Washington, D.C., Wins Sustainability Award for a Medium Municipality

Government programs have transformed the nation’s capital into an example of prime green thinking.

The municipality that is home to the nation’s leaders is also one of its most sustainable cities. Over the past 10 years, Washington, D.C. has routinely ranked among the top 10 on surveys for greenest activities—Wallet Hub, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and the Environmental Protection Agency among them—and that’s not stopping in 2024.

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Over the past decade, Washington, D.C., has taken the lead in sustainable actions, including the implementation of climate action plans, mandatory recycling, and restaurant “farm to fork” encouragement. Credit: Leonard Andronov/iStock

The accomplishments are many. In 2017, D.C. was named as the world’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum city, partly due to having the most LEED-certified buildings in the U.S., according to USGBC.

A big example of this status is the renovated American Geophysical Union (AGU) headquarters, which in 2018 achieved net zero energy status courtesy of 700 solar panels and a roof rainwater-collecting cistern. AGU was also inspired by the Clean Energy DC Act, which aims to eventually have the city powered on 100 percent renewable energy, according to Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. 

There is also the Climate Ready DC Plan, which outlines a series of actions to be taken by 2050 to reduce weather-related impacts of more-dangerous heatwaves, severe storms, and river flooding.

“Climate change is no longer a distant threat,” Bowser notes. “To prepare Washington, D.C. for the future, we can and must respond to new and substantial challenges.”

D.C. was also the first municipality in North America to launch a bike-share system, Capital Bikeshare, which currently offers more than 700 stations with a total of 5,400 bikes for people to use across the city. 

There’s also a sustainably minded public transport network with more than 1,400 buses that run on alternative fuels such as natural gas, advanced technology diesel fuel, and ultra-low Sulphur diesel fuel.

Green Food Success

Sustainable food is a big deal. Many of the city’s restaurants have a “farm-to-fork” ethos, and businesses such as hotels are green-minded when it comes to their menus. They use homegrown foods for soups, salads, pastries, breads, and more.

Other places grow herbs in rooftop gardens that, when not used in foods, are donated to local cooking programs. Catering services offer filtered water instead of bottled, use biodegradable cutlery and other tableware, and serve locally sourced sustainable food and drinks.

Meanwhile, for the past several years, D.C. businesses, environmental organizations, and residents have participated in “The Last Straw,” a program that fines businesses for offering single-use plastic straws and stirrers. Foodservice products made of expanded polystyrene—a.k.a. foam—have been banned. 

Such actions “continue to help the city move towards being a leader in sustainability,” Bowser notes.

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On their menus, D.C. restaurants use homegrown foods—some resulting from rooftop gardens—to encourage environmentally friendly thinking by customers. Credit: Dmytro Sheremeta/iStock

Green City Accomplishments

Over the past decade, D.C.’s waste policy and practice have focused on reducing, reusing, and recycling. There is a five-cent charge for disposable paper or plastic bags, to encourage people to utilize reusable versions. Money generated goes toward a river cleanup and protection fund.

The city has also taken steps toward reducing water waste. The D.C. Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE)’s RiverSmart Homes program offers property owners free and low-cost green infrastructure products such as rain barrels, green roofs, and rain gardens to capture water. 


The American Geophysical Union (AGU) headquarters achieved net zero status after installing more than 700 solar panels in 2018. AGU is a nonprofit organization of earth, atmospheric, ocean, hydrologic, space and planetary scientists, and enthusiasts. Credit: APK/WikipediaSystem

Such infrastructure also keeps pollutants like litter, fertilizers, pet waste, and sediment from damaging local rivers, according to DOEE. RiverSmart accounts for about 1,500 features on residential homes per year and has led to the installation of more than 20,000 features since the program’s inception in 2009.

And, there is the city’s Resilient Design Guidelines. This document provides a methodology for conducting a climate resilience needs assessment and suggests steps for planning, designing and constructing projects to support resilient outcomes in the built environment. “[Overall], Washington, D.C., is proud to serve as a model for building greener, more resilient cities and creating a better quality of life for all,” Bowser says. 


Key Sustainability Facts

Population: 712,816

Tons of greenhouse gas emissions prevented in 2022: 517,000

Percentage of waste recycled by D.C. residents annually: 60

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