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9 great places you've (maybe) never heard of.

Whether you want to sink new roots or simply draw inspiration for sustainable living, take a gander at these communities that are working to get it right.

Our annual Great Places series is an ongoing conversation about what makes communities work. Improvement is a process, and we like to give props to people who are doing what it takes to make their communities better.

The prime component of a town's livability is individuals who care enough to work at the art of creating community. They take matters into their own hands to develop farmers markets, establish recycling projects, foster school gardens, support local businesses, collect signatures, make their voices known, and, over the months and years, build admirable, more sustainable communities with sensible local economies.

When MOTHER EARTH NEWS got its start in the 1970s, the vibe was all about getting "back to the land," an idea that conjures images of rugged individuals marching off to carve out their place in the isolation of the wilderness. Today, community is the new paradigm, flowing from the realization that strength lies in numbers, and that security is woven by cooperative action, thoughtful compromise and shared vision. It is our pleasure to introduce nine communities that are striving to achieve just that.

Resurgence on the River

Grand Rapids, Michigan. Communities dealing with serious economic and environmental challenges might look to this city in western Michigan for lessons in how to turn things around.

Grand Rapids was known as the "furniture capital of the world" until the 1970s, when factories began shutting down and residents moved away. Pollution in the Grand River, which runs through the city, was so severe that no one could swim or eat fish caught in its waters. Instead of surrendering to rust and ruin, Grand Rapids staged a turnaround so effective that the city is frequently regarded as one of the country's greenest.

"The community came together in an impressive, sustained effort to clean that river up," says community activist Mick Lane, a lifelong resident. "It was a bipartisan effort. Left, right--the labels don't count when it comes to our town."

Grand Rapids is now ranked in the top 50 cities in the nation for LEED-certified buildings. Fast Company magazine has cited Grand Rapids as a lab, training camp and magnet of expertise in showing businesses how to be green and profitable. The recovery can be credited to a combination of local philanthropy and business partnerships, strategic planning, and significant support for small businesses and startups, according to Matthew Tueth, chair of Aquinas College's sustainable business program.

"It took us a while, but after people realized that our [manufacturing] past was over, they really began to support smaller business ventures," Tueth says. "Rather than trying to attract outside money, they spend their time and resources developing local businesses. We've shown we can do business in a way that provides value to the business, value to the natural world and value to the human community."

One example is Metro Health, a teaching hospital that has established recycling and composting programs, built rain gardens, and uses green cleaning products throughout its facility. It was one of the first hospitals in the nation to receive LEED certification. It also has a nearly 50,000-square-foot green roof. "We definitely have sustainability on our minds here," says Ellen Bristol, Metro Health's director of internal communications.

What's also frequently on the minds of Grand Rapids' residents is their favorite local libation. "Beer City USA" is a well-deserved moniker, Mick Lane says, because of the city's numerous craft breweries. Strong interest in locally produced foods is aided and abetted by the top-notch Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. "Grand Rapids is a great place for beginning chefs," Lane says, "which works out well for those of us here who like to eat."

Activists Welcome

Arcata, California. As director of the city's Environmental Services Department, Mark Andre has a front-row seat to some of the city's most remarkable ecological offerings. It's an impressive array, beginning with Arcata Bay, which encompasses the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary and forms the southwestern boundary of this small city on the Pacific Coast. To the west of town lies fertile agricultural land, and encircling the city are iconic expanses of redwood forest.

"There's a tremendous community spirit, with a powerful environmental ethic that pretty much shapes life here," Andre says. "The community is diverse, with a real mix of ages and cultural backgrounds, and there's a tremendous sense of ownership in creating a healthy, environmentally intelligent community."

Home to Humboldt State University, Arcata has all the amenities of a college town. The university boasts one of the country's top environmental science and engineering programs.

Arcata owns the nation's first community forest--2,300 acres certified by the Forest Stewardship Council--which serves as a demonstration forest for sustainable forestry practices. Its lumber harvest creates jobs and revenue for the city, Andre says. Arcata has succeeded in turning its wastewater into a community asset: Its effluent treatment system creates a haven of freshwater and saltwater marshes, grassy uplands and mud flats that is home to a stunning variety of flora and fauna. Walking and biking paths, an interpretive center and wildlife sanctuary draw more than 150,000 visitors each year.

"Community spirit" in Arcata often translates into social and political activism--its feisty denizens take their role as citizens seriously. Concern about sea-level rise has led to the city's comprehensive Community Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan. Arcata was the first municipality in the nation whose residents voted to ban growing any genetically modified organisms within city limits. City-wide festivities such as the Kinetic Sculpture Race and the Oyster Festival provide good excuses for community participation. Arcata boasts an excellent farmers market and the Foodworks Culinary Center, an incubator for food-related businesses.

Though lower than those in the Bay Area, real estate prices are still Northern California-steep. Somehow, though, residents manage to find solutions. They fall in love with Arcata and stick around. "People are here because they want to be," Andre says. "They carve out a niche for themselves because they want to stay."

A Gardening Culture

Ava, Missouri. Located deep in the Ozarks of south-central Missouri, Ava is surrounded by forests, streams and spectacular natural beauty. The town offers no big-city amenities, but it is a welcoming community that one resident calls "a great big neighborhood."

"I was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when I was 9," says Yun Hsia Queen, who lives north of Ava on a farm with her husband, Chris, and their five children. "If I had to choose one word to describe this place, it would be 'generous,'" Queen says. "I've moved around quite a bit, and having lived in places where people were actually mean to me, I can honestly say I've never known such kind and genuine people--the best I've ever met anywhere."

MOTHER EARTH News readers would be especially happy to encounter a community of perhaps the most passionate gardeners one could meet. Just about everyone you run into is a gardener. If they don't garden themselves, they're probably at the Ava Farmers Market on Saturday mornings to take advantage of their neighbors' garden offerings.

"The market is one of the oldest in Missouri," says Arne Ahlstedt, president of the Ava Growers' Market. "This spring we had our largest market ever, with more than 50 vendors." Ahlstedt says developments at the market have mirrored demographic changes in the community since he first moved there in the 1970s, with food booths now including a mix of Asian, Hispanic and down-home American cuisine. Diverse religious groups are represented in the Ava area now--"Amish, Greek Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventists, Mennonites, and First, Second, Third and maybe Third-and-a-half Baptists," Ahlstedt says with a laugh--and their presence has led to a radical acceptance rather than factionalism.

"There's always been an independent spirit here--a sense that, as long as you watch out for each other and tend your own business, you're welcome. What's changed is the makeup of the community," Ahlstedt says. "The newcomers are eager for knowledge and full of questions about the old ways of doing things."

These new perspectives have also shown up in local gardens. "Radical" vegetables such as bok choy and daikon radish have nudged their way into the market in recent years, Ahlstedt says. "At first the old-timers looked at these 18-inch radishes and said, 'There's no way we could eat that--it would be so hot.' But now they come by and ask, 'When's that daikon coming along?'"

No Hassles Here

Decorah, Iowa. If you visit the City of Decorah's website, the second item you'll see on the navigation bar is "Sustainability." The town embraces prosperity, environmental stewardship, and social and cultural vitality, without assuming any one of these qualities outweighs the others.

Writer, photographer and MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor David Cavagnaro visited Decorah for a week before deciding to move there from California 26 years ago. He still waxes enthusiastic about the community. "It has all the positive qualities we care about," he says. "It's easy to get around, has an enormous amount of cultural diversity, is full of friendly people, is in a scenically gorgeous area, and has among the highest percentage of park and trail acres of any community in the United States. I do my errands in an hour, on foot, and have great conversations along the way. There are just no hassles in Decorah."

Traceable to its Norwegian founders, Decorah's gardening ethos runs deep. The work of nearby Seed Savers Exchange has helped make the area an epicenter of the heirloom seed movement.

Decorah is in the Upper Mississippi River Basin's Driftless Area. Abundant lakes and rivers offer opportunity for kayaking, canoeing, fishing and just lazing on the bank.

Andy Nimrod, director of Decorah Parks and Recreation, says Decorah is a community of people who love physical activity and appreciate beauty in their daily lives. "One of the truly remarkable things is how active kids are here," Nimrod says.

"People here have a sense of pride in protecting our scenic little piece of Earth and taking care of our community. It isn't a town of 8,000 people who all hold hands and agree with each other," Nimrod says. "People disagree with each other--sometimes passionately. But there's a willingness to participate in a process, work through the issues and then come back in ways that keep the community together."

A Place That Embraces Artists

Cumberland, Maryland. When Dave and Meg Romero were considering pursuing their art full time a few years ago, they had never heard of Cumberland. But when Meg read an ad in a trade magazine for an "artist relocation program" intent on recruiting artists to the area, they turned to each other and said, "Hmmm."

"We had to take out the atlas to even know where Cumberland was," Dave says. "But the city was offering an incredible deal to recruit artists--grants, low-interest loans--and it seemed worth checking out."

When they rolled into town, they were immediately struck by the town's aesthetics. It looks like a little European village, with steeples everywhere and amazing architectural variety in its brick buildings, he says. "It's not Disneyland--it has its warts and issues--but it is a community that's open and working to create a brighter future."

Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains on the banks of the Potomac River, Cumberland is the gateway to the state's Appalachian region. The town is rich with history, from its role as a major staging point for westward wagon trains after the American Revolution and as a Union stronghold during the Civil War, to its 200 years as a source of iron ore, coal and other resources valued during the Industrial Revolution.

The economy began a protracted downward slide in the 1960s but is recovering now, partly based on the development paradigm that drew the Romeros to Cumberland. The community took advantage of a Maryland legislative initiative to establish arts and entertainment districts. The City of Cumberland and the Allegany Arts Council sponsored the artist relocation program, which brought dozens of artists and several related businesses. A focus on tourism, local food and specialty shopping drive Cumberland's renaissance.

Some parts of the city are bike-friendly, some are not--a situation the city is working to improve, according to 30-year resident Becky McClarran, chair of the marketing committee for the Downtown Cumberland Business Association. Meanwhile, existing paths connect the Cumberland Arts & Entertainment District with other regional paths to create almost 320 miles of continuous trail for cyclists and hikers.

"It's a serene lifestyle here," says McClarran, who has raised three children in the community and especially loves its great neighborhoods. "Kids can be secure here and have a lot of freedom. I can't imagine a better place to work and raise children."

Recreationist's Paradise

Lander, Wyoming. Given its location in the northern Rocky Mountains, next to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho's Wind River Reservation, the only way not to see spectacular scenery in Lander would be to lock yourself in a windowless room. Sitting on your porch watching afternoon thunderheads boil over the purple-mountain horizon is one of the simple joys of Lander life.

Geographically the ninth-largest U.S. state, Wyoming is also the least populated--home to more cattle and antelope than people. If hunting, hiking, fishing, cross-country skiing, mountain biking and world-class rock climbing fit your description of the good life, Lander may seem like a slice of heaven to you.

"It's a recreationist's paradise," says Bruce Palmer, who, as director of admissions and marketing for the internationally renowned National Outdoor Leadership School, knows great recreation when he sees it. He and his wife relocated to Lander from Cleveland in 1990 and have never regretted the move.

For Rita Peterson and her husband, Mark, living in Lander provides the perfect opportunity to combine life in a community with a satisfying degree of living off the land. The quality she especially appreciates is that their lifestyle doesn't isolate the couple from their community--self-sufficiency is just a way of life in Lander. "You can go out and cut your own wood, hunt, fish, put up your food--it's all here," Peterson says. "It's just what people do."

Originally a ranching community, Lander still has a vivid Wild West vibe. It's home to Wyoming Catholic College, as well as to the Wyoming office of The Nature Conservancy, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Wyoming Trout Unlimited, and other organizations devoted to preserving habitat and a healthy environment. Lander also attracts vigorous retirees who utterly reject the idea of spending their "third act" sitting in a rocking chair.

The town is easy to traverse by walking or bicycling--though when the winter temperatures dip and snow deepens, even the hardiest residents may want some covered transportation.

The extractive industries--oil, gas and coal--and large agricultural operations have always been a prominent segment of Wyoming's economy. Palmer says those industries are still a part of the mix, which can create tension with more environmentally conscious residents. Conflict also sometimes occurs between the recreationists and the "hook-and-bullet crowd," but these two groups generally find ways to come together on issues of access and protection of habitat.

Lander features more diverse attitudes and politics than much of the rest of this conservative state, Palmer says. Regardless of politics, civic engagement remains robust.

"Participation is a way of life in Lander," he says. "If your kid is going to be on a Little League team, you'll probably need to coach. There's a high degree of ownership in the life of the community."

Outer Space and Great Gardens

Logan, Utah. If a clean, well-organized college town with beautiful parks, farms and great fishing sounds good to you, consider Logan. That it's located in the lovely Cache Valley and surrounded by the Bear River and Wasatch mountain ranges in spectacularly beautiful northern Utah simply ices the cake. The stately Logan Utah Temple--the second temple built in Utah--dominates the Logan skyline, an ongoing testament to the diligence, hard work and deep faith of the city's founders.

The city's carefully laid-out street system allows even the most directionally challenged to make their way around, after they get used to the "Mormon Grid"--named for its designer, early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader Brigham Young. Practically any imaginable outdoor recreation is available within a few miles of Logan--cycling, skiing, snowboarding, camping, boating, white-water rafting, hunting, fishing and more--and the culture wraps itself around outdoor life.

"Everyone here is outdoorsy," says Erin Evans, who moved to Logan in 2012 when she and her husband purchased Herm's Inn, a restaurant that specializes in local food. "I can't imagine living here and not wanting to be outdoors. The town is small enough that you can walk anywhere, and there's a ton of trails that are hardly ever crowded, so bike riding is easy. Plus, the city offers free bus service, so it's simple to get around without a car."

With more than 2,000 faculty and staff members, Utah State University is the city's largest employer. Originally a land grant agricultural college, the university is now a major learning and research center, as well as a "space grant" university, which refers to a network of universities with a focus on the study of aeronautics, outer space and related fields. Logan sports several LEED-certified buildings, including those at Wetland Discovery Point, which is the Utah Botanical Center's newest educational space.

The valleys fertile soil was what first attracted Logan's pioneer founders, and its richness still endears it to residents. Don Daugs, owner of Phoenix Tears Nursery, says Logan is a gardener's paradise, where abundant vegetable gardens are the status quo. Logan's Cache Valley Gardeners' Market has grown like zucchini since its founding more than two decades ago, and it now features a wide variety of specialty booths, live music, fruit and vegetable vendors, and a vibrant crowd enjoying each other's company as they stock their pantries and refrigerators.

One of Daugs' favorite aspects of Logan has nothing to do with gardening, though. "Sidewalks are required here, and they're everywhere," he says. "They make it east to stop and visit, easy for children to play safely; easy for elderly people to walk. Wherever you go, people stop and visit with each other. It's a friendly, comfortable place to be."

Mayberry Meets Greenwich Village

Marfa, Texas. Being off the beaten path isn't mere geography in Marfa, Texas (though, given its location in the Chihuahuan Desert in way-out-West Texas, the description certainly applies). It's also a state of mind and a cultivated lifestyle. If you were to say Marfa's in the middle of nowhere, many residents would respond, "Isn't that great?"

In Marfa, both traditional Hispanic and weather-beaten Southwestern styles take their place alongside Texas kitsch, as well as world-class music, film, visual art and multimedia installations, all in less than 2 square miles among the high-desert creosote and silver sage. It's a place chock-full of emptiness, one resident says, and the people attracted to it are a proudly eclectic lot. Jon Johnson grew up on a cotton farm south of Marfa and moved away for several decades before returning in 2004 after his retirement. The residents he knew in his youth were primarily ranching families and the Hispanic community--which makes up about 70 percent of Marfa's permanent population. Johnson now owns Planet Marfa, a combination beer garden and salon space where wide-ranging discussions and ad hoc philosophizing take place in an enormous tipi. Since moving back, he's observed three other distinct threads emerge in the town's human tapestry.

"There's a diverse and lively retirement community," Johnson says. "The merchant community is also vital and energized, and our latest community is the artists, who have contributed so much to Marfa's quality of life and its personality.

"We all get along because it's like a small high school: You can't have a really good party unless you invite everyone."

Marfa's role as an arts town was born in the late 1970s when American minimalist Donald Judd began spending summers there and ultimately created the Chinati and the Judd Foundations, both nonprofit art organizations. The artists' creative approach and occasional sheer outrageousness combine with the existing small-town culture to create an atmosphere sometimes described as "Mayberry Meets Greenwich Village." Lifelong resident Ann Dunlap says residents just call it "The Marfa Mystique."

"Everyone has a different idea of what Marfa is," she says. "But add it all up, and it's a really dynamic, really fun community."

Green initiatives, such as composting, are taking hold in Marfa as much out of practical necessity as environmental enthusiasm, Dunlap says. Given that their garbage contractor has to commute 60 miles each way to the town of Presidio, residents have decided it's in their best interests to start recycling in a major way.

"No one's dragged kicking and screaming to these initiatives," Dunlap says. "People see that it makes sense and everyone pitches in to make it happen. That's how this community operates."

Right Up Next to Nature

Punta Gorda, Florida. If spending a day snorkeling and counting scallops in tall seagrass sounds like your idea of volunteerism, check out this seaside town on Florida's Gulf Coast, located at the confluence of the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor.

Each year, more than 40 boat captains and 150 snorkelers help inventory the scallop populations as part of the Charlotte Harbor Great Bay Scallop Search. "The scallop is one of the canaries in the ocean's 'coal mine,' so it's vital to track its welfare," says Betty Staugler, the Sea Grant Marine Science agent with the University of Florida Charlotte County Extension Service, which sponsors the event. Scallop welfare isn't so great right now, Staugler says, though the population is coming back from a complete collapse in the 1980s. "The assistance of our citizen-scientist volunteers makes it possible for us to do this study each year."

Punta Gorda has an impressive comeback story of its own. In August 2004, Hurricane Charley devastated the city, but the disaster also led to a revitalization of much of the city's infrastructure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center has recognized Punta Gorda for developing and implementing its robust climate change adaptation plan.

"Most towns don't get an opportunity to rethink and rebuild themselves," says Michael Heller, publisher of Water Life, a magazine devoted to fishing and boating in Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor. "After the hurricane hit, the city embarked on building state-of-the-art public facilities, as well as a hiking and biking trail that includes a 15-mile 'Ring Around the City.'"

Charlotte Harbor is the United States' 17th-largest estuary and the second largest in Florida, with an open water surface area of about 270 square miles. The harbor and adjacent estuaries' more than 70 miles of undeveloped shoreline make up one of the most pristine, productive coastal ecosystems in the state, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The region is home to five national wildlife refuges and five protected aquatic preserves. The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail snakes through the harbor and along the shoreline, providing a wealth of opportunities for bird-watching and wildlife observation.

It's heaven for boaters and fishermen, but local values center equally on caring for the areas wildlife and ecosystems. Organizations such as the Peace River Wildlife Center enable volunteers to put their love of the natural world to practical use helping rehabilitate injured and orphaned Florida wildlife.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Population: 189,815

Climate: 36" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 30[degrees] F; July avg. high: 83[degrees]F

Median household income: $38,731

Median home price: $97,000

Arcata, California

Population: 17,248

Climate: 42" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 53[degrees]F; July avg. high: 60[degrees]F

Median household income: $31,815

Median home price: $259,000

Ava, Missouri

Population: 2,993

Climate: 42" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 44[degrees]F; July avg. high: 87[degrees]F

Median household income: $21,899

Median home price: $109,000

Decorah, Iowa

Population: 8,118

Climate: 35" annual avg precip.; January avg. high: 27[degrees]F; July avg. high: 84 [degrees]F

Median household income: $47,370

Median home price: $147,300

Cumberland, Maryland

Population: 20,739

Climate: 37" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 40[degrees]F; July avg. high: 87[degrees]F

Median household income: $31,827

Median home price: $106,500

Lander, Wyoming

Population: 7,515

Climate: 11.4" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 32[degrees]F; July avg. high: 87[degrees]F

Median household income: $46,281

Median home price: $225,000

Logan, Utah

Population: 49,010

Climate: 16.4" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 32[degrees]F; July avg. high: 87[degrees]F

Median household income: $36,018

Median home price: $138,500

Marfa, Texas

Population: 1,998

Climate: 15.4" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 60[degrees]F: July avg. high: 90[degrees]F

Median household income: $37,663

Median home price: $256,500

Punta Gorda, Florida

Population: 16,697

Climate: 51" annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 75[degrees]F; July avg. high: 91[degrees]F

Median household income: $59,090

Median home price: $157,300
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Author:Compton, K.C.
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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