These days, even major American cities are realizing that when it comes to development, bigger isn’t always better. Although everyone wants healthy economic growth, many city dwellers are less willing to pay for it with increased traffic and other environmental costs associated with untrammeled sprawl.

This year, Delicious Living has again sought out a handful of visionary and vibrant communities where citizens have made the connection between quality of life and sustainable local policies. “Communities want something they can pass on to future generations, so they’ll have a city that they can be proud of,” says Dan Emerine, assistant project manager of the Smart Growth Network, an organization that raises public awareness about sustainability. “The cities that are most successful are the ones that can adapt. They recognize that what they did 20 or 50 years ago worked in some respects, but they need new strategies to adapt to a changing environment.”

Following, you’ll find five cities that take the “pass it on” philosophy to heart, trying to leave the environment in good shape for generations to come while serving as role models of sustainability for cities nationwide.

Seattle, Washington
Population: 563,374
Impressive because … it has adopted an aggressive energy-conservation plan and uses alternative energy sources to help slow global warming.
Other sustainable standouts:
> Single-occupant vehicle use in the city has decreased by 22 percent since 2002.
> City operations have cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent from 1990 to 2000.
> The city is home to 1,900 community garden plots in 44 neighborhoods that serve non-English-speaking, disabled, or low-income residents.

Since the early ’90s, Seattlites have used sustainability as an organizing principle for their vision of the “Emerald City.” This vision comes through in every aspect of how the city is run, from clean air, water, and energy programs to climate protection and waste reduction. “The residents essentially demand environmental responsibility,” says Steve Nicholas, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. “We try to deliver that.”

One ambitious project in the works: eliminating the city’s contribution to global warming by the end of 2005. In 2004, Seattle City Lights, the publicly owned electric company, aimed to conserve enough energy through the use of alternative sources to provide the whole city with energy without putting out any greenhouse gases. It’s the most aggressive such campaign in the country. “We’re on target to reach the goal,” says Nicholas.

Seattlites can also help keep their forests healthier thanks to a new city undertaking. Last year, Mayor Greg Nickels formed the Green Seattle Project to raise money to restore and protect 2,500 of the most at-risk acres of urban, city-owned forest from invasive plant species such as ivy. The goal is to raise $50 million over the next 20 years.

The city-sponsored natural drainage project, which won the Innovation of American Government Award (the Oscars of good government) in 2004, is another success story. Much of Seattle’s renowned rain has traditionally run off roofs, streets, and parking lots right into creeks, lakes, and the Puget Sound, carrying with it heavy pollutants such as oil, gasoline, and pesticides. Rather than using traditional curbs and gutters to drain the water directly into downspouts, the city is planting swaths of grass, shrubs, and trees along city roads. The green space slows down the water, giving it the opportunity to soak back into the soil and water table, thereby filtering many pollutants, providing cleaner water, and sustaining the city’s creeks throughout the summer. It looks like this Emerald City will only be getting greener in years to come.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Population: 334,563
Impressive because … it has been transformed from a dirty steel-mill and factory town to a thriving city with clean rivers and a revitalized downtown.
Other sustainable standouts:
> Has 2,208,440 square feet of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified (LEED or green) buildings—the most in the country.
> Ranked number one in trees per capita among U.S. cities.
> Home to 188 community gardens.

For more than 100 years, southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich resources—timber, petroleum, and coal—fueled the factories and mills that made Pittsburgh a jewel of the industrial revolution. But by the late 1800s that jewel wasn’t so iridescent. Smoke and soot drifting out from the factories required streetlights to be turned on during the day, and the city’s three rivers—the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio—were cesspools of industrial waste and disease. Because of the water’s acidity, it couldn’t even be used in steamship boilers.

But since the mid-1990s, one of America’s dirtiest cities has reinvented itself as one of the cleanest. The collapse of the U.S. steel industry in the late ’70s and early ’80s, along with Clean Water Act regulations—which imposed stringent controls on industrial pollution—helped motivate the cleanup. An infusion of cash from the local Heinz Foundation Endowment Fund and many other philanthropies also fueled the momentum.

Still, the progress couldn’t have happened without the vigilance of the city government and the public. Eleven years ago, Pittsburgh foundations worked to create the Western Pennsylvania Watershed Protection Program, to help local watershed associations get funding for restoration projects. Now 87 such groups exist, and they’ve made great strides in cleaning up the rivers and the city’s waterfront. As many as 90 species of fish thrive in the three rivers, and Pittsburgh will host the 2005 CITCO Bassmaster Classic—America’s premier bass fishing championship. After a near century-long hiatus due to pollution, the sport of rowing is also enjoying a renaissance; since 1987 the Three Rivers Rowing Association, one of the largest community rowing programs in the nation, now stages one of the country’s largest rowing regattas, the Head of the Ohio.

Pittsburgh is also considered a national model for rehabilitating “brownfields,” those abandoned, contaminated industrial sites found in most cities. Former factory sites along the city’s shores are being cleaned up and turned into new areas of retail shops and commerce, trendy neighborhoods, and green space with trails, parks, and community gardens. The Pittsburgh Technology Center, home to advanced academic and corporate research, now sits on what used to be a mammoth 48-acre steel mill. “It’s not as if we are without our challenges as we transition from the old economy to the new,” says Court Gould, director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, “but this town has a lot going for it.”

Cleveland, Ohio
Population: 478,403
Impressive because … its celebrated EcoVillage serves as a model of green building.
Other sustainable standouts:
> Preserved 7,761 tons of nonrenewable natural resources through recycling in 2003.
> Invested $1.7 billion over the last few years to revitalize its downtown and control suburban sprawl.

About 30 years ago, downtown Cleveland seemed headed the way of the dinosaur. With most of its steel mills and chemical factories shuttered, many longtime residents followed a classic pattern of “white flight” and moved out to the burbs. As outlying development gobbled up green space, downtown slowly emptied out. Fortunately, by the early ’90s, a critical mass of local environmental groups banded together to fight northeast Ohio’s number-one enemy: sprawl. The solution? Revitalize downtown to attract people back into the city.

Once Cleveland’s great industrial center, downtown is now lined with parks, trails, beaches, and protected natural areas, along with shopping areas, theaters, restaurants, entertainment centers, and new neighborhoods. Already home to a theater district and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, built in 1995, downtown is now the city’s fastest-growing neighborhood, with more than 5,000 housing units being built or refurbished.

On the west side of the city, one of America’s oldest and largest ecovillages thrives. Established in 1996 by two local Cleveland nonprofit groups, Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and EcoCity Cleveland, EcoVillage includes homes and businesses based on the latest environmental thinking. The village, which encompasses the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, includes some 3,000 people with low to moderate incomes who live, shop, and work within a convenient, walkable neighborhood. The village now has 20 green-built townhomes, 22 acres of improved recreational green space, and trails linking neighborhoods together. The decrepit transit station, which neighborhood activists saved from being closed, has just been through a $3.5 million green renovation. “We are getting to the point where a lot of the ideas we’ve been talking about for years are starting to take physical shape,” says Mandy Metcalf, the EcoVillage project director. “There’s a lot of potential to do even bigger and greater things.”

Austin, Texas
Population: 656,562
Impressive because … it boasts numerous green building projects, including an opera center, airport, and hospitals.
Other sustainable standouts:
> Since 1999, the city’s energy company has increased renewable energy use from 40 million kWh a year to 270 million kWh—a 500 percent increase.
> The city has 11,800 acres of greenbelt used for recreation.
> The city produces 31,000 cubic yards annually of Dillo Dirt, a compost made from collected yard trimmings and sewage waste.

Take a drive around this central Texas capital city, and you can’t help but notice the ubiquitous “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers. This is a town that fights to keep its uncommon Texas attitude alive. Its independent businesses, thriving music scene, and liberal spirit helped put the town on the map, but these days Austin’s progressive Green Building Program is also grabbing attention nationwide.

Started in 1991, the comprehensive program was the first of its kind to encourage the use of sustainable building techniques—such as installing energy-efficient windows and using recycled materials—in residential, commercial, and municipal construction. The concept is simple: Builders, architects, suppliers, and real estate agents who are committed to sustainable building (more than 300 so far) sign up as members of the city-sponsored program and agree to attend monthly educational seminars. In return, the city provides free consulting services, technical support, and marketing assistance for members’ projects. The result is not only hundreds of new green homes (a record 753 were built in 2003), but also a slew of state-of-the-art, more sustainable municipal buildings.

Consider the city’s American YouthWorks Building: Most of its building materials were recycled (including steel framing, ceiling tiles, and doors), 85 percent of the roof is solar-reflective, and an organic vegetable and herb garden encircles its urban parking lot. Across town, the new Austin Lyric Opera Center and Community Music School also is a showcase of sustainability; the city refurbished and added on to the existing building to reduce landfill waste and the demolition cost of starting from scratch. Strategically placed trees naturally shade and cool the building, and the use of native plants makes it both energy- and water-efficient. Other green projects include Austin’s airport, hospitals, libraries, and several new schools. “Every year we gain more members and see more projects,” says the Green Building Program’s administration specialist, Toye Goodson. “Our program just continues to grow.”

Berkeley, California
Population: 102,743
Impressive because … its Edible Schoolyard Project encourages children to grow and appreciate healthy organic foods.
Other sustainable standouts:
> Air-friendly city vehicles run on renewable 100 percent biodiesel.
> Stopped using pesticides in public places 20 years ago.
> First U.S. city to initiate curbside recycling.
> Saves $370,000 annually by incorporating energy-saving retrofits into city buildings.

Being home to a California university with a history rich in activism of all kinds, it may be no surprise that Berkeley made our list. But today, the community is less about free love and more about free-from-pesticide food and pollution-free transportation. “The economy we’re promoting is one that is less reliant on natural resources and one that really encourages alternatives,” explains city energy officer Neal De Snoo.

Perhaps the most homegrown and potentially influential eco-effort is the innovative Edible Schoolyard Project. Started in 1995 in a Berkeley middle school with the help of celebrated chef and Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters, the program aims to get kids involved in planting and tending a schoolyard garden. Later, the children cook and eat the organic harvest as part of the curriculum, developing new tastes and appreciation for healthy foods and community. Last summer, Waters signed an agreement to implement the program throughout the Berkeley school district over the next 10 years. The city hopes that by adopting the curriculum it can set an example for other schools across the country.

To cut down on air pollution, Berkeley is also the first town in the country to convert 200 of its city diesel vehicle fleet to renewable 100 percent biodiesel—including school buses and garbage trucks. Berkeley has been working hard to cut down the number of cars on the road by making the city as bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly as possible. Along with 50 bike lanes, there are seven bike boulevards—roads that usually have more bicycles than cars and have been modified to enhance bicycle safety and convenience. As a result, Berkeley now boasts the largest population of bike and foot commuters in the country. We guess it boasts some of the healthiest residents, too.

Christian Nardi is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.