The Dirtiest (and Cleanest) Big Cities in America

Smog over Los Angeles

Daniel Stein/istockphoto

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Smog over Los Angeles
Daniel Stein/istockphoto

Urban Dirty

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 90 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.

Related: 24 Earth-Friendly Habits That Can Save You Money

Aerial view of Lincoln Park neighbourhood with Chicago skyline

10th Dirtiest: Chicago

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. Aside from subpar air quality, the city has some of the worst, dirtiest living conditions — meaning there are high amounts of homes with mold, signs of mice or rats, signs of cockroaches, among other things.

Related: Easy Ways to Create a Healthier Home

Glendale Skyline - California
S. Greg Panosian /istockphoto

9th Dirtiest: Glendale, California

Despite being known as the jewel city, Glendale is far from sparkly and shiny. It ranks as one of the dirtiest cities in the nation, mostly due to infrastructure issues regarding waste and road conditions.

Related: 15 Reasons I Drive An Electric Car

Phoenix, Arizona skyline at dusk

8th Dirtiest: Phoenix

Air pollution has been a consistent and ongoing nuisance in Phoenix — along with five other cities in Arizona, it’s tied for the worst air quality in the nation. According to research group Environment America, the region experienced 149 days of elevated air pollution during 2020. In a pre-pandemic report, The American Lung Association also noted that Phoenix was one of the worst cities for two dangerous pollutants: particle and ozone pollution. 

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Aerial view of Las Vegas strip in Nevada

7th Dirtiest: Las Vegas

You probably picture casinos, bright lights, and elaborate hotels when you think of Las Vegas. But there’s much more grotesque imagery than you might be aware of, like homeless squatters lining the strip with drugs, garbage, and feces. As such, the city is considered the second-worst in the country for infrastructure issues related to waste disposal. Yet another reason to be relieved that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Related: How Long Can You Expect to Live in America's Biggest Cities?

Riverwalk San Antonio Texas skyline, park walkway along scenic canal

6th Dirtiest: San Antonio

San Antonio 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 altogether since the state has more than 30 species of the six-legged insect.

Related: These Are the Nation's Most Bedbug-Infested Cities

Oklahoma City

5th Dirtiest: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Oklahoma City has the third-worst living conditions out of 90 assessed cities — a ranking largely influenced by the fact that the city holds the top spot for homes with signs of mice and rats. To top things off, Oklahoma City has the second-highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita. 

Related: 15 Green Jobs That Pay Well

Downtown San Bernardino, California
Hollywood - Los Angeles

3rd Dirtiest: Los Angeles

That Los Angeles is 21st on the pollution rank and not right at the top 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 fifth-worst. And resident dissatisfaction over keeping public spaces tidy and bright is not stellar in Los Angeles either: It's the fifth-highest out of 90. The city does the best in the infrastructure category, coming in closer to the halfway mark at 31.

Related: Life Expectancy the Year You Were Born

Downtown Houston Texas Skyline

2nd Dirtiest: Houston

Houston ranks third worst for cockroaches, right behind San Antonio and St. Petersburg, Florida. The city is the seventh-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 20th for satisfaction with how the city is kept clear of dirt, grime, and other visible signs of neglect. It's ninth out of 90 in terms of pollution, too — coming in third for the most greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

Related: Most Sinful Cities in America

Newark, New Jersey

The Dirtiest City: Newark, New Jersey

Just barely escaping the top 10 worst pollution offenders at 13th-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 infrastructure, inching down to 43rd. Newark is also worst for the share of residents dissatisfied with how their garbage is handled. All told, the city is considered the dirtiest in the U.S.

Indianapolis skyline, Indiana
Ron and Patty Thomas/istockphoto

10th Cleanest City: Indianapolis, Indiana

Cleanliness is a community effort in Indianapolis — the city holds the No. 1 spot for refuse and recycling collectors for 100,000 residents. Indianapolis also boasts the sixth-best living conditions out of 90 cities.

View towards the towns of east bay, San Francisco bay area, Hayward, California
Sundry Photography/istockphoto

9th Cleanest City: Hayward, California

Among all of the categories that contribute to the overall rankings of cleanest and dirtiest cities, Hayward remains above the midpoint for every aspect. The city’s highest points include living conditions and infrastructure.

Nashville Night Street Scene Music Row Tennessee Travel Destinations
Lorraine Boogich/istockphoto

8th Cleanest City: Nashville, Tennessee

Just because Nashville is booming with bars, honkey tonks, and tourists, doesn’t mean it’s dirty. The city is notorious for being well-kept and clean. In addition to low levels for air pollution, Nashville has the fifth-best living conditions of all 90 cities evaluated.

Rachel Carson Bridge

7th Cleanest City: Pittsburgh

Cracking the top 10 for both living conditions and infrastructure, Pittsburgh has come a long way in recent years in terms of cleanliness. Formerly referred to as “the smoky city,” Pittsburgh hasn’t always had the best air quality due to industrial pollution, but it comes in as the 31st-best for air quality out of 90 cities.

Aerial of Downtown Greensboro North Carolina NC Skyline

6th Cleanest City: Greensboro, North Carolina

It’s no surprise that Greensboro is one of the cleanest cities since it ranks consistently high across each of the metrics. The city has the sixth-lowest pollution levels along with the 12th-best living conditions.

Charlotte, North Carolina Skyline
Sean Pavone/istockphoto

5th Cleanest City: Charlotte, North Carolina

Breaking into the top five cleanest cities, Charlotte offers so much more than the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The city falls within the top 10 for low pollution levels and clean living conditions, also scoring high in the infrastructure category.

Aerial view of Columbus Ohio

4th Cleanest City: Columbus, Ohio

With the second-lowest share of homes showing signs of mice or rats, Columbus ranks as fourth-cleanest for living conditions. The city also has some of the lowest pollution levels and high resident satisfaction as a result.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

3rd Cleanest City: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Virginia Beach had zero days that were high in particle or ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air report — making it one of the cleanest cities in the nation. Thanks to its low pollution levels, the city also ties with three other cities for having the best air quality.

Kansas City Downtown Skyline Streetcar

2nd Cleanest City: Overland Park, Kansas

With a population of nearly 200,000, you might assume that it would be difficult to maintain cleanliness in Overland Park. However, thanks to being the city with the fourth-lowest share of homes showing signs of mice or rats and the fourth-lowest share of residents dissatisfied with the city due to pollution, Overland Park is actually the second-cleanest city.

Norfolk Virginia Cityscapes

The Cleanest City: Norfolk, Virginia

Tied for the best air quality, Norfolk is officially the cleanest city in the nation. But its ranking as the city with the third-highest level of resident satisfaction is not just because of the air quality — residents are also extremely satisfied with garbage disposal in the city.