Smog over Los Angeles
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The Dirtiest (and Cleanest) Big Cities in America

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Smog over Los Angeles
Daniel Stein/istockphoto

Urban Dirty

During four years as president, Donald Trump reversed, revoked, or rolled back some 100 environmental protections. For big cities across the country, not only is pollution back to pre-pandemic levels, but in some cases it's worse, according to a study from LawnStarter that ranks 200 of the biggest U.S. cities on such metrics as air and water quality. As the study points out, air pollution increases our chances for heart disease and stroke and carries more specific threats, such as worsening the severity of COVID-19 in lung cancer patients. Here are the 10 dirtiest cities and 10 cleanest cities in the country that made it onto Lawnstarter's list — with an overall ranking averaged from four factors (pollution, living conditions, perception of cleanliness, and infrastructure) in which the lower the numbers, the worse things are.

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10th Dirtiest: Chicago

While Los Angeles is notorious for its dismal air quality, in July the air in Chicago was worse than L.A.'s for more than a week, according to the American Lung Association. Chicago residents are breathing increasingly unhealthy air largely because of a combination of hotter days (caused by climate change) and vehicle emissions, the association said in 2019. Another report the same year by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found some 20 contaminants in the city's water that were above recommended health guidelines between 2012 and 2017.

Memphis, Tennessee

9th Dirtiest: Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis is hardly among the worst cities on the index for pollution challenges (including air quality, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions per capita, and annual excess fuel consumption), but is held back by infrastructure challenges — meaning it's second-worst out of 200 on collecting refuse and recyclables; alternative fuel stations; and on state waste regulations.

Long Beach, California
Art Wager/istockphoto

8th Dirtiest: Long Beach, California

Look at the 20 overall dirtiest big cities in the nation and you'll find California has claimed eight of those spots. And seven of those eight are in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, a region plagued by air quality pollution and enormous fuel consumption. That's where you'll find Long Beach: Third-worst in pollution and sixth-worst in living conditions nationwide.

Related: 22 Types of People Who Shouldn't Visit California

New Orleans

7th Dirtiest: New Orleans

New Orleans fares poorly on the index's rankings of living conditions (28th) and citizen satisfaction with municipal cleanliness (36th). But it does even worse on infrastructure, landing in the top slot — meaning it has the worst infrastructure of all 200 cities studied when it comes to collecting waste and recyclables, alternative fuel stations, and state waste regulations. In terms of pollution, though, it ranks 81st out of 200.

New York

6th Dirtiest: New York

It should be no surprise that the largest cities are often the filthiest. Five of the 10 most populated cities in the country are among the top 10 dirtiest on the index, with New York sharing the distinction with such sprawling urban hubs as Houston and Los Angeles. New York stands out with the highest percentage of homes with signs of mice or rats in the entire country, though in pollution it's only 127th out of 200.

Related: 15 Types of People Who Shouldn't Visit New York City

San Antonio

5th Dirtiest: San Antonio

San Antonio plunges deep into the 100-worst cities for pollution (57th) and earns the distinction of being second-highest in the nation for share of homes with signs of cockroaches. If cockroaches give you the creeps, you'll likely want to steer clear of Texas and Florida altogether, since they have 23 of the 30 cities where homes show the most signs of cockroach infestations. "The warm subtropical climate is the most likely reason for the increased bug presence. If you live in Florida or Texas … you're likely sharing your home with six-legged uninvited guests," the study says.


4th Dirtiest: Houston

Houston ranks third worst for cockroaches, right behind San Antonio and St. Petersburg, Florida. The city is the 14th-worst for living conditions (based on such factors as population density, share of overcrowded households, share of households with no kitchen or plumbing facilities, share of homes with mold in the past 12 months, and share of homes with mice, rats, or cockroaches) and 33rd for satisfaction with how the city is kept clear of dirt, grime, and other visible signs of neglect. It's 22nd out of 200 in terms of pollution, too.

Related: 30 Most Congested Cities in America

Newark, New Jersey

3rd Dirtiest: Newark, New Jersey

Just barely escaping the top 10 worst pollution offenders at 12th-worst, Newark also earns the rank of second-worst in the nation for citizens' satisfaction with cleanliness. The city does better in the category of living conditions, inching down to 59th. Newark is also third-worst for the share of residents dissatisfied with how their garbage is handled.

Los Angeles

2nd Dirtiest: Los Angeles

That Los Angeles is fifth on the pollution rank and not No. 1 overall is at least a little surprising, given a long-held reputation for abysmal air quality. The city fares worse on the living condition index, in which it's third-worst. And resident dissatisfaction over keeping public spaces tidy and bright is not stellar in Los Angeles either: It's the 12th-highest out of 200. The city does the best in the infrastructure category, coming in closer to the bottom at 126.

Related: The Best and Worst Cities in America for Driving

Palmdale, California
Gary Kavanagh/istockphoto

The Dirtiest City: Palmdale, California

A city in Northern Los Angeles County, Palmdale doesn't just land at No. 6 for pollution, but at  10th for living conditions and seventh for citizen satisfaction with how city workers keep streets tidy — as in, they're not satisfied. It's not all doom and gloom in Palmdale: Its infrastructure rank of 156 out of 200 is respectable.

Lexington, Kentucky

10th Cleanest: Lexington, Kentucky

Among the cleanest big cities on the list, Lexington does fairly well across the board: In addition to not being overly polluted, the city is far, far from the worst (176th) for living conditions and low in citizen complaints for municipal upkeep (140th). It's infrastructure score is less stellar, at 71.

McKinney, Texas

9th Cleanest: McKinney, Texas

McKinney is one of the leaders in the study when it comes to better living conditions, earning a ranking of 195 — so, only five from the best possible rank. It is 145th out of 200 for citizen satisfaction with spick-and-span public places, though only 91st for infrastructure. (And 139th for pollution.)

Related: 12 Places Where Nature Thrived as Humans Retreated During Lockdown

Clarksville, Tennessee

8th Cleanest: Clarksville, Tennessee

About an hour outside Nashville, the city of Clarksville draws few complaints about pollution (tying for 150th with four other cities) and ranking 193rd out of 200 for living conditions — meaning it's among the top 10 best. It does far less respectably in the infrastructure category, coming in at 21st.

Old Town of Elk Grove, California (2007)
Old Town of Elk Grove, California (2007) by EG-Richard (CC BY-SA)

7th Cleanest: Elk Grove, California

Elk Grove earns respectable scores across the board, including 103rd for living conditions, 151st for pollution, 156th for citizen satisfaction with well-kept public spaces, and, best of all, 178th for infrastructure.

Metairie, Louisiana

6th Cleanest: Metairie, Louisiana

Earning its best score for lack of pollution, Metairie also earns solid marks for living conditions (154th) and is low in citizen complaints about upkeep (156th). In the infrastructure category, however, the Louisiana city has a ton of room for improvement: It comes in as 17th worst in the nation.

Related: Biden’s Climate Plan: Which States Will See the Biggest Impact

St. Paul, Minnesota

5th Cleanest: St. Paul, Minnesota

St. Paul is nothing if not consistent: It ranks 147th for living conditions, 144th for citizen satisfaction with shipshape public spaces, and 148th for infrastructure. (It breaks the streak by being 169th out of 200 in terms of pollution.)

Dayton, Ohio
Ron and Patty Thomas/istockphoto

4th Cleanest: Dayton, Ohio

Dayton earns its best ranking for living conditions, at 185th. Its second-most notable ranking is for low pollution, at 170th and third for infrastructure, at 155th. But even its ranking of 136th for citizen satisfaction with tidy public spaces puts it in good company.

Related: The Coldest and Warmest Cities in Every State

Madison, Wisconsin

3rd Cleanest: Madison, Wisconsin

In addition to earning a respectable 179th on the pollution metric, Madison shows up as 179th for living conditions, which means residents are overall pleased with their city's population density, low share of overcrowded households, low share of households with no kitchen or plumbing facilities, low share of homes with mold in the past 12 months, and low share of homes with mice, rats, or cockroaches. Madison ranks a bit worse — at 147th — for citizen satisfaction with municipal upkeep.

Frisco, Texas

2nd Cleanest: Frisco, Texas

After all that talk about cockroach challenges in Texas, it's somewhat remarkable to see a Texas city come in second-best in the country on the overall index. According to the study, Frisco ties for at 150th with four other cities for dissatisfaction around pollution. Frisco also has the among the lowest share of residents dissatisfied with garbage disposal, ranking 154th in a tie with two other cities.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

The Cleanest City: Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Winston-Salem has a combination of solid scores for the metrics studied. In addition to its minimal pollution challenges (at 184th), the city comes in 174th for living conditions and 151st for keeping streets free of dirt, garbage, and grime.