to the Certified B Corporation Directory. Cities with more businesses of this kind earned higher marks.
- Electric vehicle charging station availability: Electric vehicles are the environmentally friendly future of automobiles, as they tend to produce fewer emissions while also reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Cities with greater per capita availability of EV charging stations have shown a commitment to this emerging mode of transportation. To determine availability, we took the official city population from the U.S. Census and divided it by the number of EV charging stations in each city according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center. Cities with greater per capita availability earned higher scores.
- Per capita solar power availability: Similar to how electric vehicles present a more environmentally friendly way to get from place to place, solar power is a clean and renewable way to power homes and businesses. For this factor, we looked at the wattage of solar power available in each city in our analysis according to the Environment America’s Shining Cities 2020 report. Cities with higher per capita solar power availability earned higher scores.
- Per capita carbon footprint: A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide and similar substances emitted by a given person thanks to their use of fossil fuels. These kinds of emissions can be harmful to the environment. Hence, cities, where citizens have lower carbon footprints, are likely to be putting a greater emphasis on preserving the environment for the future. Using the City Carbon Footprints Global Gridded Model of Carbon Footprints (GGMCF) we were able to look up the per capita carbon footprint for each city in this study. Cities with lower carbon footprints earned higher scores.
- Bicycle score: Bicycling is a green, environmentally friendly means of transportation that provides riders with physical health benefits to boot. Cities with infrastructure and culture that encourage citizens to get on their bikes and ride show an understanding of the impact bicycling can have on their city and residents going forward. We used the 2021 version of the annual People For Bikes City Ratings for this factor, with higher bike ratings earning higher scores.
- ParkScore: Vibrant parks with quality amenities such as playgrounds and basketball courts are crucial when considering the sustainability of a city. They provide safe, eco-friendly spaces for people to gather, exercise, and play, contributing to the health and happiness of the population in an environmentally safe way. For this factor, we averaged the five factors (park access, park acreage, park investment, park amenities, park equity) included in the 2021 version of the annual ParkScore report published by The Trust For Public Land. Higher ParkScores earned higher scores in our analysis.
- Average internet speed: We turned to a technological factor to round out our analysis, looking up the average internet speed in each city. Reliable, fast internet access is crucial to both the present and future of so many aspects of life, such as work, school, and entertainment. Having a high-quality digital infrastructure is critical when evaluating how future-focused a city is. To score this factor we looked at mean download speed (Mbps) from HighSpeedInternet.com’s 2021 Fastest and Slowest Metros for Internet report. Cities with faster download speeds earned higher scores.
The 25 most future-focused cities in America
We mapped out the 25 cities that earned the highest total scores using the method detailed above. When looking at the map, we see an encouraging diversity, as top future-focused cities are found throughout the country.
Both coasts are littered with high-scoring cities, while two of the top ten cities overall can be found in the center of the country. At least one city in the top 15 can be found in each of the four major regions of the U.S., showing that looking forward and working toward a more sustainable future is a priority across the nation.
When people think of “future-focused cities,” San Francisco and its neighboring Silicon Valley strongholds pop to mind for many, and for good reason. In our analysis, San Fran finished first overall, while the nearby city of San Jose took the ninth-place spot.
Ranking between those California cities, we found a diverse group in terms of location. The number two city is Portland, Oregon, while the third-place finisher of Washington, D.C. is clear across the country on the opposite coast. From there, we see San Diego, California, in fourth place, while the Rocky Mountain city of Denver, Colorado, rounds out the top five.
Starting the back half of the top 10 is the home of Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, Seattle. Following the Emerald City is Boston, home to Harvard and MIT, while the Texas capital city of Austin takes the eighth spot. As mentioned, San Jose was ninth, and the entertainment and hospitality mecca of Las Vegas finishes up the top 10.
A city-by-city breakdown of America’s 25 most future-focused cities
- San Francisco, California
San Francisco is the only city to earn perfect scores in multiple categories, earning 5.0 scores when it comes to the number of Certified B Corporations in the city and on the bicycle score. The city came close to a third perfect score, earning a 4.9 on electric vehicle charging station availability.
- Portland, Oregon
While San Francisco earned multiple high scores to take the top overall spot, Portland was the most consistently excellent across multiple categories of any city in our analysis. Portland earned scores of 4.0 or higher (including one perfect 5.0) in five of the eight categories we evaluated. It was the only city to earn a four or higher in more than half of our evaluating factors.
- Washington, D.C.
According to The Trust for Public Land, the nation’s capital boasts the best parks in the country, and the perfect 5.0 that Washington earned in this category combined with scores of 2.5 or higher in six of the remaining categories was more than enough to propel D.C. to the number three spot.
- San Diego, California
San Diego is known for its beautiful and consistent weather, as residents can expect over 300 days a year with temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Given the climate in this Southern California city, it comes as no surprise that San Diego scored a perfect 5.0 on per capita solar power available. Strong EV charging station availability and carbon footprint scores helped solidify the top-five finish here.
- Denver, Colorado
Colorado’s capital earned scores of 3.0 in five different categories, with three of those exceeding 4.0 as well. That level of consistency helped the Mile High City earn a top-five national finish. In terms of Denver’s top overall category, the city earned a 4.7 for EV charging station availability.
- Seattle, Washington
As already mentioned, Seattle is home to some of America’s biggest companies, including the tech giants of Microsoft and Amazon. Knowing that, it’s no surprise that Seattle performed particularly well when it comes to infrastructure, particularly related to transportation. In that regard, Seattle earned their highest score (4.7) on EV charging station availability, with the city’s bicycle score of 4.5 close behind.
- Boston, Massachusetts
The last city to earn an overall score above 60 is Boston. The city accrued scores of 4.0 for their pollution index, EV charging station availability, and ParkScore to earn that mark.
- Austin, Texas
Austin boasts some of the fastest internet speeds in the country, earning a perfect 5.0 in that category. The Texas capital is no one-trick pony, though, as the city also earned a 4.8 in EV charging station availability and a 4.0 when it comes to their per capita carbon footprint.
- San Jose, California
Much like their fellow California residents in San Diego, San Jose earned a perfect score on per-capita solar power availability while also snagging a 4.8 when it comes to EV charging stations. Those scores allow San Jose to earn a top 10 spot despite a 0.4 when it comes to the number of B Corporations in the city.
- Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is one of America’s major tourist destinations and a city that goes out of its way to provide visitors with the most cutting-edge entertainment, technology, and accommodations. To that end, it is not surprising to see the city has embraced electric vehicles, earning a 4.5 when it comes to charging station availability. Vegas is also surrounded by desert land that is perfect for setting up solar farms, and the city’s 4.7 score in that category shows they are utilizing those resources. Vegas also boasts one of the smallest per capita carbon footprints in the country, earning a perfect 5.0.
- Sacramento, California
Sacramento finishes in 11th place thanks to scores of 2.0 or higher in seven of eight categories, including two scores over 4.0. The lone category under 2.0 is the lowest single score of any city covered thus far, however, as Sacramento earned just 0.1 when it comes to the number of B Corporations in the city.
- Raleigh, North Carolina
Raleigh’s beautiful air quality is a big part of why it finishes so high, as the city earned a 4.9 out of 5 in regards to pollution. That is the highest score in that category of any city on our top 25 list.
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis’s most prominent asset in this evaluation is their parks, as they earned their highest score in any one category there (4.6). The Midwestern city also has the second-highest pollution score in the country, pulling a 4.5 in that category.
- Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles is the highest-ranking city that also scored a 0.0 in a category, as LA’s pollution situation and air quality are among the worst in the country. This stands in stark contrast to the two cities directly ahead of it on this list. Strong performances in the B Corporation, EV charging station availability, and carbon footprint categories helped overcome that 0.0 and still land LA in the top 15.
- New York, New York
The Big Apple also earned a 0.0, this time in the electric vehicle charging station category. However, NYC offset that goose egg with a perfect 5.0 when it comes to the number of B Corporations in the city.
- Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City earned scores lower than 0.5 when it comes to pollution and the number of B Corporations in the city. But it still managed to earn a top 20 spot thanks to a perfect score on EV charging station availability and a score of 4.0 when it comes to per-capita solar power available.
- Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the smallest city, population-wise, to make our top 25 list. The city earned scores of 2.0 or higher in six different categories, led by a 4.6 in EV charging station availability.
- San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio excelled in a pair of per capita metrics: solar power per capita and per capita carbon footprint. The home of the Alamo earned scores of 4.7 and 3.9 in those areas, respectively, the only factors where the city scored over 3.5.
- Dallas, Texas
While Dallas doesn’t boast any scores higher than 4.0, they did earn a 3.5 or higher in three total categories, one more than their fellow Texans in the number-18 spot on our list. Dallas hit that mark regarding the number of B Corporations in the city, electric vehicle charging station availability, and per capita carbon footprint.
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia is a unique entry on our list, as they are the only city that scored high enough overall to make the top 25 that did not earn a score of 4.0 or higher in at least one category. Philadelphia rode scores of 2.0 or higher in five categories to their spot in the top 20, with a 3.9 bicycle score being their highest individual factor.
- Tampa, Florida
Tampa was able to overcome a 0.1 B Corporations score and still land at 21st overall thanks to a 4.5 when it comes to EV charging station availability, a 4.1 pollution score, and a 3.9 carbon footprint per capita score.
- Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City is the lowest-ranked city in our top 25 to earn a perfect 5.0 in at least one category. KC earned that perfect five in the electric vehicle charging station category, using that boost to overcome scores under 1.5 in four other categories.
- Richmond, Virginia
Virginia’s state capital earned scores of 2.5 or less in six of the eight categories. However, it was still able to make the top 25 thanks to strong performances in the pollution and electric vehicle charging station factors, where the city earned scores of 3.9 and 4.5, respectively.
- Orlando, Florida
Orlando is a city of extremes in our evaluation. On the one hand, they earned scores of 3.5 or higher in three categories, including a nearly perfect 4.9 in EV charging station availability. Outside of those three categories, Orlando failed to score higher than 1.6 in any of the remaining factors.
- Riverside, California
Finishing our top 25 list is Riverside, California. While Riverside is more consistent than Orlando, earning scores of 2.0 or higher in four categories (and scores in excess of 4.0 in two of those), there are no Certified B Corporations in the city. That meant Riverside earned a complete zero in that category, dragging down the city’s total score.
Preparing your home and family for the future
No matter where you live, there are ways to help prepare your home and family (and by extension, your city) for a more sustainable future. Here are some tips for doing just that, and maybe even save some money too:
- Invest with your conscience. Values-based investing is the practice of looking beyond financial factors and considering the economic and social impacts when deciding whether to invest in a company or not. Several different methods of values-based investing exist, and our guide to values-based investing can help you figure out the best approach for you.
- Harness the power of the sun. Solar power is an increasingly common alternative and renewable power source. Solar panels can lower energy bills while also raising home values, and government incentives exist to help offset some of the costs associated with installing them. Be sure to review our solar panel guide to determine if installing solar makes sense for your home. If you’ve decided to add panels, you will also want to check out our guide to financing solar panels.
- Invest in renewable energy. You can combine the two ideas above into the concept of investing in renewable energy. Between investing in electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla, values-based investment funds, utility companies, and more, there are plenty of companies to consider that are focusing on renewable energy in one form or another. Be sure to check out our list of ways to invest in renewable energy to help get started.
Methodology and sources
For this analysis, FinanceBuzz collected data for 50 major American cities for eight different factors relating to sustainability and future focus. Data for each city was put into a dynamic formula that assigned a 0-5 score to each city for every factor, with scores being relative to all other cities in our evaluation. Individual factor scores were then weighted and added together to get a final score on a 0-100 scale. For this analysis, all factors were given a uniform weight of 2.5.
Factors, data points, and sources are as follows:
Pollution Index Score - Assigned pollution index score for each city - Numbeo
Number of B Corporations Score - Number of B Corps listed for each city - Certified B Corporation Directory
Electric Vehicle Charging Station Availability Score - City population divided by the number of electric vehicle charging stations in the city - US Census and the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center
Per Capita Solar Power Availability Score - Watts per person of solar photovoltaic capacity installed - Environment America’s Shining Cities 2020 report
Per Capita Carbon Footprint Score - Carbon footprint per capita (t CO2) - City Carbon Footprints Global Gridded Model of Carbon Footprints (GGMCF)
Bicycle Score - Overall bike score - People for Bikes 2021 City Ratings
Park Score - Average of five primary rating factors (park access, park acreage, parks investment, park amenities, park equity) - The Trust for Public Land 2021 ParkScore rankings
Average Internet Speed Score - Mean download speed (Mbps) - HighSpeedInternet.com’s 2021 Fastest and Slowest Metros for Internet report
All data points collected in May 2021.