Cities That Inspire
If you're looking for a place where the natural living is easy, check out our top picks from around the country

By Joe Lewandowski

What makes a city an inspiring place to live? Each of the five towns profiled here boasts environmental consciousness, alternative health care options, natural products stores, health food restaurants, easy access to open space, and a broad spectrum of cultural and spiritual offerings that make for a balanced, enriching lifestyle. Although each town is unique, all of them make healthy, natural living a breeze. So whether you're searching for a new place to call home or just thinking of some cool places to visit this summer, check out these inspirational towns. Then hit the road and experience them for yourself.

Austin, Texas
Population: 656,562
Average Temperatures: January, 50 degrees; July, 85 degrees
Austin Highlights: Home to the first Whole Foods Market; one of only 14 U.S. cities that has its own ballet, opera, and symphony; averages 300 days of sunshine annually

Yearning for open space? Head to the Texas capital. Nestled amid rolling hills and a chain of lakes 150 miles long, Austin provides limitless outdoor recreation opportunities. The city's parks and recreation department oversees more than 16,076 acres of land, including 205 parks, 14 nature preserves, and 25 greenbelts (parklands along creeks and canyons). More than 18 miles of surfaced paths and 14 miles of natural-surface trails exist within the city, including a hike-and-bike trail that makes a six-mile continuous loop around Town Lake in the heart of downtown. The Colorado River also cuts through the center of the city. Needless to say, Austinites love to walk, bike, and run—and get out on the water every chance they get.

Preserving all these natural wonders is an Austin priority. In fact, the World Resources Institute ranks Austin as the second-greenest city in the nation, a step behind Honolulu. Take the naturally fed Barton Springs Pool, the most popular watering hole in the city. A regional law ensures that the watershed that feeds the pool isn't damaged by development. Then there's the nonprofit group Ecology Action, which started Austin's first recycling center in 1970 and developed curbside recycling with the city in 1982. Now a "pay-as-you-throw" garbage-collection program provides an incentive for people to be less wasteful. And the citywide transportation system offers free rides to commuters on high-pollution "ozone action days."

Austin is home to dozens of alternative health care practitioners and more than 100 yoga teachers. Check out the Web site to read announcements for everything from drum circles and meditation gatherings to baby massage and parenting workshops. Numerous alternative-therapy schools also are located here, including the Lauterstein-Conway Massage School, the Texas College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the Park Place Holistic Center, where alternative healers offer their services to the community. Spiritual opportunities also abound, with some 544 religious institutions of various denominations within the city limits.

Still, when you think Austin, you probably think music, not medicine or meditation. Austin, the "live music capital of the world," hosts more than 120 live-music venues offering everything from jazz to country. But modern tunes aren't the only culture. The city is also home to a professional symphony, a ballet company, and an opera company, as well as numerous theaters and museums and more than 25 art galleries.

Natural foods reign supreme here—after all, Austin is where industry giant Whole Foods Market, the largest natural foods supermarket chain in the world, got its start. The city offers a plethora of fresh local produce at many natural foods stores and co-ops—much of it grown organically in the rich Hill Country soil. Ten outdoor summer markets are set up throughout the city, and Austin boasts more than 30 vegetarian and health food restaurants, including such favorites as Mother's Café, Mr. Natural, and Veggie Heaven. There's even the Vegetarian Network of Austin, which hosts events and offers information on the vegetarian lifestyle. Who knew veggies were so hip in cattle country?

Madison, Wisconsin
Population: 208,054
Average Temperatures: January, 19 degrees; July, 71 degrees
Madison Highlights: The first city in the United States to offer curbside recycling; 15,400 acres of lakes and more than 6,000 acres of parkland; the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center

Moving to the Midwest to pursue a more natural lifestyle isn't exactly a hot trend, but Madison issues an appealing call. Long a progressive bastion, Madison has set trends for decades. For example, it was the first city in the nation to implement curbside recycling when it began collecting newspapers in 1968. The city now recycles everything from appliances to yard waste, collecting 265 tons of material each week and boasting a 97 percent curbside program participation rate. A city-run co-pay graffiti removal program also helps keep the city beautiful.

A recreational paradise, Madison is the only city in the country with its downtown centered on an isthmus, a half-mile-wide strip of land between two big lakes. The rest of the city, including the University of Wisconsin campus, is wrapped around both lakes. Life revolves around the lakes, which have numerous public beaches and parks for soaking up the sun in summer and ice-skating and cross-country skiing in winter. The city is also bike-friendly, with dedicated paths throughout and easy access to the rolling countryside.

The fertile Wisconsin farmland provides an abundance of organic produce, much of it sold at the farmers' market that's been held on the grounds of the state capitol every Saturday throughout the summer for 30 years. The market, which includes live music, draws thousands and is a family favorite. In fact, demand is so strong that during the winter the market is held indoors at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. The good-food ethic spills over to the rest of the city, with numerous vegetarian restaurants, such as the popular Peacemeal Vegetarian Restaurant.

Although Wisconsin is home to the "cheeseheads," Madison takes health and wellness to heart, embracing alternative healing. The city boasts 127 chiropractors and four massage schools. Even the local hospitals are getting in on the act. Meriter Hospital offers massage, acupuncture, and other alternative practices through its complementary medicine program, and the university's teaching hospital has similar offerings.

Madison residents can also take advantage of an ever-growing arts community. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra puts on outdoor concerts for six consecutive Wednesday nights during the summer, and the University of Wisconsin campus hosts an abundance of theater and music performances. But the best is yet to come. Thanks to a $50 million donation from a local businessman's family, the city is building a major downtown arts center—the Overture Center for the Arts—which will accommodate everything from rock concerts to fine-art exhibitions. Looks like Madison is going to be more appealing than ever before.

Eugene, Oregon
Population: 137,893
Average Temperatures: January, 40 degrees; July, 67 degrees
Eugene Highlights: The internationally recognized Oregon Bach Festival; more than 2,000 acres of parks; Willamette Pass ski mountain an hour to the east; Saturday Market, a craft fair that began in 1970 and still takes place every week

If the real estate adage "location, location, location" were awarded to a city, Eugene would win hands down. An hour west lies the Pacific Ocean; an hour east is the Cascade Range. The wide and clean Willamette River runs through town, and the city sits in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural spots on the planet. Now, throw in some human-made amenities: more than 2,000 acres of parks, 100 miles of paths and bike lanes, a couple of major music festivals, and ever-popular weekend markets. Put it all together and it's easy to see why Eugene is considered one of America's best small cities for natural living.

Eugene is home to an outdoor-oriented population with a serious environmental conscience. The curbside recycling program is one of the city's brightest stars. In addition to aluminum cans, glass, and newspapers, residents can set out junk mail, magazines, mixed paper, cardboard, plastics, and even motor oil. The city is also working to restore and maintain crucial wetlands, part of the effort to help revive and protect wild chinook salmon in the Willamette River. Residents who want to pitch in are encouraged to sign up and be part of a variety of environmental volunteer work crews. The city also offers a range of classes on environmental subjects, such as composting, sustainable building, and organic gardening. To keep watch on the overall quality of life in the city is the Friends of Eugene, a local environmental organization.

During the summer, Eugene hosts a world-renowned Bach festival and the Oregon Festival of American Music. Eugene Celebration, a three-day street extravaganza held every September, features music, parades, food, and family events. The town's venerable Saturday Market began back in 1970, when a group of local artists gathered in a downtown park on Saturday mornings to sell their goods. Artists still come together 33 years later. Right across the street, the Lane County Farmers' Market features 60 local growers who sell organic products ranging from juicy blackberries to hazelnuts to organic milk. The farmers' market runs from April through mid-November, making it possible to keep fresh, local produce on the table a good part of the year.

Because of the moderate climate and some 28 miles of designated jogging paths, many world-class runners call Eugene home. Eugene also has long been considered a center of counterculture, open to alternative healing modalities and spiritual pursuits. It's not surprising, then, that the city supports 90 massage therapists, 28 acupuncturists, and 15 shops that sell herbal remedies, including the popular Open Gate Chinese Medicine Clinic.

OK, there is a downside. It rains—a lot (about 47 inches a year). The good news, though, is that the temperature seldom drops below freezing, and summers are comfortable, so it's easy to be outdoors anytime. With all that Eugene has to offer, what's a little rain?

Bozeman, Montana
Population: 27,509
Average Temperatures: January, 21 degrees; July, 66 degrees
Bozeman Highlights: Located 90 miles from Yellowstone National Park; natural hot springs just outside town; world-renowned fly fishing in the Gallatin River (the film A River Runs Through It was filmed here)

"The Most Livable Place" is how the university town of Bozeman bills itself—no doubt due to its small-town feel, big-city features, and incredible natural surroundings. Located in the vast Gallatin River Valley, Bozeman is flanked by four mountain ranges, wide-open ranch land, and expanses of wilderness that help protect Yellowstone National Park, just 90 miles away. Tens of thousands of acres of nearby forestland are open for exploring, blue-ribbon trout-fishing streams await residents minutes from town, and skiing is 16 miles away at Bridger Bowl, a privately run, nonprofit ski mountain where lift tickets go for as little as $35 a day. As if that weren't enough, the nonprofit Gallatin Valley Land Trust is working with the city and volunteers to develop a "Main Street to the Mountains" trail system connecting downtown Bozeman with the Bridger Mountains to the north and the Gallatin Mountains to the south. Talk about easy access to nature.

Considering its small size, Bozeman is also home to a surprising number of cultural and spiritual venues. It has its own symphony, ballet, and opera, and throughout the summer, residents are treated to numerous outdoor concerts, as well as Shakespeare in the Parks, put on by Montana State University's (MSU) theater department. Bozeman museums include the Museum of the Rockies, a natural history museum and planetarium located on the MSU campus, and the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture, a community center where members come together to celebrate and enjoy the arts.

Bozeman serves as a regional medical center, so traditional health care facilities are plentiful. And alternative health care offerings are in ample supply as well; take your pick among four yoga studios, 12 chiropractors, 11 acupuncturists, and numerous massage therapists, naturopaths, and herbalists.

Bozeman boasts one of the largest member-owned food cooperatives in the Rocky Mountain region. The Community Food Co-op has 14,000 members—that's more than half the town. Five truckloads of organic produce and products arrive at the co-op every week. During the summer months, the co-op buys locally grown products from area farmers. Environmentally friendly Montana ranchers who raise range-fed, hormone-free buffalo and cattle keep the co-op stocked with healthy meat. Vegetarian restaurants haven't cropped up yet (this is cow country after all), but most eateries offer veggie fare.

Environmentally conscious Bozeman composts yard waste and provides nine recycling centers scattered throughout town. It is also home to several major environmental groups—including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Predator Conservation Alliance, and American Wildlands—which keep an eye on local, regional, and national conservation issues. The nonprofit Montana River Action is dedicated to protecting and improving Montana's streams and water quality. City residents and local and regional governments are also in the midst of a long-range environmental planning process that will examine everything from city growth to regional water quality, making sure that Bozeman continues to be a great place to live.

Portland, Maine
Population: 64,249
Average Temperatures: January, 22 degrees; July, 69 degrees
Portland Highlights: The Portland Museum of Art; Portland Head Light; the Portland Public Market, offering fresh Maine produce and foods every day

In the crowded Northeast, Portland offers a unique small-town environment and a stunning range of recreational and healthy lifestyle opportunities. Settled on Casco Bay in 1632, Portland is often referred to as a mini-Boston. The downtown streets are cobblestone, and the lively central business district is a dense cluster of renovated 19th-century buildings.

Environmentalists—who in 1989 aimed to clean up Casco Bay, at the time one of the most polluted waters in the United States—spurred much of the renovation. A community activist group, Friends of Casco Bay, mounted a cleanup campaign that helped spark an urban revival, transforming the gritty old seaport town into a thriving business and entertainment center. The Downtown Arts District offers the Portland Museum of Art, with impressive Homer and Wyeth collections; the Portland Performing Arts Center; and numerous restaurants and movie houses. The city is also home to the popular Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Two downtown centerpieces provide residents with great sources of fresh foods from surrounding farms and the sea. Local growers stock the all-organic farmers' market on Fridays during the summer months, and right next door is the Portland Public Market, a European-style indoor facility that offers everything from fresh-baked bread to lobster year-round. The Whole Grocer is a natural foods mecca, offering organic produce and natural products in a supermarket setting. Portland is also renowned for an eclectic mix of dining options, and most restaurants serve unique vegetarian fare. One local restaurant, Woody's, specializes in organic food, including hormone-free and grass-fed beef.

As Maine's biggest city, Portland is the region's primary medical center. And there's also a thriving community of healers and alternative-therapy specialists. The local hospital, Maine Medical Center, has a complementary and alternative residency program. For training, the doctors turn to naturopaths, acupuncturists, and other healing specialists in the community. Portland also supports some 75 massage therapists, a handful of yoga studios, and at least 20 acupuncturists.

But perhaps the greatest draw to this East Coast city is the access to open space. The greater Portland area offers residents 100 miles of nature and walking trails, including a network of 10 miles of trails that line the bay and lead into the surrounding woods just outside the city. Sea kayaking is popular, and the craggy coastline offers opportunities for paddlers of all abilities. For those seeking relaxation, several sandy beaches are located only a few minutes from downtown. Just to the west and north of Portland are lakes, rivers, mountains, and forestlands that are excellent for canoeing, hiking, skiing, and exploring. Many Portland residents learned to ski at Lost Valley, a tiny, family-oriented area about a half-hour's drive north, but more challenging terrain awaits even farther north at Sunday River, a full-size ski resort. Plenty of trails in nearby parks and forest preserves are open to cross-country skiers and snowshoers alike.

On the environmental front, Portland Trails, a private urban conservation group, works to preserve open lands and to build new trails throughout the region. The group is responsible for establishing and maintaining the more than 100 miles of trails. Another environmental group, Rippleffect, teaches youngsters about the natural world and takes them on outdoor adventures. The Audubon Society keeps a close watch on the region's sea- and shore-birds. No matter what your interests or tastes, you can have it all in Portland.

Joe Lewandowski, city editor for the Durango Herald, in Durango, Colorado, has made it a habit to explore new areas. He recently reveled in a year of travel around the world.