Green Ideas

Greening the hell out of the cities

I’m interested in cities that are improving—what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. The title of this piece borrows from Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline. He refers to how environmentalists have yet to seize the opportunities that urbanization offers: “protecting the newly emptied countryside and greening the hell out of the cities.” Greening the cities means, among other things, adopting more sustainable practices where the most people live. Make the cities more sustainable and you’ve made a huge dent in the problem.

La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I live, is a small city of roughly 52,000 people. With three colleges in town, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University, and Western Technical College, it seems pretty lively for a small town. Theater, music, lectures, and other cultural events seem to be frequent. I see people out walking, running, and biking all over town, and we enjoy several fun festivals, such as our semi-famous Oktoberfest.

The Mississippi River valley, where La Crosse sits between the water and the bluffs, is one of the most scenic areas of the Midwest, abundant in woods and water. It’s an easy place to like and very pleasant day to day. Most people I talk to really appreciate the benefits of living here.

That said, La Crosse has had some challenges in the past couple decades, such as a weak business environment. You can see dozens of empty buildings in the downtown core, which nevertheless is still quite vibrant. I’d say the downtown core needs a brewpub, a couple new restaurants, and some specialty retailers.

Still, La Crosse has a number of achievements in creating a more livable and sustainable city. Here are a few highlights:

Complete Streets

La Crosse is a great city for walking and biking. Most of the city is quite flat, with just a few neighborhoods creeping into the steep hillsides of the bluffs. The city and county have adopted a “Green and Complete Streets” ordinance, which means walking and biking must be considered as part of all road projects. Dave Schlabowske of the Bike Federation of Wisconsin wrote a fine summary. Essentially, this decision by the city council supports those of us who want our city streets to be be bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Schlabowske wrote: “Institutionalizing consideration for all users into planning means that as roads are resurfaced and reconstructed, engineers and planners will automatically add bicycle and pedestrian accommodations to the projects. This is a great example of a municipality integrating a balanced transportation system with sustainable design. It is also particularly telling that the members of the La Crosse City Council passed this ordinance with a unanimous vote. With this ordinance, La Crosse ensures that even local roads that are not governed by the state complete streets law will be improved for bicycles and pedestrians.”

Before the complete streets adoption, La Crosse was already very walkable and bikeable. Most neighborhoods are within easy walking or biking distance of a grocery store and other services—two miles, give or take. This ordinance just gives a great idea its due. And as I write this, on March 24, gasoline costs $3.77 per gallon and there’s no reason to think it will decline much. Bikes and walking make sense. Living without a car, or living mostly without a car, is not only feasible but quite easy in most of the city of La Crosse.

In addition, the regional network of trails makes it easy to get around on foot and by bike as well. The city’s trail system extends from the river to the marsh and on to Hixon Forest on the eastern edge of the city. The Great River State Trail and the La Crosse River State Trail are rail-trails and so are mostly flat, and it’s easy to access them both from the north side of the city.

Gundersen Lutheran sustainability

Another milestone for La Crosse is Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center’s sustainability efforts. With the goal of becoming energy independent by 2014, Gundersen Lutheran has engaged in a number of innovative projects.

• By partnering with City Brewery, Gundersen Lutheran is capturing waste biogas from the brewing process and generating enough electricity to power about 300 homes.

• A new LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) parking structure with solar panels produces enough electricity to heat six to seven homes.

• Capturing waste methane from the La Crosse county landfill will provide 100% of the energy needs of the Onalaska campus, including both electricity and heat.

• The two-turbine wind farm project Gundersen Lutheran built near Lewiston, Minnesota produces about 4.95 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1,400 homes. The turbines feed the electricity produced into the electric grid, and Gundersen is paid for the electricity.

• Another wind farm, Cashton Greens, is a joint project with Organic Valley and is built on the site of the Organic Valley distribution center near Cashton, Wisconsin. This project will produce about 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 1,000 homes, and about 5% of Gundersen Lutheran’s energy needs.

Farmers markets

During the warm months, La Crosse residents are well served with locally produced food. Nearby Vernon County is an organic powerhouse of small farmers, and many of those farmers sell their wares at the half-dozen weekly farmers markets in the area. Local food is a hot idea right now, and is more sustainable than transporting food all over the world.

Local advocates

A relatively new group in town, Coulee Partners for Sustainability, reflects the direction of today’s environmental movement. CPS was formed by a few citizens in the spring of 2007 to advocate for sustainable lifestyles. The group’s formation coincided with the city and the county adopting The Natural Step principles, which promote:

• Reducing dependence on fossil fuels, metals, and minerals.

• Reducing production of manufactured substances that accumulate in nature.

• Reducing encroachment upon nature.

• Meeting human needs fairly and efficiently.

Coulee Partners hosts the Earth Fair each spring, and the Living Green Expo in the fall. They also facilitate study circles, so people interested in environmental and sustainability issues can meet, discuss, and learn.

And finally for now, another locally based group, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, is a nonprofit land trust. The MVC works with landowners to preserve land in nine counties near the Mississippi River. So far the group has protected more than 14,000 acres through a variety of tools, such as land acquisition and conservation easements. Much of the land preserved is valuable for recreation, scenic beauty, threatened habitat, or valuable soil, and many areas are open to the public for recreation.

There are more interesting stories here, but I’ll save some for another day. What’s happening where you are?


The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture