7 of the Greenest Small Towns in America
Ithaca, New York
If you’re looking for a green small town to visit or would like to live in an eco-friendly city with the same name as Greek hero Odysseus’ hometown, Ithaca might just be for you.
Nestled on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of the state, Ithaca adopted its own Green New Deal on June 5, 2019. Some of the goals of the city’s green resolution include community-wide carbon neutrality by 2030, a reduction of 50 percent of emissions from the city’s fleet of vehicles by 2025 and for all electricity used for government operations to be met with renewables by 2025.
Ithaca’s vehicle traffic has been reduced by a car share program and a bus system that is partially electric. In 2024, the first fossil-fuel-free conference center is slated to open with an entirely electric kitchen.
The town also adopted the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement, which requires all new buildings to meet net-zero energy requirements by 2026.
“On decarbonization, and frankly, just about every issue… no one is coming to save us. Whether on climate or infrastructure… we have more determination we will have to save ourselves,” said Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, as CNBC reported. “This is the biggest step we’ve taken towards decarbonization and maybe the biggest step any city has taken.”
Ithaca’s farmers’ market turns 50 this year and its vendors are ultra-local — all 160 of them are required to be located within a 30-mile radius of the city.
Farm-to-table is no new thing in Ithaca; the pioneering Moosewood restaurant — a leader in vegetarian gastronomy — was founded there as a workers’ collective in 1973.
Besides having espoused green and forward-thinking policies for decades, Ithaca is surrounded by pristine natural beauty, including three state parks and more than 150 waterfalls within ten miles of town.
This emerald gem of upstate New York has also created its own artistic beauty with more than 200 public works by Ithaca Murals, many of which have social justice themes like voting rights and immigration.
“I can be swimming under a waterfall a 10-minute bike ride from my house,” said Tom Knipe, the director of economic development for Ithaca, as reported by AFAR Magazine.
Not only is the city green, but Ithaca College is listed in The Princeton Review’s Top 50 Green Colleges for 2023.
“Not enough attention is being paid to what works in small American cities, and that’s not unique to decarbonization,” Myrick said.
In 2007, the small farming community of Greensburg was hit by a tornado that killed 13 of its residents and destroyed 95 percent of the town’s structures. In the wake of the tragedy, the community came together and decided to rebuild their town with sustainability in mind.
Not only did Greensburg grow back green, it became the second city in the U.S. to be entirely powered by wind energy. All of the electricity for the residents of the small town with “green” in its name comes from the Greensburg Wind Farm.
In rebuilding their town, the remaining residents — half had moved away — followed the Greensburg Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan. This included all of the town’s post-tornado buildings being built according to the standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum, the certification’s highest level.
This quintessential green town also installed ground-source heat pumps for its buildings and became the first city in the U.S. to have 100 percent LED street lighting.
Greensburg City Hall is a perfect example of excellence in sustainability, as it uses energy-efficient lighting, solar panels and is landscaped with drought-resistant plants, among other sustainable elements.
Surrounded by a temperate rainforest, the area that is now the Alaska state capital was for thousands of years occupied by the Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit Peoples. Indigenous culture is front and center in Juneau, showcased in the town’s public murals, hand-carved totem poles and signage.
The northernmost capital city in the U.S. has been flexing its green muscle by embracing electric vehicles (EVs). Surrounded by water and mountainous terrain, Juneau is basically an island that has all of its gasoline and goods brought in by airplane or boat. That means gas is expensive in Juneau, making EVs more attractive.
But what about the infrastructure? Juneau has tackled that issue by installing EV charging stations that get their electricity from the local utility company, which is 99.5 percent supplied by hydropower.
And there isn’t much road — just 55 miles on the longest stretch — making the possibility of being caught with a dead EV battery in Juneau pretty unlikely.
Another of the only six cities in the country that run entirely on renewable energy, Aspen was once a silver mining town, but in the 1940s turned a new leaf, becoming a haven for artists, intellectuals and outdoor enthusiasts.
Waste methane from a local coal plant is converted into energy that supplies four Aspen Skiing Company resorts, and the city provides free electric shuttle service, transportation by bus and the first half an hour free for bikeshare transport to encourage its use.
For each person who signs the Aspen Pledge — part of which states, “I WILL REMAIN IN ONE PIECE BY LEAVING THE WILDLIFE IN PEACE” — $18.80, in honor of the year Aspen was founded, is donated to environmental nonprofits.
Rock Port, Missouri
Rock Port is located about two-and-a-half miles east of the Missouri River Valley, and Rock Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River, flows through town.
This green small town is located near 407-acre Big Lake State Park, which offers camping and sits adjacent to Big Lake. The lake supports wetlands that are home to bird species and provide a refuge for migratory waterfowl.
Local food is available at the Rock Port Farmers Market at Harvey Park on Saturdays from June 17 through October 14, 2023. The market requires that single-use plastic items like straws, plates, cups, bowls and stirrers, as well as water bottles and thin-film bags, be made of certified compostable material, but adds that paper bags are preferred.
As the first city in the country to run entirely on renewable energy, Burlington is hard to beat in the pantheon of green cities. For 21 years, it has celebrated Earth Day with a community tree planting event, and thirty percent of its power is generated by a biomass plant that burns wood chips from sustainably harvested trees. Half of the city’s electricity comes from hydropower, and the remaining 20 percent is supplied by solar and wind.
This Vermont gem has a thoroughfare with no access to cars that is dotted with musicians and has outdoor seating in the summer, where every day feels like a festival.
But the real focus of the home of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is the implementation of Burlington’s Climate Action Plan — which considers everything from infrastructure and transportation to extreme weather, housing and food security — the Legacy Action Plan and other initiatives.
Kodiak Island, Alaska
The second-largest island in the U.S. is Alaska’s Kodiak Island. A great portion of this 3,670-square-mile island is taken up by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to 3,500 Kodiak brown bears.
Kodiak Island is second in size only to the Big Island of Hawaii and offers opportunities for hiking, camping and the observation of wildlife, as well as whale watching and kayaking off its breathtaking coastline. Wilderness lodges are also available for backcountry expeditions.
Not only does Kodiak Island have a stunningly beautiful landscape, the town itself is powered by a mix of almost 100 percent renewable energy sources.
In 2002, the Kodiak Electric Association decided to create a plan to lower their dependence on costly diesel fuel by transitioning to renewables. They reached their goal years ahead of schedule and are now receiving nearly all — about 99.7 percent — of their power from a combination of nine percent wind and 91 percent hydropower.The shift from diesel to renewables has saved local residents $22 million and reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 62 million pounds annually.