MagazineJuly 2006Living the Green Life

Living the Green Life

Paper mills, tobacco farms, and coal mines have long degraded the Southern Appalachian landscape. But a resurgence of health and eco-awareness in urban centers across the Southeast is giving the Dirty South a cleaner, greener image. Which Southern towns are leading the Green Revolution? BRO focused on six main criteria in compiling its green cities list:

1. Air and water quality

2. Local government leadership and legislation

3. Greenspaces, trails, and recreational opportunities

4. Public transportation and bicycle/pedestrian lanes

5. Local food markets

6. Green businesses, clubs, and organizations

We only included cities in thriving urban centers with populations above 100,000, which unfortunately left out many popular smaller pockets of progressivism like Hot Springs, N.C., Damascus, Va., and Fayetteville, W.Va. Nonetheless, the eight cities selected represent the great green hopes for the smog-smothered South. Each has taken great political, social, and environmental strides to be as lush and vibrant as the forests that surround them.

1. Carrboro, North Carolina

The small liberal appendage to 118,000-person Orange County consists of a close-knit community committed to progressive living. The diverse artistic populace crowds the farmers markets, bike lanes are filled with commuters, and the captain of the Carrboro police force even drives a hybrid.

The most bike-friendly town in the region, Carrboro is one of the only cities in the South to be recognized with a Bicycle Friendly Community Award by the League of American Bicyclists, which praised city efforts to include bike lanes in all state road improvement projects and amend street standards to include bike lanes as a requirement on all collector roads. According to the latest census, an impressive 5.2 percent of residents in Carrboro bike to work. Just this year the city also implemented free bus service aligned with Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina.

Carrboro was also one of the only Southern cities to join the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Despite overflow from nearby Raleigh-Durham, residents of Carrboro can breath a bit easier than most others in the South, as it and surrounding Orange County received a grade of A in the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report for particlate pollution. The county also has six 24-hour recycling drop-off spots in addition to curbside service and three compost sites.

In town, Carrboro is on the leading edge of infill projects, including the experimental Pacifica “co-housing” facility. The co-housing neighborhood focuses on energy reduction by building smaller homes, some as small as 600 square feet, and shares common facilities like a centralized dining area and community center. Many homes in Carrboro are adding solar energy upgrades, thanks to the local company Solar Consultants, and the state of North Carolina's 35 percent tax credits for home renewable energy.

Food for Thought: Carrboro has a nationally renowned farmer’s market that runs twice a week. Locals also huddle around the cooperative Weaver Street Market, which consistently brings in local produce and poultry from nearby piedmont farms and serves up veggie options café style.

Green Space: In addition to five local parks, procative groups like the Triangle Area Off-Road Cyclists and Friends of Bolin Creek have built biking trails and freeriding stunts on the 965-acre Carolina North Tract, helped save the 27-acre Adam’s Prerserve, and developed greenways and trail systems in the Bolin Creek corridor.

2. Charlottesville, Virginia

C-ville-a vibrant mountain town with a population of 130,000 (including surrounding Albemarle County)-shines a light of progressive politics out of the foothills of the Central Virginia Blue Ridge. At the municipal level, Mayor David Brown signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which includes a commitment to alternative fuel. Currently Charlottesville boasts 22 alt-fuel vehicles, including 16 compressed natural gas vehicles and six hybrid-electric vehicles. It’s also considering the possibility of introducing biodiesel fuel blends in the future. Mix that with the census fact that over 20 percent of the workforce walks or takes a mode of public transportation to work and you can certainly call Charlottesville emissions conscious.

Last summer two local groups launched Charlottesville Grows, an effort to plant community gardens in low-income neighborhoods around the city to cultivate affordable, healthy food. The volunteer-maintained pilot garden went up on the southeast side of downtown with donations from local businesses and fertilizer from a community compost program.

Students and faculty from the Univeristy of Virginia are active in outdoor and environmental campaigns. Charlottesville also headquarters a number of environmental organizations, including the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Piedmont Environmental Council. It's also home to innovative eco-savvy companies like Greenlight Energy, a national developer of large-scale wind energy that has projects in 15 states, and Nature Neutral, one of the few stores in the country to offer enviro-friendly building supplies. One of Charlottesville's most prominent green thinkers is world renowned eco-architect William McDonough, whose environmentally-intelligent design firm has completed famous projects all over the world, including Chicago’s City Hall Green Roof and Nike European Headquarters-the most energy efficient office of its size in the Netherlands.

Food for Thought: In addition to three natural food stores including 30-year stalwart Integral Yoga, the downtown City Market offers fresh produce, herbs, plants, crafts, and baked goods from local vendors every Saturday from April through October.

Green Space: Despite the town’s close proximity to Shenandoah National Park and the A.T., there is no need to leave Charlottesville to find a trail. The 20-mile Rivanna Trail circumnavigates the town and connects four parks as a perfect option for a quick hike, trail run, or even an alternate route to work. Just south of the city limits Walnut Creek Park has 15-miles of deep wooded singletrack. Another popular running spot is the Saunders-Monticello Trail on Carter Mountain.

Area to Improve: The big box tumor is metastasizing in C-ville. According to the SELC, Albemarle County has approved or is reviewing plans for at least 3.3 million square feet of additional shopping centers and other retail space in the next decade-a 70 percent increase in the county’s existing retail area.

3. Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville is already widely known for its hippie hangousts, trendy cafes, eclectic arts scene, and endless outdoor recreation opportunities. So it's no surprise that this Western North Carolina wonderland is a leader in eco-minded initiatives. The city, on its way to becoming a mini metropolis with 218,876 people in surrounding Buncombe County, was one of the first in the South to be donned a “Cool City” by the Sierra Club. The city was given the distinction for signing the climate protection agreement and taking its first steps to cut down transportation emissions-purchasing several hybrid vehicles for the city’s fleet. Asheville is also expanding its alternative fuel vehicles, opening a compressed natural gas filling station near downtown and starting a fleet of electric vehicles used by the city’s parking enforcers. Asheville also boasts the region's first biodiesel filling station. Blue Ridge Biofuels opened the first B100/B99 pump in Western North Carolina and the only in the state located at a commercial gas station.

The city is also starting a new Transportation Demand Management office to improve public transit and make carpooling easier for commuters. Asheville is also a leader in green home building, thanks to the Western North Carolina Green Building Council, a nonprofit that promotes environmentally sustainable and health conscious building practices. The organization helped bring the statewide NC Healthy Built Homes green building program to Asheville. Currently the city and surrounding suburbs have 24 certified healthy homes with 63 more in progress.

Green Space: Although Asheville is nestled in the mountains, in-town trails are surprisingly few. A 29-mile greenway system is planned to connect all sides of town and improve options for bike and pedestrian commutes, but it’s not scheduled to be completed until 2011. In the meantime, cyclists can easily jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside of town, and hikers and runners can trek along the Mountains to Sea Trail that parallels the Parkway.

Food: In addition to big natural food markets including Earth Fare and Greenlife, Asheville also has the member-owned French Broad Food Co-op. The city also has eight weekly tailgate markets to pick up local produce, plants, and crafts. For specific days and times see:

Area to Improve: Less than five percent of the Asheville workforce walks or takes public transportation to work. Only one percent biked or walked, a symptom of the poor bike lanes and pedestrian options on the city streets.

4. Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga is a peaceful river city of 155,000 that has exemplified itself as the comeback kid when it comes to the environment. In the late 60s Chattanooga had earned the EPA’s dubious distinction of having the worst air pollution in the United States, the result of years as a bustling railroad terminus for big industry. But the city decided to clean up its act and in the early 1980s enacted an environmental restoration campaign that took shape faster than expected with tough emissions restrictions and harsh pollution penalties. In 1992 the city created the Electric Bus Initiative and created a fleet that now numbers 16 buses. The efforts and quick results led Vice President Al Gore to dub Chattanooga the “Environmental City” in 1998. Today businesses revolve around a thriving walk-accessible riverfront downtown.

Chattanooga operates the nationally touted Orange Grove Recycling Center, which handles the city as well as 13 other counties in Tennessee and 15 municipalities in Georgia. The recycling facility diverts 5,000 tons of waste from landfills each year. And Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium has 11 solar arrays that can produce about 127,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year for the city system.

Green Space: Tennessee Riverpark has the 12-mile Riverwalk greenway trail, which runs from Coolidge Park in North Chattanooga south across the Tennessee River via the Walnut Street Bridge and through downtown before ending at Fishing Park immediately below the Chickamauga Dam. Chattanooga also has one of the most active mountain biking communities in the country. The local SORBA chapter has pledged to build 100 miles of trails within 10 miles of the city by 2010. They’ve recently received approval to do more building at Booker T. Washington State Park, a hot spot for a quick singletrack fix. The American Hiking Association-headquartered in Nooga-has helped build the 300-mile Cumberland Trail in east Tennessee.

Food for Thought: Besides the flagship location of Greenlife, Nooga has a popular weekly open air market downtown that brings in fresh produce and free range eggs from local farmers. The seasonal gala that also has Appalachian arts and crafts and occasional contra dancing lasts every Sunday from April through December.

Areas to Improve: Despite vast long-term improvements, Hamilton County still received a grade of F in the American Lung Association's State of the Air for high ozone days and annual overall particulate pollution.

5. Greenville, South Carolina

The upstate South Carolina city on the rise makes the list for being the South’s leader per capita in nationally recognized environmentally sound buildings with 14 registered LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green buildings. With a county population growing to over 400,000 Greenville has focused on sustainable downtown redevelopment, creating more walk-friendly commuter options, built around the scenic Falls Park on the Reedy River. From the 355-foot Liberty Bridge visitors can check out the flowing Reedy River Falls and six gardens that focus on indigenous Carolina plants and flowers.

Food for Thought: Garner’s Natural Market and Café is a coop and the place to grab local food. The city also hosts a tailgate market downtown every Saturday from May through September.

Green Space: Locals can get a quick fat tire fix on the Timmons Park Mountain Bike Trail or the steep climb of the revamped Fire Tower Trail in Paris Mountain State Park, which is also a popular running and hiking spot. Formerly a city watershed, the 1,540-acre park has large stands of old growth that make for a sweet urban escape right on the edge of town. The steep grades on the park’s paved roads also make for some great cycling, including the training grounds for part-time resident and professional cyclist George Hincapie.

Areas to Improve: Only one percent of the Greenville workforce uses public transportation.

More Cities Making Eco-Friendly Moves

6. Charlotte, N.C.

Although the Queen City suburbs are ballooning, the city is working to cut emissions by recently adding 21 hybrid cars to its municipal fleet. Charlotte is also looking into a pilot solar energy project that would include placing solar panels on a fire station rooftop.

7. Washington, D.C.

D.C. has some bad air, actually the 12th most ozone polluted city in the country according to the American Lung Association. But Mayor Anthony Williams has signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the city has excellent public transit, specifically the Metro, and outstanding urban green space options for its size, including Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal Towpath. Also currently in development is the Metropolitan Branch Trail, an eight-mile greenway that will link the heart of D.C. with suburban Maryland. The Nation’s Capitol is also home to some of the most prominent environmental organizations in the world.

8. Virginia Beach, Va.

In an addition to an excellent citywide clean-up campaign and signing the climate protection agreement, the city also has a handful of certified and registered LEED buildings.

Places to Go, Things to See: