The Quiet Path toward Sustainability

While trendier communities grab the headlines, the small city of Macomb, Illinois, charts its own path toward improving economic and environmental conditions in the Midwest. Loose networks, volunteerism and cooperation make the difference.

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My small city of Macomb in western Illinois is unlikely to attract national attention for trendy sustainable development. Other communities may grab the spotlight with more panache and high-profile projects.

No problem.

Out here, in the heart of the rural Midwest, our community is on a journey. We are making our own way toward sustainability.

The work here is quiet, sometimes amorphous. You might not notice if you weren’t looking. But thankfully, I stepped back recently to reflect on what’s been happening. As a result, I’ve just had one of those, “duh-how-did-I-miss-that moments.” We’ve got a lot going on.

Leaders from different parts of the community, including my work community of Western Illinois University, network and draw on volunteers from the town and university. The projects are independent, but they share a common goal of improving our small city, perhaps even moving us toward sustainability.

It is difficult to count how many people are engaged in environmental activities here, but my conservative guess puts it at more than 100. Not bad for a community of 20,000 or so.

What I’ve seen in Macomb is a widespread sense among people that there are things to be done, so let’s do something. These are highly qualified, self-motivated friends and community members who have a common goal of improving our community. They don’t usually need the technical assistance a community-development expert can provide. The skills are there. So is the motivation. Leadership is independent, self-starting and shared, depending on the area of interest.

The range of projects and groups is wide, including reducing solid waste, preserving historic areas, creating a new food cooperative, and starting two community supported agriculture operations. We’ve also established the Prairie Land Conservancy, Environmentally Concerned Citizens, Lamoine River Ecosystem Partnership and a green student organization.

On campus, WIU’s Sustainability Committee includes representatives from Facilities Management and various departments and academic and administrative units to share information about activities and provide programs to the WIU community. Facilities Management started the committee and employs a university sustainability coordinator. The university, despite shrinking resources, tries to use native plantings, composts wastes, has green purchasing standards, builds to green standards and strives to reduce energy use, among other things.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA, where I work) sponsors “Sustainability Brownbaggers” each semester in conjunction with other WIU units. The sessions are held at the Malpass Library and draw from the expertise of faculty, staff and community members. Technology lets us bring in outside speakers.  Most sessions are done as webinars. (See this fall’s sessions and a link to previous sessions at the bottom of this article.)

Perhaps my favorite event is our annual WIU Environmental Summit, now in its 11th year. This year, Institute for Rural Affairs has assumed leadership of the summit. The expanded and renamed Prairie Lands Environmental Summit will be held on October 22 on the WIU campus.  

Keynote speaker is Michael Howard, associate director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and south side Chicago community activist who founded Eden Place Nature Center on an abandoned brownfield site. (See more on the summit at the bottom of this article.)

Photo via naturtalks.net
Michael Howard, plenary speaker at the Prairie Lands Environmental Summit, is the founder of Eden Place Nature Center

The summit planning committee is a phenomenal group of people. We come from different backgrounds. We share a common passion. How can we make WIU, Macomb and our region more environmentally friendly, even sustainable? How can we engage students and the public in these activities?

The Prairie Lands Environmental Summit is part of an evolving process of raising green consciousness in our small community that lies in the middle of the corn and soybean belt.

I have been with IIRA for almost 10 years, and, believe me, there is such a thing as progress. We are strengthening our diverse environmental community, not only at WIU, but in the surrounding area. It is exciting and invigorating.

The growing environmental consciousness here is rooted in committed individuals with diverse talents and a willingness to accept others’ efforts at face value. The networks of people make this process work. Our hearts are in the right place, and conflict seems minimal.

Amorphous is a bad term in community-development parlance. It implies lack of leadership. As a long-time community-development practitioner and researcher, it is not an approach I would normally recommend. But here it is, people working together and separately, sometimes leaders and followers at the same time.

The growth of our environmental community in western Illinois is, perhaps, one of those moments of community development magic, not really planned at the outset. Perhaps it is a product of converging individual and small group activities in a larger framework of a supportive university and a city and county with a critical mass of people interested in environmental development.

Macomb is long way from becoming a Nirvana of sustainability. But there’s no doubt that we’re on a journey, and we’re making progress.

For this expedition, I couldn’t ask for better companions.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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Sustainability Brownbaggers

This fall’s seminars include Laurence Overmire, author of The One Idea That Saves the World, on September 23; Sarah Dewees, First Nations Development Institute, “Reclaiming Native Food Systems,” September 30; and Timothy Collins, Institute for Rural Affairs, “Historic Roots of Community Sustainability,” October 7.

The Malpass Library keeps an archive of past presentations.

 

Prairie Lands Environmental Summit

Besides a grant writing workshop for the Arts and Humanities on October 21, the summit on October 22 will feature three tracks:

·      “Greening Our Community,” aimed at the Western Illinois – Macomb area community in recognition of Campus Sustainability Day.

·      “Arts on the Prairie Landscape: Main Streets and Country Roads,” aimed at community and economic developers, local officials and community residents, especially those interested in the arts and humanities.

·      Continuing education aimed at high school science teachers.

More information on the summit. 

 

Topics: Environment
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