Hear the phrase “smart growth” or “green city,” and chances are you’ll think of one place: Portland, Ore. That progressive pocket of the Northwest has become synonymous with sustainability, landing atop many a list and capturing more than a few hearts and minds along the way. Not far behind, other stars of the Northwest and Northeast vie for the top spot — places like Seattle, Vancouver, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. All have made great strides toward making life cleaner and greener for their residents — and all are, as one planner put it recently, the “honor students” of urban sustainability.

So what about the C students?

We dedicate this series to them. To cities that have faced more than their share of problems, that have been written off because they’ve fallen prey to sprawl, or post-industrial depression, or a general lack of glamour. These are places you won’t see in a Top 10 list of green cities anytime soon — but it doesn’t mean they’re not trying. Over the course of this week, we’ll take a look at unexpected progress happening in unexpected places. Places like Phoenix, Cleveland, and Atlanta.

Don’t scoff. These cities, and others like them, are discovering that if they do their homework and stay awake in class, they might just ensure themselves a brighter future.

At the very least, they’ll expand their role in the nationwide — and, indeed, global — effort to reduce the major impact that cities have on climate change. To top it off, better planning and innovative solutions not only means fewer emissions, it means a healthier, more satisfying life for the people who call these cities home.

Stay tuned as we explore the following topics:

Day One: Smart(ish) Cities

Day Two: The Southwest

Day Three: The Southeast

Day Four: The Midwest

Day Five: Going Forward