Green Scene

Vogt, Jess

By now we’ve all heard that Lawrence is embarking on a two-year “theme year” focusing on the environment and sustainability. But did you know that the Fox Cities has been engaging in an effort to become a more eco-friendly community for the past two years?
Neither did I, until this past summer. As a lifelong Appleton resident and environmentalist, I would love to see the town move in a more sustainable direction. I always remember being frustrated as a kid with how un-bike friendly the roads were. Then, as a teenager wanting to go to the mall, but lacking the ability to drive myself there, I dabbled in the public transit system. I immediately became frustrated with the hour and ten minutes it took to bus to the mall from my house.
As I entered my final days at Appleton North High School, I began to also realize just how developed Appleton was becoming. I could recall my days in freshman gym where kicking a soccer ball out of the field meant going to dig it out of the cornfields across the road. Now, housing developments completely surround the high school grounds.
In the years since my June 2005 graduation, Appleton’s urban sprawl has resulted in the clearing of the farms and small patches of forest that used to surround the high school and the edge of the city. North Appleton has gone from a well-planned community where neighborhoods are no more than a short walk or school bus ride from the local elementary school to a sprawling series of housing development piled upon housing development, many more than a ten minute drive from the nearest grocery store or school.
Unlike the Downtown Appleton with which Lawrence students are familiar and where residents can walk to the farmer’s market or bookstore, residents of greater Appleton are forced to rely on their cars for transportation. This reliance on cars and bike un-friendly roads are just some of the many reasons Appleton could use some work in the sustainability arena.
Two years ago, a project called the Sustainable Fox Valley Initiative was born, with the intent of coordinating efforts to transform Appleton and the surrounding areas into a more sustainable community. The beginning of the program is called “The Natural Step.” First developed in Switzerland in the 1980s and ’90s by Karl Heinrik Robert, the Natural Step framework aims to encourage communities to turn themselves into “eco-municipalities” that seek to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and non-renewable resources and reduce human impact on nature; at the same time these communities meet the needs of people “fairly and efficiently.” The principles have been laid out in a book called The Natural Step for Communities, by Torbjorn Lahti and Sarah James.
The key to the Natural Step lies in “study circles,” where citizens read the book and discuss the sustainable principles and how to integrate them into their community. The first of these study circles in the Fox Valley occurred about two years ago. Last June, the authors of the book gave a workshop in the Fox Valley.
This fall, Leslie Taylor of the Sustainable Fox Valley Initiative and ECOS Fox Valley organized the most recent wave of study circles. When asked why she became involved with this initiative, she replied, “I just want the Fox Valley to take better care of the natural assets that we have.” She added that the Fox Valley does not have the organizations necessary to promote sustainability “across all the political boundaries,” and so she wanted to be a part of citizen-oriented response.
Joining an Appleton study circle this fall is Assistant Professor of History Monica Rico. When asked why, she replied, “Because I live here!” Rico’s excitement has a hint of obligation in it. “As a citizen, it’s important to me to get involved in efforts to make our communities more sustainable,” she added.
Like me, Rico’s main concerns in the Fox Cities focus on land use and urban sprawl. “I’d like to see some smart growth controls implemented, and I’d like to see us strengthen our public transit system so that people in new neighborhoods are not totally dependent on cars,” Rico says.
Taylor, Rico and citizens with similar concerns are surfacing with increasing frequency in the Fox Valley. As Lawrence University finally joins the sustainability movement this year, the community as a whole begins to at least think about the necessary ingredients of a sustainable community.
Although Appleton currently has not passed any official resolution to join the “eco-municipality” movement, other surrounding cities have. In the greater Fox Valley, the City of Neenah and the Town of Menasha have passed official resolutions to become “eco-municipalities,” as defined by the Natural Step framework. They join Ashland and Dane County as some of the first communities in Wisconsin to attempt sustainability.
It is the beginning of the “Natural Step” and we can only hope that citizens and city governments will continue to take the next steps toward fully sustainable communities.Resources: The Natural Step for Communities, Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti, New Society Press: 2004.