Ithaca: Ten Square Miles of Sustainability by Maggie Morris-Knower

A popular bumper sticker in Ithaca reads, “10 square miles surrounded by reality.” A small city on the edge of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region in Upstate New York, Ithaca is geographically isolated from the surrounding county by steep hills on three sides and the longest stretch of fresh water of the thirteen Finger Lakes on the fourth. A student population of roughly 27,000 combined from Cornell University and Ithaca College counterbalances the city’s population of around 30,000 full-time residents. Many of the students and residents in Ithaca that I interviewed had no trouble coming up with local examples of sustainability. Informed citizens appear to be the reason behind the national accolades for Ithaca as a green city. Even with civic organizations working with businesses and local elected officials to improve sustainable practices, some Ithacans think their city can do better.

Charlotte is a 22 year-old college student at Cornell University and a native Ithacan. “When you grow up in Ithaca, you’re basically raised an environmentalist,” she said. Charlotte explained sustainability as “creating a system with permeating effects without wearing on resources,” but didn’t think it was an important issue for the majority of students at Cornell. “It’s not a conversation you hear all the time,” she said. However, she did say that in terms of sustainable transportation, the university was doing a “good job” of limiting on-campus parking as a way to encourage students to find an alternative way to their classes. All first year students receive a free, unlimited bus pass, which was a good resource for students living off-campus. The bus passes were almost cut from the budget last year but after a negative reaction from many students, the decision was reconsidered.

Charlotte studied food security in a global context as part of her degree in international labor relations and in comparison with other places, she said she sees Ithaca as “a wealthy community, with so many farms and local products, it’s amazing.” If anything should threaten the food security of the country or even NYS, Charlotte felt that in Ithaca “there’s a system of self-reliance and diversity.”

Ellen is a middle-aged woman who has been living in Ithaca since 1998. She has worked as a real estate agent for almost ten years, and previously had a part-time job in the city’s urban renewal department. Ellen thinks sustainability is an important issue, and says that the next generation’s major task should be focused on designing objects “so that when the primary function becomes obsolete, it can be repurposed into something useful that is not landfill.” She bought a new Prius two years ago because she drives a lot for her business, and picks up local produce from a weekly CSA share at a farm on the other side of town. As a real estate agent, Ellen sees household energy consumption as an important sustainability-related issue. She says that her home is partially heated by a wood-burning stove, and that she applied for a “home energy improvement loan” from INHS a few years ago through NYSERDA, which enabled her to buy new windows for her house to improve insulation.

Jim grew up outside of Utica, New York and moved to Ithaca when he got a job as a librarian at Cornell University fifteen years ago. As part of his work, Jim teaches seminars on research methods and recently, Cornell sent him to schools in Ghana, South Africa, and India to give seminars to other librarians. On his most recent trip, Jim worked with plant breeders and researchers in Ghana who “were responsible for the food security of their entire country.” In his words, sustainability means “any practice whose longevity is ensured.” We talked about the economics of sustainability. Jim said that a consumer-based society is unsustainable by nature. He likes a website called Freecycle, where people can upload photos and descriptions of objects that they want to give away and other people in the area will contact them if interested. There is no money involved in the transaction, and no waste created from the unwanted object. Jim said that transportation was another important sustainability-related issue in Ithaca, and that many people were deterred from biking more because of the steep hills in Ithaca. Jim mentioned that a new business opened recently downtown that sold electric bikes and installed engines on people’s regular bikes. He thought this would be a good way to encourage people to bike more instead of driving. Jim also brought up a number of issues that had to do with sustainability at a global level, specifically about renewable energy sources like solar and nuclear power. “How are we going to recycle solar panels?” he asked.

Lisa is a retired nurse who moved from Denmark in the mid-seventies and has lived in Ithaca for twenty years. She defined sustainability as respect for the earth and for nature, and gave examples of how to do so, such as not using harmful chemicals and also buying locally and supporting farmers. Lisa says the biggest sustainability-related problem in Ithaca is the lack of bike lanes, which makes it unsafe for bikers to share the road with cars. She also said that biking is so unregulated that it is easy not to follow the road rules, which is also a problem. However, Lisa did say that the buses had bike racks on the front, which was a good thing. Lisa explained food security as knowing what you are eating, including the ingredients in your food, what pesticides were used to grow the food, and how the animals were treated. Now that she is retired, Lisa said that she wanted to start giving cooking classes to people with low-income families to help educate people about affordable and healthy options for eating at home instead of at a fast food restaurant.

On a walk around downtown Ithaca, different examples of sustainable practices like recycling and renewable energy are apparent from just looking at storefronts. Many local businesses are dedicated to selling second-hand goods, such as furniture, clothing, and architectural salvage (see photo 1).

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There are also a number of local restaurants, including Moosewood Restaurant, whose eponymous cookbook has influenced vegetarian chefs since it was first published in 1977. The local economy benefits greatly from the numerous family farms in the area: the Ithaca Farmer’s Market has 160 vendors selling food, produce, and handmade goods every week throughout the year. Every weekend, the parking lot is packed with people who come from all over the county to support their farmers, but relying on cars as the principal means of transportation could cancel out well-intentioned efforts to shop locally.

Although there are a few streets with bike lanes, and the city has not announced plans to build more. An initiative called Recycle Ithaca’s Bikes (RIBs) collects and recycles old bike parts and teaches people how to fix their own bikes (see photo 2). It is open three times a week.

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A new bike share program may be implemented in 2015, but without appropriate planning and infrastructure, the increase in bikers could lead to more problems. Walking is still good enough for many residents, nearly 15.4% of whom walk to work instead of driving. The mayor of Ithaca recently gave up his parking spot by City Hall in favor of joining Ithaca Car Share.

While the rest of the country is still debating whether climate change is real, Ithacans are making sustainability a part of their lives and their city. Ithaca’s holistic approach to sustainability proves that its favorite bumper sticker is more than just a souvenir.





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