City Flags Ranked: Best and Worst Flags from Around the US
By: Brian Flynn November 7, 2022 Kokopelli Insights
There are many ways cities try to set themselves apart. Festivals, events, even bus design help build the images of cities and towns of all sizes. But from a pure branding perspective, a recognizable, evocative flag is an unbeatable tool for municipalities looking to build their image. We want to take our eye for design and scrutinize US city flags, ranked by design, effectiveness, and overall flaggy-ness.
Okay, that last word is made up. But it refers to the often hard to quantify difference between a flag and a display banner made in MS Paint (looking at you, Michigan).
In a way, flags are one of the oldest, most well-tested methods of branding. Not technically the oldest, that would be paintings and graffiti (if you’re ever in ancient Pompeii, check out the food stall with the mural of roosters and sea nymphs on the front counter—also warn them about the volcano).
Flags are shot through with weighty symbolism, especially at larger scales like nations and regions. It’s complicated and fraught to try to critique the designs of flags so important to so many.
But city flags? We can do that all day. No one has fought under the banner of Arvada, Colorado.
Municipal flags in the United States are more about branding, though some of the very best flag designs have become a way for people to assert their connection to place. Whether these towns are trying to attract businesses, lure new residents, or simply build an identity, these flags are designed with a goal in mind. That means we can gauge how well they meet that goal.
With that said, let’s take a look at the good and the bad from around the US.
The 10 Best US City Flags Ranked
10. Seattle, Washington
One of my first tests for good flag design is how clearly the flag’s symbolism comes across when the flag is blowing in the wind. By that standard, Seattle’s flag actually kind of fails.
Why then does it crack the top 10?
Very few flags on this list better capture the feel of their city. The waves that suggest the waters of Puget Sound, the shapes and lines that echo regional Native American art without appropriating it, and the color (I mean, the flag even looks wet).
The only way this flag could better represent Seattle is if it cost $528 per square foot.
9. Salt Lake City, Utah
One big common thread running through many of the flags we love is that they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. The US is a relatively young entrant into the city flag game and that’s a double-edged sword: a lot of older cultures developed flag design principles over many years for us to draw from, but we’re often tempted to do our own thing, and the results are…let’s say “mixed.”
The Salt Lake City flag is a great example of what you can do with a more traditional flag design. A simple horizontal bicolor with a stylized flower in the upper left wouldn’t look out of place hanging on a pole somewhere in Europe or Southeast Asia.
It’s not the most exciting flag on this list, but then have you been to Salt Lake City? Lovely place, lovely people, but there’s a reason no one rents a party bus to go there.
8. New Bern, North Carolina
We love the audacity of this one. The eastern North Carolina city of New Bern just went ahead and took the coat of arms of Bern, Switzerland and called it good. Okay, so the city was founded by Swiss religious exiles who chose to honor their home city, but still.
There are a handful of city flags on the east coast that are also very similar if not the same as those of their namesake cities (we’ve got another one below). While we can’t necessarily give them points for originality, we can’t deny this is a striking and, frankly, super cool flag. The strong, high-contrast colors combined with the iconic bear make it instantly recognizable and also pretty metal.
7. Baltimore, Maryland
Another that draws explicitly from old-world design, the flag of Charm City echoes the coat of arms of the Calvert family (Lords of Baltimore), a key design element from the striking (and divisive) flag of Maryland.
You are, of course, free to loathe these designs just as you are free to be wrong about a great many other things. The flag of Baltimore, like the city itself, does not care at all what you think of it.
The flag of Baltimore shows the key differences between good flag design and good graphic design. It’s a bit crowded, the background pattern distracts from the foreground symbol, and doesn’t really communicate anything to outsiders. If a modern designer made a flag for Baltimore, it’d be a blue crab perched on a DVD box set of The Wire and we’d be worse off for it.
6. Wheeling, West Virginia
There are two entries in this top 10 where I must admit a personal bias. Wheeling is where my mother was born, the city where my grandfather settled as a teen when his dad brought him over from Lebanon. That’s why I’m so relieved it doesn’t have a crap flag.
West Virginia as a whole has a lot of flags that look great (Clarksburg and Charleston especially, though the flag of Huntington, the other great city in the Mountain State is pretty bland), but Wheeling is miles ahead of any of them.
The design is quite similar in some ways to the number one flag on our list. With a horizontal triple-banded bicolor and stars splayed across the center, it’s a classic design but not one that is easy to mistake for a European flag.
I may be biased, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong. I’d give this flag a five- star review.
5. Lincoln, Nebraska
I will admit, I did not expect this beautiful, elegant art deco flag to represent Nebraska’s capital. I still hold that Lincoln’s de facto flag is a bright red Cornhuskers banner. But I digress.
Along with the next entry on our list, the current Lincoln flag is the product of a very recent redesign. Officially adopted in January 2021, the flag was designed by a local art director and graphic designer named Ed Mejia, who had emigrated from El Salvador to Lincoln. Entitled All Roads Lead to Lincoln, the flag is meant to represent the city’s skyline, and is inspired by native artwork.
While the old flag would not have made our worst list, the new one is a clear improvement, suggesting movement, progress, and optimism—all things cities like to be associated with. I can’t testify to whether these things are true of Lincoln since I’ve only ever driven through it once on the way to a Midwest city that probably had a way worse flag.
4. Tulsa, Oklahoma
To understand why Tulsa’s current flag ranks so high, it helps to take a look at its old ones. Tulsa’s flags basically get worse as time goes on.
From 1973-2018, the flag featured a stylized T-O seal (reminiscent of ancient Mediterranean maps of the world where the T serves as the sea and Atlantic Ocean (ancient cartography is another interest of mine (I am very fun at parties). From 1941-1973, the flag featured a map of North and South America despite only one of those featuring an Oklahoma.
But the 1924-1941 flag really takes the cake. Showing where art deco can go wrong, the old flag is a maximalist nightmare, with arrows, lines, and text bewildering the eye.
The new flag is simple and powerful, with strong colors and bold design that make sure every element has a chance to pop. The design centers Oklahoma’s Native population in a classy, understated way. For a city that has jumped from design to design over the last century, we really hope this one sticks around.
3. Buffalo, New York
If you listed out all the individual elements that make up Buffalo’s flag, it would sound like a chaotic mess. 13 stars and 13 lightning bolts along with a scene of a tall ship on Lake Erie? It sounds like something I would have drawn in my 7th grade science notebook.
Despite everything going on, though, the flag works brilliantly. Part of the reason is the choice to limit the pallet to two strong, contrasting colors. The dark blue and white make elements stand out where additional or other colors would have made everything muddy.
The design suggests industry, power, and all sorts of things associated with Buffalo and the region. The designers also had enough restraint to not include a plate of chicken wings, missed field goals, and underachieving hockey teams (sorry, Sue).
2. Denver, Colorado
With only a couple exceptions, the one thing the best flags have in common is their simplicity. And Denver’s flag shows how taking a complex image and boiling down to iconic, evocative shapes produces a memorable, powerful effect.
Have I lived here all my life? Yes. But to be fair, just look at it!
Echoing the colors of the Colorado state flag and the sunset over the Rocky Mountains, the Denver flag is clean, unmistakable, and packed with meaning. Eschewing the traditional horizontal tricolor, the twin triangles create a striking modern banner.
I’ll be the first to admit that maybe decades of exposure have given me a skewed relationship with the city of Denver and its flag. Lest any accusations of favoritism emerge, let me assure you that I’ve also tried parking my car on the street in this mile high snake pit many nights and therefore I have very complicated feelings about Denver. But I think we can all agree, Colorado does things the best (or second best in this case).
1. Chicago, Illinois
We’ve tried to assemble this list by casting a wide net: giving equal weight to places of all sizes all over the map. But there was no way that our top entry could be anything other than the windy city. It’s simply the best city flag in the US. Frankly, it’s better than any state flag and up there with some of the most iconic national flags.
It’s maybe a bit surprising at first that only one of the nation’s three major cities makes the cut. Los Angeles has an interesting flag that would probably make a top 20 list and New York City’s flag is a bland nonentity. Don’t be too sad for these two metropoles though: they still have milder winters and superior pizza compared to Chicago.
The Chicago flag is visually impactful and just begging to be emblazoned on mugs, shirts, stickers, and, of course, banners. These Chicagoans bear the symbol of the city of broad shoulders in one of the most quietly effective city marketing efforts in country. Not that anyone needs more awareness of Chicago, but it creates an appealing sense of belonging: here’s Chicago, there’s everyone else.
Lake Michigan, the great canal, and the north and south branches of the Chicago River are represented by the sky-blue stripes, while the white bands represent the city’s north, west, and south sides. Each six-pointed red star stands for a major event from the city’s history like the Columbian Exposition or the Great Fire, and each point further represents city events or characteristics. I also think I speak for all of us when I say thank goodness they didn’t put the bean on the flag!
The 10 Worst US City Flags Ranked
10. Aberdeen, Washington
Why is the letter A playing peekaboo with me? Were they designing the flag then realized they made the font too big? This flag feels like someone was just trying to be too clever. A simple gold “A” in a field of blue might not be spectacular but it wouldn’t be this bad. If you’re going to go for something a little bit different, you have to go bigger than this.
9. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Look at this flag. Did you know it is the flag of Baton Rouge? The clues are subtle, but much like Lost or Twin Peaks, those willing to pay close attention will be able to piece them together. It’s like one of the 3D pictures from the 90’s: I can’t tell you what to look for, you simply have to see for yourself.
8. Burlington, Iowa
I’m old enough to have played many mystery games on floppy disc on the old Apple IIe, and the flag of Burlington, Iowa reminds me of nothing so much as the home screen of one of the mid-level titles in that genre. What can I tell you about Burlington based on this flag? Don’t leave there without buying one wagon tongue and at least two axels.
7. Jasper, Indiana
By now, you should be sensing a theme with a lot of these bad flags. In fact, nine of the ten worst flags feature the name of the town written across it. Maybe it’s because they want you to remember the town? Believe it or not, Jasper is not the worst of the bunch. Still, the way it’s scrawled across the flag makes Jasper feel less like a southern Indiana town and more like a craft-brewed root beer.
6. Manitou Springs, Colorado
MS Paint has gotten better over the years, but that doesn’t mean you should use it for anything other than your Sonic the Hedgehog fanart. I could absolutely recreate this flag in about 15 minutes without even breaking out my good mouse. Maybe this flag ranks so low because it does a great disservice to a really cool town with beautiful views and the great bonus of not being Colorado Springs.
5. Pueblo, Colorado
There is a Pueblo delicacy called “The Slopper.” It’s a hamburger smothered in green chili, bun and all. One restaurant sells sloppers in baseball terms: one patty is a single, two is a double, three is a triple, and a “home run” is four patties. One time, my buddy Brad tried to eat for the cycle. Print this whole paragraph on some polyester and it would make a better flag for Pueblo.
4. Palm Bay, Florida
Palm Bay is not a city in Florida. It is a trap laid by alligators to lure people in. I see you, alligators, your flag doesn’t fool me.
3. Elko, Nevada
If this was the logo of a studio that produced anime, I would be fine with it. Elko is a place with a really fascinating history informed by a diverse population representing groups who have contributed to mining, ranching, and agriculture in the town and surrounding county. They did not, as far as I can tell, distribute Gundam Wing.
2. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Where a lot of the other flags on the bottom half of this list fail because they tell you almost nothing about the city they represent, Milwaukee’s flag fails because it hits you with a firehose of stuff about Milwaukee. The detailed skyline, the wheel with icons, the boat that’s facing directly forward like a boat shouldn’t, it’s too much. This is like a level 13 Skyrim character with armor that doesn’t match.
It’s trying at the very least, which reserves the most ignominious slot on this list for…
1. San Francisco, California
If you covered up the words “San Francisco” on this flag, would anyone be able to guess what city it belonged to? While there are other generic flags on this list, none of them stand for San Freaking-cisco. It’s one of America’s most distinctive and historic cities. It deserves a better symbol. In a totally fake study I just made up, 63% more Americans associate the city with Full House than this flag.
But there are some flags even San Francisco can look down on in horror. And, conveniently, they’re all isolated within the bounds of one state.
10 Flags That Prove Michigan Has the Worst Flags
Sometimes you just have to look on in awe at an entire state just not trying at all. There are different flavors of bad here, which only makes it worse.
Compared to what comes next, this is beautiful.
How dare you do this to Detroit?
Vision? You bring up vision while making me want to glue my eyes shut?
7. Three Rivers
All you had to do was not put the name of the city on there and it would be fine. You couldn’t do that, could you?
I want to put all Troy flags in a wooden horse and leave them somewhere, I don’t know, that just came to me.
5. Brighton Township
Hey, stop! *grabs spray bottle full of water and gives Brighton Township a little spritz* Don’t!
You know what? Fine.
3. Elmwood Township
This doesn’t even rise to the level of MS Paint. This is some Windows ‘98 WordArt stuff.
2. Flynn Township
Hang on, I’m googling “length of Michigan land borders” and “bulk saw blades.”
1. Bridgehampton Township
Maybe I’m just delirious at this point, but it’s nice to see a moo cow.
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