20 most innovative cities of the West

From space tourism to green living, here's why to live in these cities now

Futuristic cities

Photo of Denver's EPA building by David Fenton

The West's top spots for thinking ahead

To be hopeful about the future, just take a tour of the West.

Young entrepreneurs here are not hesitant to try something new, city halls are taking on the environment at a grassroots level, and universities are challenging old ways of thinking.

“If there’s one thing that towns and cities should be doing right now, it’s experimenting,” says Jamais Cascio, author of Hacking the Earth. "If you look at the [successful] cities of the future, what you will see are those that are actively producing energy and food and information.”

That said, we declare the 2010s the Decade of Experimentation and the West its laboratory. Click ahead for 20 cities leading the way.

Sunset  | From the March 2010 issue 

Spaceport America renderings

Conceptual images by URS/Foster + Partners

Las Cruces, NM: Space tourism

More than 300 would-be astronauts have already signed up with Virgin Galactic to be among the first to plunk down $200,000 for a trip into space.

Spaceport America (think LAX for spaceships), funded by the state of New Mexico and now under construction in Las Cruces, is going to be the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world, and Virgin Galactic expects to be the first company to provide sub-orbital flights to the general public.

Liftoff is expected in the next five years.

Boise businesses

Photo by Glenn Oakley

Boise, ID: Work and play

Got a start-up idea? Boise wants you. The Idaho city has garnered high marks from Forbes as one of the top places to start a business. Micron is a top gun and the city’s biggest employer, Inovus Solar is here, and nearby you’ll find Tsheets and Sky Detective.

Good work means a little play too: Boise Bicycle Project discounts bikes for residents (and teaches them how to fix their two wheels); and the ski area 16 miles from downtown, Bogus Basin resort, is a nonprofit, keeping extracurricular sports affordable. Life should be a balance.

space exploration


Pasadena: The next frontier

Here, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is keeping tabs on the final frontier by building and operating the robotic spacecraft that are launched into the far reaches of the universe.

It could be here that we’ll discover whether another planet is fit for colonization: JPL currently has 20 spacecraft and has explored all known planets within―and many planets beyond―our solar system.

Locavore gardening in Oakland

Photo by Mark Richards

Oakland: Urban farming

San Francisco’s scruffy neighbor to the east quietly cultivated a food revolution with urban farming, DIY classes, meat CSAs, and a foraging movement to take full advantage of all that backyard fruit.

Local hero Novella Carpenter (pictured) has her Ghost Town Farm, and residents fill classes in beekeeping and backyard chicken-keeping with the Institute of Urban Homesteading.

Tesla Roadster electric car

Photo by David Fenton

Palo Alto, CA: Creative techies

With an average of more than 180,000 patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office each year, Silicon Valley is a breeding ground of ideas. And in addition to social models and new gadgets, creative techies are focusing on how to make our lives greener and healthier.

On the horizon are more efficient, inexpensive solar panels that easily stick to laptop bags, cars, and roofs, turning urban areas from passive energy consumers into energy producers. The only electric vehicle for sale today is from the valley’s Tesla Motors, and Palo Alto–based Better Place is creating infrastructure for mass adoption of EVs, including building “charge spots.” 

Pictured: The $109,000 Tesla Roadster is powered by a 400-volt battery pack and runs at least 200 miles before it needs to be plugged in for a recharge.

Sustainable architecture design

Photo by Liam Frederick

Tucson: Innovative building

A new guard of architects and designers is changing the look of Tucson by designing fresh, innovative, and environmentally sound buildings.

Architects like Rob Paulus and the husband-and-wife team behind Ibarra Rosano Design Architects are using materials like Rastra, made from 85% recycled Styrofoam; recycled denim and adobe in their ultra-modern homes and urban infill projects.

Next up: a large-scale mixed-use project from Ibarra Rosano that includes a 10-acre working organic farm; and from Paulus, modern live/work spaces in a dilapidated downtown building. 

SLO food and restaurants

Photo by Chris Leschinsky

San Luis Obispo, CA: Eating local

In San Luis Obispo, CA, chefs are turning the locavore movement on its head.

Instead of having food come to them, they’ve moved their kitchens to where the best food is produced: SLO County, with its 11,037 acres devoted to growing organic fruits and vegetables, plus more than 180 wineries, ​ 96 miles of coastline, and artisanal producers of foods like honey, cheese, and olive oil.

The chefs, who operate the kitchens of the Range, Villa Creek, and Artisan, say they chose this spot because it’s a hub of agriculture.

At its center is Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo’s 18 different agricultural majors and 11 minors, including sustainable agriculture. The university runs a CSA off of its 11-acre organic farm and has a dairy and a creamery. 

Denver bike program

Photo by David Fenton

Denver: A citywide plan

Launched by Mayor John Hickenlooper, the innovative Greenprint Denver plan is a vision for the city. And it’s no lightweight PR effort: Denver plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 10% across the community by 2012 and 25% overall by 2020.

One day, residents may be able to take a zero-emissions bus to commuter rail and light rail (a combined total of 122 miles of new tracks are planned), then hop on a bike from Denver B-cycle, a citywide bike-sharing program, and arrive at a LEED-certified office building. 

Energy efficient cities

Photo by Andrea Gómez

Portland, OR: Green living

It’s hard not to be jealous of this city: Greater Portland has actually reduced its per capita carbon emissions to about 20% below 1990s levels; the streets quietly hum with the nation’s highest number of hybrid cars per capita; and it boasts the highest number of LEED-certified buildings in the country, employing 6,700 in the green industry.

Portland is also a bike commuter’s nirvana, with 15,000 people pedaling to work. It has a standout food scene (with more farms and farmers’ markets than even Seattle, San Francisco, and Sacramento). 

Okay, so it rains.

The design of a futuristic building in San Diego

Illustration by Michael Gillette

Golden Hill, San Diego: A new Main Street

Architects Mike Burnett and Craig Abenilla’s futuristic version of Main Street, mxd830, is re-energizing San Diego’s previously overlooked southeast side.

It may be only a building, but the design of mxd830 (short for “mixed use” plus the street address, 830) has nurtured community with a nightly buzz that attracts many and spreads energy down the once-derelict 25th Street corridor.

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Ken Graham/accentalaska.com

Fairbanks: Climate study

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is ground zero for Arctic and global climate change research.

Its findings are shared through direct outreach and partnerships with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.

Eco-friendly surfboards

Photo by J. Emilio Flores/The New York Times/Redux

San Clemente, CA: Ocean-friendly surfboards

Surfboards are going ocean-friendly in this California seaside town. Green Foam Blanks is inventing new ways to produce surfboards, eliminating some environmentally offensive aspects of the current industry.

For starters, the company is creating boards from recycled material and testing alternatives to neoprene―the material in wetsuits―like organic rubber.

And the city of San Clemente is considering a pilot program for recycling surfboard waste, which can be used to make car bumpers and pave roads.

The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA

Photo courtesy of Evergreen State College

Olympia, WA: Model college

The Evergreen State College is like a model eco-conscious town: All of the Olympia, Washington-based college’s electricity comes from 100% renewable energy sources; it has LEED-certified buildings with features such as living roofs and solar panels; its landscaping is herbicide-free; and a dining room serves produce harvested from the school’s organic farm.

And that’s just the tip of it.

Since September 2008, the college has reduced its landfill waste by more than 97,000 pounds by expanding its composting efforts. And by the time they graduate, more than 70% of Evergreen students will have done community service and volunteer work to help the poor, feed the hungry, or improve the environment.

Smart towns

Photo courtesy of the Buck Institute for Age Research

Towns shaping future thinking

In Novato, CA, the Buck Institute for Age Research (left) studies how to delay the aging process and cure diseases. Its current research indicates that exercise reverses the molecular fingerprint of aging.

In Bellevue, WA, Intellectual Ventures is investing in an “invention economy,” where ideas are currency. Its scientists work in a lab that recycles equipment. Projects include a photonic fence that eradicates mosquitoes and a Strato shield that would lower global temps by increasing the amount of sulfur- bearing aerosols into the stratosphere.

In Boulder, CO, Rocky Mountain Institute seeks solutions to climate change that are both radical and realistic. By working with companies like Walmart to shrink corporate footprints, RMI is bringing the green movement into the mainstream.

Using renewable energy in Corvallis, OR

Photo by John Clark

Energy-smart cities

Eugene, OR is getting more than 85% of energy from renewable sources and plans to cut its total fossil fuel consumption by 50% by 2030.

In Corvallis, OR, Oregon State University is experimenting with using ocean waves to generate electricity. Prototypes are being designed and built now.

Wind farms in Lamar, CO are helping make Colorado one of the most wind-powered states in the West.  The state’s wind potential alone could supply 9% of the entire country’s energy―that’s 67 million homes.

Phoenix, AZ has the nation’s largest city-sponsored residential solar financing program.

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