America is a country that loves its iconic flag, and it's citizens love sticking it on everything from bottle openers to cowboy hats to underwear. But in a country that's so flag crazy, city banners often don't get much love. That's a shame, since many of them are truly beautiful and offer a fascinating look at the communities they represent.
To raise attention to city flags, the North American Vexillological Association -- a group dedicating to the study of flags -- polled its members and the public several years ago to determine the best and worst city flags. The survey gave the highest marks to Washington, D.C., which has an iconic flag that's so popular with local residents that they frequently tattoo it on their bodies. Voted the worst was the flag of Pocatello, Idaho. (NAVA's full list is here).
NAVA members generally favored simple, brightly-colored and distinctive flags. The best scoring flags also had limited color schemes and meaningful symbols. Respondents didn't like flags featuring complicated designs, city seals, or text.
But NAVA President Hugh Brady, a law professor at University of Texas, tells Governing there really isn't such a thing as a bad city flag. "If a flag symbolizes something, it can't be a bad flag, unless a community looks at a flag and says 'that doesn't represent us,'" Brady says.
And what's even more interesting than the flag designs, in many cases, is the tale of how they came to be. Pittsburgh's flag is the result of a misunderstanding about William Pitt's coat of arms. Richmond abandoned a flag celebrating its role in the Confederacy to one emphasizing its colonial roots. "Each flag has a story to tell," Brady says.
Brady says many people dismiss vexillology, but it's a worthwhile pursuit. "People think it's silly to study flags -- what can you study about it? But there's continuing debates. Should you be able to burn a flag? How should it be used in political speeches? You've got all these different ways to look at it."
I have assembled my own (completely subjective) list of the best city flags in America. Generally, the list mirrors the same principles of the NAVA study, though in at least one notable case, my strong approval of Oakland's bright, bold flag runs counter to the experts' feelings. Much of the information from the slide show is derived from NAVA's 2004 book, American City Flags: 150 Flags from Akron to Yonkers.
Do you agree with this list? Do I have a glaring omission? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.