8 of the World's Cleanest Cities

High angle view of skyscrapers in Honolulu along Mamala Bay with lush green trees in the foreground and blue sky with white clouds above on a sunny day
Honolulu is not only known for its beauty—Hawaii’s capital city also has impressively clean air.

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Some cities have a kind of gritty charm in their unkempt buildings, overused sidewalks, and hazy air, things that add to a big-city feel. Then there are those other cities, the ones where you can't help but be surprised by how clean everything is. Perhaps these places have benefited from environmentally conscious leadership, good urban planning, or strict littering laws. Or, maybe cleanliness is just part of the local culture. Whatever the reason, these places prove that large, busy downtown areas do not need to be synonymous with dirty.

Here are eight cities around the world where cleanliness rules.

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Oslo

Tall buildings of downtown Oslo, Norway with people walking on clean sidewalks with a red bus in the center of the photo on a sunny day with a bright blue sky with few clouds,

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The sidewalks in Norway's relaxed capital city are known for being quite clean. Visitors might be puzzled, then, by the complete absence of trash cans around parts of the city. Mystery solved: Many Oslo neighborhoods are connected to the city's automatic trash disposal system, which uses pumps and pipes to move trash underground to incinerators where it is burned and used to create energy and heat for the city.

With a city center that is almost completely free of fossil fuel cars and has the highest number of electric cars per person in the world, Oslo residents embrace the clean city lifestyle. The city has replaced hundreds of parking spaces with bicycle lanes and pedestrian areas.

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Singapore

Downtown Singapore high rise buildings next to lush green trees and waterways under a sunny sky with white clouds

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Singapore's impeccably clean streets reflect some of the strictest littering laws and best public services in the world. Littering is a finable offense in Singapore. Steep taxes for owning a car and a useful public transportation system mean that the air is quite clean in this Southeast Asian city state as well.

Clean & Green Singapore is the city’s program to reduce trash and encourage residents to adopt a hygienic lifestyle. In an effort to become a zero waste city, Singapore has created educational resources to teach residents how to recycle properly, use fewer disposables, and waste less food.

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Calgary

High rise buildings of Calgary in the distance with wide, sloping green area in the forground, under a blue sky on a sunny day

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Few North American cities can match Calgary's green, clean initiatives, which might come as a surprise considering that this Alberta, Canada metropolis was basically built around the oil industry. For its air quality and waste removal and recycling programs, Calgary regularly ranks as one of the cleanest cities in the world.

A major education-based effort to increase recycling and composting is leading Calgary toward a 70 percent reduction in landfill usage by 2025. The city also has steep fines for littering both on the road and on the sidewalk. Throwing trash on the ground can set an offender back as much as $1,000. There is also a municipal program that offers free graffiti removal for commercial and residential buildings.

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Copenhagen

high angle view of people walking around Amagertorv town square with a fountain in the center on buildings on either side in Copenhagen on a sunny day under a blue sky with white clouds

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Already quite clean by world standards, Denmark’s capital city has taken steps to decrease littering and create trash and recycling schemes that make it easier to sort individual items. Copenhagen residents recycle electronic, garden, and bio waste in addition to the standard paper, plastic, metal, glass, and cardboard items.

Copenhagen also stands out because of its air quality. It has reduced emissions 42 percent since 2005 and is on track to be carbon neutral by 2025. The city also has a number of impressive green traits, including a long-term plan to make itself the world's most bike-friendly city.

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Adelaide

Aerial view of Adelaide central business district's tall office buildings surrounded by public green space lined lined with lush trees with green hills in the background under a hazy blue sky

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Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, frequently ranks among the world’s most livable cities for its cleanliness and quality of life. The city’s layout includes a tremendous amount of parkland and wide avenues lined with greenery. British surveyor and colonist William Light designed Adelaide in 1837 with the goal of creating a city that was compact and user-friendly, but also had an abundance of green spaces. City residents participate in the annual Clean Up Australia Day event by removing debris from the 1,700 acres of parkland that surround the central business district.

With plans to become the first zero waste city in Australia, Adelaide’s 2020 to 2028 plan includes focusing on eliminating food waste, improving education and outreach, prioritizing resource recovery, cultivating technology and innovation, and promoting and advocating for a circular waste management economy.

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Wellington

high angle view of Wellington with clean roads lined with trees in the foreground, followed by high rise buildings, and a bright blue river, with mountains in the background on a sunny day with a blue sky and white clouds

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Wellington, with an urban population of just over 216,000 (and 542,000 in its metro areas), is small compared to other cities. The geographically isolated location and relatively small population lend the New Zealand capital to naturally fresher, cleaner air, which works well with its pedestrian-friendly center. 

Pair that with a kind of small-town attitude and appreciation for nature, and it's easy to understand how keeping the streets clean is part of the local culture.

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Santa Fe

Trees and grass behind a black iron fence lining a brick pedestrian path leading to a plaza in downtown New Mexico under a vivid blue sky on a sunny day

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A clean and sustainable city is part of the culture in New Mexico’s capital where the annual Recycle Santa Fe Art Festival is dedicated to art made with at least 75 percent recycled materials. Keep Santa Fe Beautiful, a volunteer program, aims to prevent litter and boost awareness through educational programs. 

The city also holds volunteer trash pickup days, and many of the buildings in the main tourist areas, including the famous Santa Fe Plaza, are kept pristine as part of the aggressive historic preservation efforts that have helped this city retain its timeless appearance. The state of New Mexico, including the city of Santa Fe, has some of the nation’s strictest emissions laws.

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Honolulu

tall modern office towers and residential buildings in the background with a lush green park in the foreground under a blue sky with wispy white clouds on a sunny day in Honolulu

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According to the American Lung Association’s 2021 State of the Air report, Honolulu has the cleanest air of any U.S city. Thanks to the Pacific winds and with few major manufacturing operations on the islands, the city boasts no ozone or short-term particle pollution. The small amount of emissions from the traffic and hotels blow away quickly. The regular rainfall also helps keep the air impressively free of pollutants.

While some cities' organizations sponsor once-yearly cleanup days, the Waikiki Improvement Association holds quarterly cleanups of its famous beach.  Honolulu has also enacted strict litter laws. Severe penalties are imposed on those who violate these laws, including picking up litter as part of community service requirements.