America's Dirtiest Cities
In July, Atlanta became the latest city to ban smoking in public parks, with frightening fines—up to $1,000—for offenders. But keeping butts off green spaces came too late to help Atlanta’s ranking as the No. 5 dirtiest city in America.
As part of the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, Travel + Leisure readers ranked 35 metropolitan areas on the features most enticing to travelers, such as the vibrant culture, cutting-edge dining, and great shopping—as well as how safe, and tidy, a city feels. And Atlanta moved up a full four spots in the ranking of dirtiest cities from the previous year’s survey. Hopefully the smoking ban will help reverse the trend.
The cities that scraped the bottom of the cleanliness category may show signs of grit, grime, or muck, but they all have some basic features in common: they’re big, and most have a bustling nightlife. Partiers tend to be on the younger side—and that may add to the disarray. “Studies have consistently found that youths and young adults are the most prone, or willing, to litter,” says Steve Spacek, author of the “American State Litter Scorecard,” which has highlighted the less-than-pristine conditions in such top 20 cities as New Orleans, Chicago, and Las Vegas.
To be fair, though, plenty of “dirty” cities are working hard to mitigate the squalor. Boston recently installed 400 solar-powered trash compactors on city sidewalks to keep cans from overflowing. In Las Vegas, a new city ordinance decrees that those guys handing out adult “advertisements” on the Strip sidewalks now have to pick up dropped flyers every 15 minutes.
Plenty of people, meanwhile, are willing to accept a little dirt in exchange for a great city. “New Orleans is a living, breathing antique,” says Cindy Denney, a talent manager in the Crescent City, which went from No. 1 to No. 2 this year. “What makes it great is also what makes it funky—old wood, mismatched bricks, and peeling paint, from daily heat and moisture. We pay more attention to cuisine, music, and football than we do dirt.”
No. 1 New York City
After ranking a tidier No. 5 last year, NYC has regained its No. 1 spot for grit and grime. Some have argued that littering fines here—up to 10 days in jail—should be tougher, but pollution isn’t always just what you see or smell: New York also won the survey for being the loudest and rudest city. Plenty of voters embrace that over-the-top personality, however: the city also ranked first for its theater, stylish locals, and luxury stores.
No. 2 New Orleans
Between hurricanes and the tornado of detritus that comes with Mardi Gras every year, Crescent City can be forgiven for having a tough time keeping up with debris. Some would say it even complements the city’s old-style but offbeat atmosphere: it’s also the No. 1 city for wild weekends, bars, and friendly locals.
No. 3 Baltimore
Does this Maryland city need an army of cats? County officials have been reportedly getting more complaints about rats this year, which may be one reason the city creeped up from last year’s No. 6. But plenty of voters still see Charm City’s lovable side, ranking it well for its classical music and quirky locals.
No. 4 Los Angeles
That bad rap for smog has been hard to shake—especially when the Lung Association has ranked L.A. in the top three for the nation’s worst air pollution. The bright side? Voters still found the sunny skies appealing and applauded the city’s less-than-gleaming features, such as the classic burgers and kitsch-filled flea markets.
No. 5 Atlanta
The Sun Belt city moved four spots closer to the Most Dirty prize this year, and ranked next-to-last for feeling safe. Atlanta is trying to get rid of one unsightly presence—cigarette butts—by banning smoking in parks, with fines of up to $1,000. Readers otherwise liked the city’s genteel shopping and the unapologetically messy barbecue.
No. 6 Philadelphia
The City of Brotherly Love is moving in the right direction: last year, it ranked a gritty No. 2. Even so, while readers like that they can walk around town so easily, that may have given them an up-close view of the litter. Luckily, voters were also easily distracted by Philly’s fabulous microbrews and plentiful pizza.
No. 7 Dallas/Fort Worth
According to data, the Dallas area may have less of an ozone problem than Houston, but it still leapfrogged over its fellow Texas city and into the Dirtiest 10 this year. Perhaps voters didn’t find enough green space: the cities ranked last for their public parks. Locals here may prefer ballparks instead—these Texans also ranked in the top 10 for being sports-crazed.
No. 8 Miami
The Florida city—home to extremely polluted soil, according to one recent study—is holding onto its AFC spot from last year, and voters seemed to sense an overall chaos around town: Miami ranked near the bottom for noise and won the award for the nation’s worst drivers. But the locals still look fabulous: they ranked near the top for their style and good looks.
No. 9 Memphis
Memphis has improved five slots since last year, perhaps thanks to concerned citizens who can report litterbugs’ license plates on the 52-Clean hotline. Offenders get only a scolding letter in the mail—perhaps proof of the locals’ easygoing nature. Voters also put Memphis in the top 10 for its purposely sloppy barbecue and unrestrained music scene.
No. 10 Houston
Houston also made the American Lung Association’s top 10 for the worst ozones in the nation. If you want a nice excuse to stay indoors in this oil town, use the highly ranked burger joints and antique shops; the city also ranked well for being pleasantly affordable.
No. 11 San Francisco
The foodie capital of the nation ranks near the top of the AFC for its fine dining, ethnic cuisine, and cafés. But all that takeout can pile up. A recent study found that one of the biggest culprits for pollution in the San Francisco Bay is food containers—though ironically, they may be floating in from neighboring cities. Voters also commended the locals for being brainy and diverse.
No. 12 Washington, D.C.
Is there just too much trash-talking in our nation’s capital? Aside from having big-city litter, Washington, D.C., ranked near the bottom for being unfriendly. Voters still liked the museums and mass transit and, bad manners aside, put it in the top 10 for a family vacation.
No. 13 Las Vegas
It’s the No. 2 city for wild weekends, cocktails, and people-watching—so it’s no wonder that the place may look a little worse for wear. But Sin City is trying to clean up its image, in one way: a new city ordinance says that the guys handing out adult-oriented flyers on the sidewalks now have to pick up any dropped cards every 15 minutes.
No. 14 Boston
One of the finest moments in this historic city was when patriots made a mess of tea in the harbor. More recently, the city acted to contain sidewalk litter by tripling the number of “big belly” solar-powered trash compactors on city streets, which keep cans from overflowing. Voters also applauded the city for its hometown-loving, tech-savvy locals.
No. 15 San Juan, P.R.
Old San Juan may look a bit more unkempt than one of the island’s big beach resorts, but plenty of visitors love the romantic city for that reason. The city got four slots cleaner this year in the eyes of voters, who also found plenty of other appealing things to gaze at, from the top-ranked ethnic cuisine to the nation’s most gorgeous locals.
No. 16 San Antonio
The Texas city has festive flea markets, barbecue, and a legendary old fort—and none of them are known for being pristine. The city didn’t budge from its slot since last year, but visitors can help prevent air pollution by exploring the city with one of the rented bicycles from the downtown B-Cycle program ($10 for a 24-hour pass, or first 30 minutes free then $2 per half-hour).
No. 17 Orlando
Mother always said to pick up after yourself: this family vacation mecca landed at a sippy-cup-strewn No. 17 for the third year in a row. Speaking of drinks, the city also ranked near the bottom for its cocktail scene, as well as its fine dining. Even so, readers gave it props for its warm weather and the buffet of hotel options.
No. 18 Anchorage
The surge of tourists during the summer season may add to the litter problem in this park-rich Alaska city, which has otherwise been applauded for having clean air. It’s not raucous partiers who are leaving a trail of trash, either: voters ranked Anchorage next-to-last for its bar scene. Anchorage also scored poorly for its spotty Wi-Fi.
No. 19 Phoenix/Scottsdale
The desert city moved into the dirty top 20 this year, and also landed at No. 7 on the American Lung Association’s list of the most air-polluted cities. It may even be affecting the local self-esteem: the city also ranked in last place for its sense of civic pride. Voters love this city most during the mild-weathered Christmastime and winter.
No. 20 Chicago
Even though the Windy City has scored poorly on America’s “Litter Scorecard,” it has upped its standing with Travel + Leisure readers by two slots since last year—perhaps in part by beefing up its littering laws to a minimum of $100 for any ticket. Voters were also willing to overlook some littered sidewalks for the sake of the top-ranked architecture and the nation’s best pizza.