OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI (POP. 14,100)
In Oxford, bookish is beautiful. Despite Mississippi's ranking last in high school graduation and among the highest in poverty, the town has developed into a cultural hub for the Deep South by taking full advantage of its local institution of higher education, Ole Miss, and by celebrating its unique literary history both William Faulkner and John Grisham have called Oxford home. The town taps into that history as much as possible, whether through the museum at Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home, or with its famous Double Decker Arts Festival, held each spring. Even the town's mayor is in on the game he's the owner of the independent bookstore anchoring the town square. And this fall, the Mississippi hamlet will take a national spotlight as it hosts the first general-election presidential debate expect an unfettered flow of ideas on the nation's future. Just don't be surprised if the best ones come from the Oxonians themselves.
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA (POP. 397,000)
Want to curb urban sprawl, boost the economy, and reduce inner-city crime? Get people to move downtown. It worked for Jerry Brown. In 1999, Oakland's then-mayor decided to direct more of the city's focus on downtown Oakland through his 10K Housing Initiative, a plan to attract 10,000 new residents to the city center by streamlining the permit process and creating economic incentives for developers. The result? More than 10,000 housing units are in various stages of planning or completion far surpassing the original goal and the area is home to some 40 new restaurants, 15 new art galleries, and 18 new nightclubs. Even the skyline is different, thanks to a 20-story condo complex on Lake Merritt and a nearly completed 22-story high-rise on Grand Avenue. All this in a town that, according to Rand McNally, has the best weather in the country.
SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA (POP. 453,800)
Why transform only a section of the city when you can transform the entire region? That's what Sacramento is hoping to do with its Railyards project, one of the largest urban-restoration initiatives in U.S. history. Once the terminus of the 1869 Transcontinental Railroad, downtown Sacramento has more recently been known as a terminal wasteland. Now the Railyards is offering the city a 240-acre blank slate of real estate to reenvision its future on. The plan calls for some 12,000 housing units, more than half a million square feet of retail space, a museum, plazas, a marketplace, and even a new rail center. It will take 20 years to complete, but when it's finished it will nearly double the size of the downtown business district, bringing in an estimated $2.7 billion of business per year. Some of which has already arrived: Since 2007, 23 restaurants have opened downtown, along with 37 retail stores and a number of new hotels, including the Citizen, a 197-room boutique hotel, opening this fall, whose name was chosen by the citizens.
LEVITTOWN, NEW YORK (POP. 44,000)
American suburbs have always lacked originality, but the country's first suburb, Levittown, 20 miles east of New York City, is breaking the mold. Green Levittown, a unique partnership that exemplifies the best kind of civic harmony, has brought together the city government, a regional nonprofit, and local businesses to send canvassers door to door, explaining the benefits of going green (e.g., saving money) and then helping them do it. The changes range from simple like converting to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, 12,000 of which were given away to more ambitious, like replacing inefficient heating boilers. Homeowners are offered special low-interest loans to help pay for the upgrades, and businesses from a solar-panel manufacturer to a local appliance store offer their services at reduced rates. So far, more than 1,800 homeowners have signed on, and the goal is to reduce the city's carbon emissions by 10 percent this year alone. It's heartening proof that residents, businesses, and the environment can all win.
CORVALLIS, OREGON (POP. 49,800)
Corvallis is far from the undiscovered jewel it once was it's within 90 minutes of world-class skiing, the Oregon coast, and blue-ribbon salmon fishing but in recent years the city has picked up verve from a new promenade on the Willamette River and a steady transition to renewable energy. In 2006, Corvallis became the second U.S. city (after Moab) to be named an EPA Green Power Community. Thanks in part to Pacific Power's Blue Sky Program, 15 percent of power users from the city government to businesses to residences are participating in the purchase of renewables like wind and geothermal power. The green push began in 1997 as part of the town's 20/20 Vision Statement, a blueprint guiding all aspects of the town's growth until 2020. The new riverfront park, completed in 2002 as part of the vision statement, has helped attract more than a dozen new cafés, restaurants, and spas, proving that being farsighted isn't so bad after all.
WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA (POP. 95,900)
A famed railroad town and shipbuilding port during WWII, Wil-mington suffered mightily after the war effort ended. But Port City recaptured its past glory by turning to its port. The state's ports authority purchased skyscraper-size cranes to handle cargo containers, and the cityinvested millions to preserve historic buildings along the waterfront. The efforts helped attract new businesses, diversify the economy, and make Wilmington one of America's fastest-growing cities in the nineties. With nearby beaches along the Cape Fear coast, an ever-expanding Riverwalk, a National Register historic district comprising more than 230 blocks, and a renewed economy that has been fueled partly by an active filmmaking sector, "Wilmywood" has become much more than a shadow of its former self.
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON (POP. 582,500)
Want a green city? Elect a green mayor. Want a green planet? Elect Seattle's mayor, Greg Nickels. Since taking office in 2001, Nickels has been at the forefront of fighting global warming, convincing more than 850 U.S. cities to sign on to his U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which aims to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol target=s. Not surprisingly, Nickels is just as devoted to his own constituents, doing everything from installing hundreds of bike racks around the city to backing a $75 million renovation of iconic Pike Place Market. As with his national agenda, it's his green initiatives here that get the most attention, like bringing the city's fleet of hybrid vehicles to 330 (plus the one Nickels traded his Town Car for), and his newest planet-saving brainstorm: placing a 20-cent "green fee" on all paper and plastic shopping bags, with the city providing free reusable bags for residents. For Seattleites, grassroots are great, but it also helps to have a good head on your shoulders.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA (POP. 40,300)
Back in the '70s, when Charlottesville's now iconic downtown pedestrian mall was being constructed, three dozen willow oak and ash trees were planted along the central walkway. By the '90s, the mature trees were paying off, drawing people downtown to the shady sidewalks. C-ville took notice and kicked off a management plan for its urban forests. This year the city is using GPS and satellite imagery to inventory the trees on all its public land and analyze the city's tree canopy. The information will be used to balance out the natural environment within the urban surroundings, both for environmental benefits, like air quality and carbon sequestration, and for aesthetic appeal. To offset the urban-heat-island effect, the city has installed green roofs on city hall and the police station, with a goal of covering 40 percent of the city in green. Charlottesville is finally reaping the rewards of having planted a few key seeds.
BRATTLEBORO, VERMONT (POP. 11,700)
Even for dedicated locavores, the 100-mile diet is mostly an idealistic notion. But for the residents of Brattleboro, buying local is a way of life. The small town hosts one of the largest farmers' markets in New England, with 50-odd regional vendors; is home to more than half a dozen Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farms, selling shares of everything from apples to pork; and has a local-food co-op that boasts more than 4,500 members, almost half the population. Nearly every store on Main Street is locally owned, stocks local products, or markets itself as fair trade. Brattleboro nonprofit Post Oil Solutions promotes community gardens for residents and organizes weeklong locavore challenges in which participants source all of their food from within the state. Farms sell starter kits for the event, restaurants serve special entrées, and residents even hold nightly potluck dinners. In Brattleboro, the best stuff is always just around the corner.