Sustainable. Simply put, it means using our finite resources wisely. Conservation efforts often focus on such commodities as water and fossil fuels, but for many people sustainability begins right at home. The following U.S. cities have embarked on community-wide efforts to reinvigorate their hometowns, investing and working to preserve some of the most important resources in any community—parks, neighborhoods, and downtowns. By doing so, they are creating legacies of sustainability for generations to come.

Population: 16,651
Percentage of commuting on bike or foot: 22
Amount of pesticides allowed on property owned, maintained, or operated by the city: 0

Arcata, California
Arcata, located 275 miles north of San Francisco on California's Redwood Coast, has worn many hats since its establishment. Its proud 19th century Victorian architecture marks the town's place in Gold Rush history as a supply center to the surrounding mines. A thriving timber industry followed, as did the establishment of Humboldt State University in 1913.

These days, surrounded by conservative lumber country, the small town takes pride in its active, environmentally focused politics. "You have resource conservation-oriented people coming to Arcata for the university," explains Mayor Michael Machi, "and the city government is encouraging ecoconscious businesses to come here, so it just kind of feeds on itself."

Arcata's government has become known for its unusual but effective policy-making. One city ordinance limits fast-food or chain restaurants to nine at any one time, so locally owned businesses won't be pushed out. And back in 1979, a citizen-led initiative established sustainable management guidelines for the community-owned, 630-acre redwood forest. Today, there's still no clear-cutting, and any revenue from harvested timber goes toward acquiring parkland and improving the community forest. "We are nationally SmartWood-certified," says Machi, referring to the Rainforest Alliance's third-party designation. "So people who buy our second-growth redwood know it's been sustainably harvested." The town also uses the forest as a recreational area and educational resource.

Originally a landfill, the world-renowned Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary now naturally purifies the town's wastewater.

As sludge settles, clarified water flows through a series of oxidation ponds, and finally out to Humboldt Bay. In the process, the wetlands provide open space for more than 300 species of birds and mammals, 100-plus plant species, and 17 fish species—not to mention grateful human nature lovers.

Population: 92,600
Increase in solid waste diverted from the landfill through recycling programs between 2000 and 2002: 23 percent
Amount of pollutants Roanoke's tree canopy removes from the air annually: 950,000 pounds

Roanoke, Virginia
Roanoke occupies one of the best seats in the southeastern United States. Situated at the southern end of the scenic Shenandoah Valley, the town regards the Blue Ridge Mountains in one direction and the Appalachians in another. Along with stunning views at every turn and some of the best hiking, biking, and camping in this part of the country, Roanoke also has a mission.

In 2001, Roanoke's residents and city leaders unveiled a blueprint to guide development through 2020. A major goal: revitalizing its neighborhoods. Every two or three years, the city's Department of Housing and Neighborhood Services targets one disadvantaged neighborhood and spends up to $3.7 million to reinvigorate it. The city, working with other local authorities, tackles projects such as rehabilitating old properties, constructing user-friendly sidewalks, and awarding grants so local storefront businesses can dress up their appearances. "We're taking a very concentrated approach," explains Ford Weber, the agency's director. "It is really the most effective way to make a big enough impact to transform a neighborhood, as opposed to trying to allocate your resources evenly throughout the city."

Roanoke has also successfully established itself as a hothouse for the latest in green-building design with the C2C Home Design and Construction Competition, which debuted last year. Local architect Gregg Lewis (a devotee of sustainable-architecture gurus William McDonough and Michael Braungart) helped establish an international panel that judges more than 3,000 entries. Some of the winning designs—which feature composting toilets, green roofs, gray-water irrigation systems, and the like—are being built as affordable homes on donated lots in underserved neighborhoods (seven are in the works). Weber hopes visitors will come to see what the city has done. "I think we have an opportunity to create a model area where people can come and look at sustainable housing," he says.

Population: 1.8 million
Number of public fountains: 160 (more than any city but Rome)
Number of volunteers at the local recycling center in the last 14 years: 15,000

Kansas City, Missouri
Sure, it still has jazz and barbecue, but much new life is being breathed into this heartland metropolis. Kansas City already is well known for its many green and open spaces, most notably Swope Park, the country's second-largest urban park. Now K.C. is upping the ante with MetroGreen, an ambitious greenway and clean-water initiative that, over a 20-year period (now in year three), will link more than 1,000 miles of public and private open spaces and trails throughout all seven metropolitan counties in Kansas and Missouri. When complete, it will facilitate regional commuting and recreating on foot and bike. The initiative also helps protect water quality by keeping stream channels alive with indigenous vegetation that filters runoff pollutants. And woodlands and prairies benefit, because areas have been set aside for zero development.

After decades of suburban flight and neglect, downtown Kansas City is also getting a face-lift. Since 1999, more than a dozen vacant buildings have been remade into nearly 700 mixed-income residential units, with another 400 in the making. Public projects include a $50 million, 190,000-square-foot library and a performing arts center. Builders are incorporating ecosmart innovations such as "green roofs" (which feature live plants) to clean the air, reduce runoff, and provide insulation.

During the last five years, more than 16,000 young people and empty nesters have flooded back to the city's core—showing that smart community investments are an effective strategy for urban renewal after years of habitat-munching suburban sprawl. Upon completing a recent study, local environmental urban planning firm Sasaki Associates offered kudos: "No city in America has accomplished as much in such a short time."

Christian Nardi is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.