1. Youngstown, OH
A community-run program converts vacant lots to green space
Youngstown, Ohio, was a Rust Belt metropolis of the 20th century, but when the industry died, so did much of the city. In 1950, the city had more than 168,330 residents, but by 2010 the population had shrunk to 66,982. The city built for 170,000 people now has a mere 38 percent of those inhabitants—and, like Detroit, a glut of abandoned buildings and vacant lots to boot. Youngstown was faced with creating a new, smaller city that would fit its population size. Enter the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC).
YNDC is helping strategic neighborhoods become places where people actually spend their time, money, and energy. Part of this development includes creating parks and community gardens to take up the vacant lots in those neighborhoods. The YNDC started a specific program, Lots of Green, to do just that. It has already converted six vacant properties around town into community gardens, including its 1.5-acre Iron Roots Urban Farm that has gardening training classes and produces local, sustainable food for the community. These programs are turning Youngstown neighborhoods, though a smaller portion, into more sustainable communities for the city’s future.
2. Joplin, MO
Disaster brings an opportunity to rebuild a sustainable city
On May 22, 2011, the small city of Joplin, Missouri, was destroyed by a catastrophic tornado. Joplin had to rebuild, and it looked 300 miles west to Greensburg, Kansas, for help. After a series of tornadoes in 2007, Greensburg also had been leveled, and the City of Greensburg announced that the tragedy was a fresh start, an opportunity to create a greener urban environment. Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit organization, was created to help the city rebuild sustainably. When the Joplin tornado created a similar opportunity not far away, the folks from Greensburg went to Joplin to form GreenTown Joplin just months after the disaster.
Both organizations function as a resource for people who want to rebuild homes, offices, commercial venues, and other buildings sustainably. One of GreenTown’s major projects is the Monarch Eco-Home. The project is still in its planning phase with the nearby Drury University architecture students, but it will serve as an educational and community space for Joplin residents. Greensburg already has an Eco-Home, and it showcases products, systems, and ideas for sustainable homebuilding.
Catherine Hart, general manager for GreenTown Joplin and a founder of Greensburg GreenTown, says people have come from all over to see the Greensburg Eco-Home, and she expects even more to come to Joplin. But the home would be nothing if it wasn’t actually a useful tool for residents. “Replicability and affordability are two of the biggest concepts we have for the Eco-Home,” Hart says, “because if the people can’t do it themselves, then it’s really kind of pointless.
3. Chattanooga, TN
A LEED Platinum hostel is just the latest for ‘Scenic City’
Officially nicknamed the ‘Scenic City,’ Chattanooga draws its name from the scenery created by the Appalachian Mountains transitioning to the Cumberland Plateau. It’s a lush location, not only inspiring the city’s ‘Tree City USA’ designation by the National Arbor Day Foundation in 1990, but ongoing grassroots sustainability efforts that complement Chattanooga’s blue- and green-collar history.
In the early 1990s, 1,700 citizens mobilized for the ‘Vision 2000’ grassroots effort that would improve the city. Now, projects like the Crash Pad, completed in 2012 and the first hostel to receive LEED Platinum certification, are continuing these self-improving efforts. The founders of Crash Pad are also developing the Flying Squirrel, a sustainable bar adjacent to the hostel, to provide further incentive for downtown tourism.
These projects complement the efforts of the City of Chattanooga’s own Office of Sustainability, which has installed more than 350 ‘smart’ street lights, performed 45 energy audits, installed 100 bike stations, and continues to field the city’s grassroots public initiatives since its founding in 2009.
4. Little Rock, AR
Innovative approaches to housing and street design spur revitalization
Once an urbane mini-metropolis with miles of streetcar lines, Little Rock, Arkansas, is again growing into its legacy. A committed collective of nonprofits, architects, and students are transforming the city’s Pettaway neighborhood, a victim of historical underinvestment just south of downtown, into a walkable community designed to integrate residents of varying lifestyles and incomes.
Key to the renewal is the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, where students and faculty from both the Fay Jones School of Architecture and the Community Design Center have developed innovative approaches to housing. Jeff Huber, a project designer at the Community Design Center, says the master plan addresses housing types such as duplexes, townhouses, and courtyard apartments that have not been built in Little Rock since the 1950s.
“Little Rock is actually starting to emerge as a more progressive city, especially thinking about sustainability,” Huber says, pointing to Rock Street Pocket Housing, a collection of single-family homes organized around a shared pocket park planned in conjunction with the Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corporation (DLRCDC), which uses low-impact development strategies to mitigate the flooding that has plagued the site for years.
Scott Grummer, who served as executive director for the DLRCDC from 2007 to 2012, says the ongoing projects provide an “understanding of the mechanisms that create change and momentum for a neighborhood.” The organization also has a series of homes designed and built by students, one of which recently won an AIA award, and a plan with architect Marlon Blackwell to create an arts district.
5. Quad Cities
Local transit provider pioneers green building to meet future needs
In response to gaps left by businesses migrating out of the Quad Cities—a collection of municipalities on the border of Iowa and Illinois clustered around the Mississippi River—planners began to brainstorm ways to develop a livable, sustainable region for live, work, and play. Transit was part of the vision. Beginning in 2002, the Illinois Quad Cities transit program, MetroLINK, renewed its commitment to sustainability. It now operates a fleet with more than 70 percent of transit coaches powered by compressed natural gas and has a new 150,000-square-foot Transit Maintenance Facility and a 1,700-square-foot Rock Island Transfer Station, both opening in early 2014 and being built to LEED specifications.
The new Transit Maintenance Facility will use a photovoltaic system that is expected to produce a 421,000 kilowatt-hours annually, and the facility will also use a solar thermal system to provide hot water for all of its water operations, including bus washing, which will have its own water reclamation system. The Rock Island Transfer Station, constructed as part of Rock Island’s ‘Downtown Strategic Plan,’ uses similar sustainable strategies, capitalizing on its location adjacent to an existing 199-unit housing facility and a new 34-unit housing facility being planned by the Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation.
In 2012, the American Public Transportation Association selected MetroLINK as the “Outstanding Public Transportation System of the Year” for all agencies in North America carrying between 1 million and 4 million passengers annually (MetroLINK logged more than 3.5 million riders in 2012). MetroLINK also partnered with the City of Moline to begin developing a new multimodal station that will incorporate mixed-use, public-private partnerships and link the Quad Cities to Chicago by passenger rail.
6. Saint Paul, MN
A restored transit hub catalyzes growth
In Saint Paul, Minnesota, the eastern ‘twin’ of the Twin Cities, a massive restoration of the long-vacant Union Depot is catalyzing sustainable redevelopment in the area. The depot, gleaming with new Tennessee pink marble from the same quarry as the original, is not only open to the public for the first time in 40 years but will become a transit hub for Minnesota and the greater Midwest.
Union Depot already has bus service, and it will have Amtrak by the end of this year, and light rail service to Minneapolis will begin in 2014. “Union Depot will play an important role for the entire region because it’s going to be the connection point for multiple corridors looking forward 20-plus years,” says Josh Collins, public communications manager for Ramsey County Rail Authority.
Passengers will be able to arrive on high-speed rail, walk across the depot, and catch a bus, jump on light rail transit, or rent a bike. The new transit hub also has brought additional development to the area, including plans to convert the downtown Saint Paul post office into 250 units of riverfront living space.