Little Cities That Think Big: 8 Forward-Thinking Destinations Across the U.S.

Major metropolises are often known for their innovation and creativity, but these smaller towns and cities punch above their weight.

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Montgomery, Alabama is home to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Photo by Michelle Consuegra

More is expected of big cities as leaders in sustainable building, the equitable treatment of neighbors, and championing diversity. But don’t underestimate the Davids. Doing a lot with fewer resources, the following small cities and towns demonstrate leadership in conservation, sustainability, and social justice and embody the inherent creativity of the resourceful.

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Life is lived outdoors in Madison, where Earth Day was originally founded.

Courtesy of Destination Madison

Madison, Wisconsin

Pop. 278,000
Championing diversity, culture, and the outdoors

A college town meets a state capital in Madison where a web of initiatives focuses on inclusion, culture, climate, and access to the outdoors. The new Black Business Hub, opening later this year, aims to launch Black and BIPOC entrepreneurs. A new arts corridor attracts diverse audiences to a youth arts center, which opened in 2021, a youth orchestra, and the hands-on Arts + Literature Laboratory, offering classes, performances, and studios.

Community shapes development here; when the 1948 Edgewater resort on Lake Mendota was revived in 2014, new plans created a public plaza for free community programming, now hosting more than 30 events a year, including concerts and ice skating.

With the highest number of parks (270) per capita of any city in the nation, and an environmental legacy that includes the founding of Earth Day in 1970, Madison embraces the outdoors. It has the country’s highest ranking from the League of American Bicyclists for access to bike lanes, paths, and an all-electric bike-share system. “Often bike trails get snowplowed before the streets because people use them to commute,” says Ellie Westman Chin, the CEO of Visit Madison.

Set between two lakes, “Madison has always cared about the environment, our lakes, and making sure we are taking good care of these incredible assets,” says Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, whose climate action plan calls for the city to run entirely on clean energy by 2030 (it’s currently at 74 percent). The plan includes the introduction of electric buses, LED lighting, and a community climate grant program.

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Indigenous art and culture is on display across Juneau.

Courtesy of Travel Juneau (left) and Travel Alaska (right)

Juneau, Alaska

Pop. 32,000
The capital of Northwest Coastal art

Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people long occupied southeast Alaska, including the rain-forested region around Juneau, before a prospector named Joe Juneau gave the town its name following a gold strike in 1880. Now the state capital, Juneau showcases Indigenous culture—noted for its artistry rooted in reverence for nature—everywhere from town signage to public murals.

This year, Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a Native nonprofit devoted to perpetuating the Indigenous cultures of the region and behind much of the traditional art around town, debuted its Arts Campus for creating monumental works like totem poles and canoes. It also hosted the first “360-degree” totem pole in Alaska by Haida carver TJ Young; carved on all sides, it includes faces representing the three Native groups. Declaring Juneau the Northwest Coast arts capital, the group is advocating that Northwest Coast art receive national treasure status “in the same way that jazz was designated a national treasure by Congress,” according to SHI.

A popular cruise port, Juneau, in the coming years, will get its first berths designed, built, and programmed by an Alaska Native village corporation, the Huna Totem Corp.; it built the ecofriendly Icy Strait Point cruise port in the Inside Passage, including an aerial tram transit system to replace buses. Next year, SHI’s Totem Pole Trail will debut an initial set of 10 poles of an eventual 30 created by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian master carvers along the Juneau waterfront.

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In Ithaca, all produce at farmers’ markets comes from within a thirty mile radius.

Photo by Allison Usavage

Ithaca, New York

Pop. 31,000

Adopting a Green New Deal in gorges country

It’s a high standard to be named after classical literature, specifically the hometown of Greek hero Odysseus. But Ithaca has set its own high standards. In 2019, it adopted its Green New Deal, targeting 2030 to go carbon neutral for all city buildings. A new conference center, expected to open in 2024, will be the first in the nation to be free of fossil fuel, with an all-electric commercial kitchen. A partially electric bus system and car share program reduce vehicle traffic around town.

Among community initiatives, Ithaca Murals has produced more than 200 public works in an “artist takeover,” prioritizing such themes of social justice as immigration and voting rights. Home of the seminal vegetarian restaurant Moosewood, Ithaca champions farm-to-table fare, including requiring the 160 vendors of its 49-year-old farmers’ market to be located within 30 miles of town.

On Cayuga Lake, the longest of the famed Finger Lakes, Ithaca counts more than 150 waterfalls within 10 miles, many of them in the three state parks in gorge-filled Tompkins County. “I can be swimming under a waterfall a 10-minute bike ride from my house,” says Tom Knipe, the director of economic development for the city. “The access to nature and hiking and biking sets Ithaca apart.”

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Aspen runs on 100 percent renewable energy and its ski resorts are pioneers in sustainable winter sports.

Photo by C2 Photography

Aspen, Colorado

Pop. 8,000

Countercultural progressive in the arts and sustainability

A 19th-century silver mining town, Aspen was reborn in the 1940s as an intellectual and artistic utopia inspired by the outdoors. Its famed ski runs were developed alongside cultural organizations that persist today, including the nonprofit Aspen Institute, devoted to cultural and policy exchange, and the Aspen Music Festival & School.

Such expansive thinking has more recently been applied to climate issues. Aspen is one of only six cities in the country, including Burlington, Vermont, and Greensburg, Kansas, to run on 100 percent renewable energy. Aspen Skiing Company’s four ski resorts operate on energy produced by converting waste methane from an area coal plant. Free bus and electric shuttle service and bikeshare cycles that are complimentary for the first 30 minutes encourage Aspenites and visitors to transit responsibly. The Aspen Pledge, launched in 2018 to convey safe practices in the outdoors, was recently updated to encourage kindness and inclusion, incentivizing pledges by donating $18.80 (for the year the town was founded) to environmental nonprofits for each signature.

“Aspen was always a place where the counterculture had a home,” says Eliza Voss, vice president of destination marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, noting the area has the first Gay Ski Week, now 43 years old. “We have a history of pushing the boundaries.”

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Franklin is 15 miles from Nashville but a world away.

Courtesy of Visit Franklin

Franklin, Tennessee

Pop. 81,000

Modeling inclusion in a musical hot spot

Fifteen miles south of Nashville, Franklin has forged a new path in reckoning with racial justice. After the white nationalist rally in Charlottsville, Virginia, in 2017, and the following call for tearing down Confederate statues, Franklin activists mounted a different response, funding the creation of a life-size bronze of a U.S. Colored Troops soldier. Unveiled last fall outside the courthouse where Black volunteers signed up to fight, it faces the town’s Confederate monument. Five more historical markers share the history of the town’s slave market, race riots, and more.

The first city in Tennessee to be Silver LEED-certified, Franklin is on a par with bigger cities like Atlanta on systems like energy use, waste, and water consumption. Recently mapped access sites encourage kayaking, fishing, and swimming on the Harpeth River, which runs through town. This winter, the new Southall Farm & Inn will demonstrate regenerative agriculture and teach beekeeping to guests of the luxury 325-acre retreat.

Many Nashville-synonymous talents (think Chris Stapleton and Carrie Underwood) live in Franklin, where musicians including Kelsea Ballerini and Walker Hayes got early breaks at stripped-down spots like Kimbros Pickin’ Parlor and Puckett’s barbecue joint. “If Nashville is the arena,” says Matt Maxey, a spokesman for Visit Franklin, “we’re the acoustic version.”

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Hotel stays in SLO fund the planting of new trees.

Courtesy of Visit San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo, CA

Pop. 47,000

Creating a car-free destination

What’s the first city worldwide to ban smoking? What Central Coast California town has no drive-through restaurants? Where is the first movie theater run on solar energy? San Luis Obispo is the answer to a series of trivia-night stumpers.

The town aims to be carbon neutral by 2035. Residents are welcome to use compost that is freely distributed as a by-product of the solid-waste anaerobic digester that produces carbon-neutral biogas to power the SLO County power grid. “We see climate action and sustainability as an organizing way to achieve the rest of our community goals,” such as transportation access, says Chris Read, the city’s sustainability manager.

Harnessing tourism to those goals, Keys for Trees earmarks a portion of the city’s hotel revenue for planting trees, with a goal of 10,000 by 2035. Through the SLO Car Free program, which aims to have half of all local trips to town take place outside of private vehicles by 2035, visitors who take Amtrak to town get 20 percent off fares and more discounts at local hotels, restaurants, and bike rental shops. Some 4,000 acres of protected open land and 60 miles of trails beckon residents and visitors to explore on foot or by bike, including reaching a series of sustainably certified area wineries, such as Timbre Winery and Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.

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Montgomery’s museums and monuments encourage visitors to engage in conversations on race and U.S. history.

Courtesy of Experience Montgomery

Montgomery, Alabama

Pop. 200,000

Expanding U.S. history, encouraging conversations on race

As the cradle of the Confederacy and the Civil Rights movement, Montgomery has a split personality. The First White House of the Confederacy is a few blocks from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger in 1955.

Highlighting these contradictions, activists here insist that American history acknowledge racial terror. Opened in 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice forcefully makes the case with 800 blocks of steel, one for each county across the country where lynchings took place. Last year, artist, activist, and entrepreneur Michelle Browder erected “The Mothers of Gynecology” monument dedicated to the enslaved African American women who were experimented upon by “the father of modern gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims. His statue sits on the state capitol grounds. “We’ve heard half the story,” says Browder. “It’s time to tell it all.”

Rounding out history, the Legacy Museum links slavery to mass incarceration. Browder’s More Than Tours visit Civil Rights sites and the gynecology monuments. The arts group MAPmgm runs a public “storybooth,” like a phone booth for recording oral histories. Wanda Battle’s Legendary Tours explore neighborhoods where Civil Rights leaders such as Parks lived. “The most important message I speak is to carry on the work of love and nonviolence,” says Battle.

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In Taos, site of the country’s oldest continuously occupied community, Indigenous stewardship inspires further environmental efforts.

Courtesy of Town of Taos

Taos, New Mexico

Pop. 6,000

Where Native American care for the land sets the agenda

Before there was Taos, the northern New Mexico town associated with art and outdoor recreation, there was Taos Pueblo, the Indigenous village of the Red Willow people and the oldest continuously occupied community in North America. At the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Red Willow Center works to restore traditional food systems by growing food organically using solar-heated greenhouses and running a weekly farmers’ market selling fresh produce, honey, and Indian tacos.

For many locals, the pueblo sets the environmental agenda. “I appreciate how much we can learn from Taos Pueblo and its elder statesmen that the land cares for you if you care for the land,” says David Norden, the chief executive of Taos Ski Valley, the ski industry’s first B Corp, a certification that attests to a company’s balancing of profit and purpose. It was recently certified as carbon neutral—chairlifts are run on solar power, for example—and this year will introduce the industry’s first electric snowcat.

Taos manages to guard tradition and attract progressives. Community farms and gardens rely on the Spanish 16th-century acequia system of ditches to distribute water. The 300-acre Earthship community demonstrates building with recycled and renewable materials resulting in sustainable dwellings with in-home organic gardens and kaleidoscopic walls made of reclaimed bottles, which travelers can rent.

Elaine Glusac is a freelance writer, the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, and on Instagram @eglusac.
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