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The dirtiest city in the US might surprise you

Published Jan 19th, 2021 4:52PM EST
dirtiest cities in the us
Image: Design Pics/Keith Levit/Keith Levit/Newscom/The Mega Agency

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  • Many people carry the impression that big cities are dirty by their very nature, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
  • A new 200-city ranking reveals which large US cities are clean and which ones are filthy. 
  • The data used for the rankings comes from a variety of sources and should paint a fairly accurate picture of the “health” of each city.

When you hear the term “big city” your mind might draw up an image of a metropolis bustling with people and vehicles. In some cases, that image is also tainted by thoughts of pollution, litter, and other nastiness that can sometimes plague locations with large numbers of residents. Air pollution, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the burning of fossil fuels all contribute to how “clean” or “dirty” a city is, but there are many other factors at play here as well.

The site LawnStarter crunched an incredible amount of data from a variety of official sources in order to rank 200 of the biggest cities in the United States. The results, while not entirely surprising, might still make you raise your eyebrow once or twice.

To come up with each city’s place on the list, the researchers gathered data from sources including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Levels of air and water pollution were factored in, but other metrics were also included, such as the number of homes with cockroaches, the prevalence of mold in homes, the amount of recycling that residents do, and even the quality of infrastructure, like roads.

Each of these (and many other) metrics were weighted and then applied across all the cities on the list. The result is a ranking of the 200 biggest cities in the US in order from dirtiest to cleanest. Can you guess the cleanest city in the country? Probably not, so let’s take a look at the top 20 cleanest cities first, which make up the bottom of the rankings.

  1. Winston-Salem, NC
  2. Frisco, TX
  3. Madison, WI
  4. Dayton, OH
  5. St. Paul, MN
  6. Metairie, LA
  7. Elk Grove, CA
  8. Clarksville, TN
  9. McKinney, TX
  10. Lexington, KY
  11. Lincoln, NE
  12. Little Rock, AR
  13. Salem, OR
  14. Chesapeake, VA
  15. Des Moines, IA
  16. Fort Wayne, IN
  17. Springfield, MO
  18. Enterprise, NV
  19. Sioux Falls, SD
  20. Oceanside, CA

Well! Quite a variety here, covering states all across the country. From living in Wisconsin for my entire life I’ve always known that Madison and St Paul, MN, both have reputations for being very clean places, but I didn’t think they’d both end up in the top 5 cleanest big cities on the list. At the same time, California has two cities on this end of the list, which might be a bit surprising once you see how many they have on the other end. The state is huge, so it manages to run the gamut with big cities ranked both very clean and very dirty.

Speaking of the other side of the list, these are the top 20 dirtiest big cities in the United States:

  1. Palmdale, CA
  2. Los Angeles, CA
  3. Newark, NJ
  4. Houston, TX
  5. San Antonio, TX
  6. New York, NY
  7. New Orleans, LA
  8. Long Beach, CA
  9. Memphis, TN
  10. Chicago, IL
  11. Aurora, IL
  12. Glendale, CA
  13. Mesa, AZ
  14. Phoenix, AZ
  15. Fontanta, CA
  16. Pasadena, CA
  17. Anaheim, CA
  18. Detroit, MI
  19. Las Vegas, NV
  20. San Jose, CA

See what I mean? Eight of the top 20 dirtiest cities, including the top two spots, are all located in California. Meanwhile, Texas, which also appeared in the cleanest cities list, has two cities in the top 5 dirtiest as well. Again, it’s a very large state, so the rift between individual cities can be quite large.

In any case, it’s a very interesting bit of research, and if you’re interested in seeing where the other 160 cities (including yours, maybe!) are ranked, go check it out.