Great ideas from Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Austin, and Pittsburgh by Jennifer Hattam
Biggest Transit Turnaround Salt Lake City
The last time a rail system ran through Utah's capital, Harry Truman was in the White House. When a modern light rail was proposed in the early 1980s, the idea wasn't warmly received. "People said no one would use it, that folks in Utah would not give up their cars," recalls Sierra Club organizer Marc Heileson. Opponents showed up at the 1997 ground breaking with combative banners like "You can pry my steering wheel from my cold, dead fingers." Even supporters didn't have very high hopes, projecting that the system would draw only 22,000 daily riders by 2020.
Environmentalists, transit officials, and city boosters secured federal funds that allowed the first Trax line to open in December 1999 despite the opposition. Now the 19-mile system is drawing more than 58,000 riders a day--and changing the city's pattern of development from auto-dependent sprawl to denser mixed-use neighborhoods. More people than ever live downtown. "Areas that are near a Trax stop are now more valuable to develop, not less," says Heileson, who wants to see the system expand into the still-sprawling suburbs. If they build it, people will likely come: Forty-four percent of Trax's initial riders were new to mass transit. "That means almost half of those people got out of their cars and jumped on the train," says Heileson. "If you can do that in Salt Lake City, you can do it anywhere."
for Sprawl Fighting Atlanta for allocating $1.7 billion last December to surround the city with a "Beltline" of parks, public transit, and trails; and Davis, California, for requiring large new developments on farmland to be approved by popular vote.
Best Example of Classic American Thrift Minneapolis
Old lumber gets a new life at the ReUse Center.
Nationwide, some 300 million tons of construction and demolition materials are discarded each year. In Minneapolis, that waste becomes wealth thanks to the ReUse Center, which salvages and resells building materials from structures that are being dismantled. The program, run by a local nonprofit, provides jobs in struggling communities, saves landfill space, and preserves architectural character by finding new homes for vintage doors, windows, and fixtures. The city was also the first--and is still one of the few--in the nation to offer curbside recycling of electronics.
Residents are especially proud of another citywide "recycling" effort: the transformation of old railroad lines into a series of bike and walking paths. When completed this summer, the Midtown Greenway will connect 16 neighborhoods and link to trails around the city's lakes and near the Mississippi River. The community gardens, public art, and local businesses that will eventually sprout along the route are sure to add more converts to the 60,000 city residents who already commute without their cars.
Honorable Mentions for Waste Reduction Avondale, Arizona, for developing a "recycling school" for residents of the Phoenix suburb who dump garbage (everything from diapers to lawn mowers) into their recycling bins; and Missoula, Montana, for its Coffee-to-Compost program, in which volunteer bicyclists collect grounds from local businesses for a community compost pile.
Biggest Breath of Fresh Air Austin, Texas
Solar panels on City Hall (above) signal Austin's
investment in clean energy; human-powered recreation on Town Lake (below).
A liberal city in a conservative state, Austin goes its own way. In oil-rich Texas, that means eschewing fossil fuels in favor of solar and wind power and energy efficiency. The city's nationally recognized green-building program--the first in the United States--provides free consultations to builders and homeowners on environmentally friendly construction techniques. Its municipal utility, Austin Energy, retrofits schools, pays for insulation and shading devices in low-income housing, and offers free energy audits and rebates to residents and businesses that make improvements.
Greener energy has been Austin's goal since the early 1980s. By investing tens of millions of dollars annually in renewables and conservation, the city has saved almost 600 megawatts, more than a new coal-fired plant could have generated. (Austin's unprecedented recent growth has revived some troubling talk about including more coal in its energy mix, but environmentalists believe that continued innovation will be enough to meet the city's needs.) "Having a municipal utility makes Austin more responsive to the will of the people, more willing to look at other options," says Neil Carman of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter. The city's progressive programs also provide another kind of green benefit: Residents save about $200 a year on their energy bills.
Honorable Mentions for Clean Energy Denver for replacing 20,000 traffic signals with energy-saving bulbs--one of the largest such projects in the country; and Scottsdale, Arizona, for being the first city in the nation to require that all new public buildings and renovation projects meet one of the U.S. Green Building Council's highest standards for energy efficiency and sustainability.
230 Cool Cities
Austin mayor Will Wynn (D) is one of 230 mayors nationwide who have pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by investing in renewable energy, adding biodiesel vehicles to their city fleets, and adopting energy-efficient technologies to light streets and power buildings. Last fall, Club activists toured more than 20 of these "Cool Cities" in the Midwest, New England, and the Southeast to celebrate their leadership and inspire others to join the cause. You can help get your city on board--or spur it to further action--by signing up with the "Cool Cities" campaign at sierraclub.org/coolcities. For more information, call (202) 547-1141 or e-mail email@example.com.
Most Unlikely Foodie Haven Pittsburgh
Farmers' markets are the pride of Pittsburgh.
If you think of Pittsburgh as an aging industrial relic, you might be surprised to learn that it ranked number one last year in a study of farmers' markets and community gardens per capita. (Philadelphia came in second in the survey by SustainLane.com, an online resource for urban sustainability.) It's no big news to locals, though, who have long enjoyed ready access to fresh food from nearby farms--including one within city limits. Pittsburgh and its surrounding area have 31 farmers' markets and farm stands, many of which accept food stamps, and urban and suburban neighborhoods are clamoring for more.
As Pittsburgh's once-powerful industries have declined, green growth has been a boost to its economy. Vacant lots are being turned into urban gardens that provide jobs, natural havens, and healthy food for low-income residents. (With 206 school and community gardens, the city has one for every 1,600 people.) Old rail lines that carried material to the steel mills are being converted into a trail system that will eventually transport bikers all the way to Washington, D.C.
Pittsburgh also boasts one of the nation's highest numbers of structures certified by the U.S. Green Building Council to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. The city's new green-built convention center--the first in the country--incorporates environmentally friendly materials and a water-reclamation system, while maximizing natural light and ventilation. Though Pittsburgh still struggles with pollution and sprawl, the Steel City has already come a long way.
Honorable Mentions for Healthy Food Madison, Wisconsin, for keeping its farmers' market open year-round by moving it indoors during the winter; and Oakland, California, for studying the feasibility of producing 30 percent of the city's food within a 100-mile radius and working with community groups to increase local food production.
Photos, from top: Hlee Lee, Bob Daemmrich (2), Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (2)