10 itineraries for the eco-urban traveler.
Going Green in America's Cities
Credit: Courtesy of L'Etoile

When you travel into nature, finding an eco-lodge or eco-friendly resort is becoming easier and easier. But what happens when you travel through America’s cities?The sad truth is that green travel in the U.S. pales when compared to Europe, so more than likely, your hotel wastes a ton of water; your rental car spews carbon dioxide; and your restaurant has been cleaned with harsh chemicals.

At least, that’s true for now—the focus on green travel to American urban areas is decidedly on the rise. And while hotels are the most obvious way to make your stay green, they’re not the only factor in assembling an environmentally friendly itinerary. Restaurants, rental-car companies, taxis, museums, and theaters are—in some places—shifting their practices to become more earth-friendly.

It’s going to be a long haul. More and more urban hotels say they’re committed to the environment, but do low-flow showerheads and recycling programs represent green dedication, or just "greenwashing?" "The model we have now only focuses on environmental management systems—it’s a diluted version," says Hitesh Mehta, one of the world’s leading eco-architects. "Urban hotels have a lot to borrow from nature lodges, and eco-lodges in particular."

True green starts, says Mehta, in the creation of the building, whether it’s a hotel, restaurant, or theater. It means using low- or zero-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paints, formaldehyde-free furniture, and natural alternative cooling and heating systems instead of inefficient, dirty HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems. It means following the lead of genuine eco-lodges, which sustain themselves with alternative power, reclaimed water systems, and sustainably grown produce.

Some domestic hotels have listened to experts like Mehta and jumped out ahead of the curve, creating environments that pass the tests of independent ratings groups. The Orchard Garden Hotel in San Francisco, for example, is one of America’s handful of hotels currently LEED-certified (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design), meaning the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) has determined that the buildings have been designed with criteria like a sustainable location, water-efficiency techniques, indoor environmental quality, and alternative and renewable energy sources.

That’s not all. The environmentally friendly luxury brand from Starwood Hotels, 1 Hotel, has broken ground in Seattle and has plans to build in four more U.S. cities. Others hotel chains, like Fairmont and Kimpton, have been blazing green trails for years. Fairmont’s Seattle guests, for example, receive free parking for their hybrid vehicles, and Kimpton’s 70 Park Avenue hotel in New York has an eco-concierge. In fact, full LEED-certified hotels are on their way to the Big Apple.

Of course, your hotel stay is just one part of your urban journey. While restaurants have been moving toward locally grown, organic menus, some are going beyond the cuisine. Boston’s Fireplace restaurant, for example, has banned Styrofoam, and Austin’s Leaf restaurant uses only earth-friendly products—that includes your knife and fork, which are made from potatoes.

When it comes to getting around town, public transportation is obviously the greenest, but not the most convenient. No worries. When in Madison, Wisconsin, call up Badger Cab Company—their entire fleet runs on clean propane. Need a car service in San Francisco?Eco Limo is true to its name, with a fleet of hybrids and bio-diesels.

And what about having fun?Portland, Oregon’s Center Stage offers shows in the LEED-certified Platinum Armory building. The World of Coca-Cola amusement park in Atlanta was designed with LEED standards, which means green for the whole family. And if all the eco-speak exhausts you, head to Washington D.C.’s Nusta Spa—America’s first LEED-CI (Commercial Interiors) spa—for a massage with organic products in its sustainable and highly stylized environment.

So if you find yourself in Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu, or the other seven U.S. cities on our list, here’s how to make your entire stay as green as possible.