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Can you green a ghost town? Lauren Riga of Gary, Ind., is going to try

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Gary's abandoned Methodist church was featured in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

To say, that Gary, Ind., has seen better days is a laughable understatement. In an elegy for the city, James Howard Kunstler compared it to post-evacuation Chernobyl. Horror and action filmmakers have taken advantage of Gary’s abandoned cityscape, but the town lacks a single movie theater to show the films, which include Transformers and the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. The History Channel even featured Gary in Life After People, a series in which scientists and engineers imagine the built world sans human life. Violent crime has decreased in Gary since it was dubbed the Murder Capital of the U.S., but it still hovers above the national average.

How did this happen? Founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation, Gary experienced a huge population crash when the steel industry shuttered, shrank, and moved overseas. In 2010, the town’s population was at 40 percent of its ’50s height of 200,000.

Last November, the city elected Indiana’s first African American female mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson. On Jan. 2, the mayor sat down in a city hall that has a vacant hotel as a next-door neighbor and set about trying to deal with the city’s decades-long problems and budget shortfalls.

“It’s the sense that you might be able to do something about a community that you love and support,” a political science professor told Atlantic Cities. “With a city like Gary or Detroit, yes, things are so bad, you’re likely to succeed. The bar is set very low.”

Lauren Riga.

Freeman-Wilson set the bar high with her pick to run the newly configured sustainability department, however. At 28, Lauren Riga has been a delegate for United Nations conferences, including the 2010 climate meeting in Cancun. In her free time, she runs a radio program on sustainability and teaches sustainability courses for the MBA program at Valparaiso University.

Gary has been called the ghost of America’s future -- as budgets dry up and jobs ship overseas, there are fears that more and more of our towns will look like the ruined backdrop of Life After People. Riga hopes that instead of Gary being a harbinger of post-industrial doom, it can show the rest of the country how to reimagine an industrial city green.

The latest episode of Knope and Change, our series about women who are leading the green cities revolution, features an edited conversation with Riga about the future of Gary.

Q. In a recent interview, your mayor said the problems facing Gary are “almost exhausting to describe.” Doesn’t the city have bigger issues than sustainability to think about?

Read more: Cities, Living

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San Francisco artist mends clothes and builds community — just by giving a darn

Daniel Gorrell
The Luggage Store lets Swaine keep his cart inside, so he only has to roll it out into the alley every month.

Once a month for the past 11 years, Michael Swaine has mended clothing for free on the San Francisco streets.

At first, he did a five-mile route through the city, from dusk to dawn, with a sewing machine covered by an umbrella on wheelbarrow wheels. He loved the route, but it was exhausting and often folks didn't have their torn clothes with them when he rolled by. He eventually settled at the Luggage Store, a nonprofit artist collective in the Tenderloin District, a tougher part of town. He's so committed to the project, the Free Mending Library, that he's only missed three months out of more than 130.

Swaine is an artist, an active member of Futurefarmers (a loose collective of artists, designers, farmers, and computer programmers), and a ceramics instructor. “Most people think of me as a fibers artist. Or a social artist,” he says in a video. “There’s all sorts of strange words [that] people say to me. I try to ignore them.”

I first came across Swaine in Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, a wonderful little book about the folks who are rethinking fashion and trying to create a more sustainable clothing industry. Swaine took the time to chat with me about the beautiful things that happen on streets, our throwaway culture, and the strangest thing he's ever fixed.

Q. What exactly is the Free Mending Library?

A. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is welcome to bring something to be mended -- and equally people are welcome to come and help mend. Those are the days that I love the most, when there’s a really wonderful balance -- people coming to help mend, people sitting and telling stories, people bringing things to be mended. It’s nice when all of those things are happening at once.

Q. I love the guy who has six pairs of the same black Levi’s and you've fixed each pair several times. What’s the community like that’s sprung up around this?

Read more: Cities, Living

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Sustainability doesn’t happen overnight, says Santa Monica’s Shannon Parry

Dehk

Before you write off Santa Monica as a surf camp for liberals, lend an ear to the city’s assistant director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, Shannon Parry. “People always say, ‘Of course you can do that. You’re Santa Monica.’ One of the things we always say is, ‘Santa Monica hasn’t always been Santa Monica,’” she says. “This was Dogtown. This was dilapidated piers, burnt-out buildings, and skate rats.”

The city, surrounded on three sides by Los Angeles, still has its share of regional problems -- air quality, traffic, homelessness -- but its Dogtown days are long over. Cleaning up the beaches increased tourism, a major contributor to the local economy. And the city, population 89,000, is now home to the corporate headquarters of big players like Lionsgate Films and Universal Music Group. “Fortunate People in a Fortunate Land” indeed.

Parry says Santa Monica’s active and engaged community deserves the credit for where the city is today. Residents show up at city council meetings and events and vote in droves. In the last off-cycle election, the city had 65 percent voter turnout. “The things we think of Santa Monica being now are really things this community has said are important and makes happen,” Parry says. And for nearly 20 years, Santa Monicans have made a concerted effort to green their city.

Shannon Parry.

Parry’s own story is full of fortune, too. While working as a mountain guide, the velcro peeled off her Patagonia bag. When she returned it, she got to talking with the Patagonia salesperson about how she desperately wanted to get a job in sustainability but didn’t know where to start. The employee gave her a tip about a job with a Santa Monica nonprofit. One job led to another, and a few years later, she got to tell her tale to Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard at Santa Monica’s Sustainable Quality Awards. She thanked him for launching her career with a faulty product.

In this fifth installment in our Knope and change series, I talked to Parry about Santa Monica’s bike valet program, Keanu Reeves, and what a ferris wheel can teach us about solar power.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Flagstaff sustainability chief Nicole Woodman keeps a cool head as temperatures rise

Nicole Woodman.

Nicole Woodman could have found an easier place to be a sustainability director -- a place where left-leaning locals happily compost their kale stems and the mayor competes with other mayors to have the greenest city. A place like Minneapolis or Asheville, N.C. Instead, Woodman landed in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Her mountain boom town of 66,000, one of the gateways to Grand Canyon National Park, is facing water shortages so severe that officials are thinking of hauling water 40 miles uphill to supply the city during the dry season -- that is, seven months out of the year. And while Flagstaff is home to a mosaic of different cultures, including college students, Native Americans, and second- or third-home owners, its roots in the conservative interior West are unmistakable.

“Some people say Flagstaff is so liberal and green,” Woodman says. “It is still Arizona.”

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics

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Southern sustainability: Asheville’s Maggie Ullman says her city is greener than you think

Maggie Ullman.

Maggie Ullman takes an ecological approach to bureaucracy. “Everyone complains about silos in government, but it’s just like talking about monocropping,” she says. “If we cross-pollinate more and have richer diversity of thought and experience, we are going to have a more vibrant ecosystem.”

Ullman, 28, manages the office of sustainability in Asheville, N.C., a progressive city of 85,000 in the southern Appalachians. For episode 3 of Knope and Change, a series about the women working to make our cities more sustainable, I caught up with Ullman to chat about small-city government, groggy chickens, and what Coca Cola can teach us about getting people to go green.

Q. Your Twitter bio says, “I think government can be cool. I think sustainability is cooler. I think sustainable government is coolest.”

Read more: Cities, Living

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Philadelphia’s Katherine Gajewski is turning a gritty city green

Katherine Gajewski.

Katherine Gajewski was just 29 years old when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter asked her to take on the role of city sustainability director. “I was concerned that people wouldn’t take me seriously,” she says. Three years later, those fears have all but disappeared. Using limited staff and resources, her office works long days to earn Philly a green reputation. “Once people see that you’re really serious and you’re working really hard, age isn’t a factor,” she says.

Gajewski works to implement the ambitious city-wide Greenworks Philadelphia plan [PDF], directs a five-county energy-efficiency program, and even organizes a social group of city employees nicknamed the “Young-ish City Government Workers.” For episode 2 of our Knope and change series, about women who are leading the charge to make our cities more sustainable, Gajewski tells Grist about Philly’s lovely bones and her vision for the future (while also making everyone here feel a bit unaccomplished-ish).

Q. Philadelphia has a rep for being a gritty city.

A. And we’re a really old city. We have great bones -- modest-sized, energy-efficient row homes, an extensive public transit system, a really low car ownership rate, a 9,200-acre park system. Those are the type of bones that make for a sustainable city. We’re not a new city that’s building new. We were designed and built smart the first time around. That just happened to be 300 years ago.

Read more: Cities

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Knope and change: A tribute to the women of urban sustainability, inspired by Parks and Rec

At Grist, we love Parks and Recreation. The show is brilliant and funny -- and we especially admire protagonist Lesley Knope. As played by Amy Poehler, the wonderfully multidimensional Knope makes mistakes, but in the end she always manages to pull the Parks Department together to get the job done. And no one loves her hilarious, flawed city more than she does.

In fact, the way we see it, we could all use a little more Knope in our cities. So over the next few months, we will introduce you to the real-life Lesley Knopes of the world: the female city officials who work hard to make their cities more sustainable. Even if Parks and Recreation isn’t your speed, you’ll get a fresh look at the women on the ground fighting to implement real change in our urban environments.

Gayle Prest: "It's OK to be nice."

Episode 1 features an edited conversation with Gayle Prest, sustainability director for the city of Minneapolis.

Prest passes the Knope test in two big ways. First, she loves her city. (Sample question: “Are you a big fan of cities?” Answer: “I love Minneapolis. I really love Minneapolis. Have you ever been here?”) Second, she's incredibly friendly. (She offered me a personal tour of the city within the first five minutes of our call and ended the chat with, “and for crying out loud, get your butt out here.”)

While this butt has still not been to Minneapolis, the Minnesota native made the city sound awfully alluring. Prest, who has been with the Minneapolis sustainability office since 2006, told me why sustainability directors across the nation are working together, how Minnesota provides a unique approach to urban sustainability, and why the City of Lakes is just so darn lovable.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Green washing: Learn what all those tiny laundry symbols mean

What does it all mean? Not all those who launder are lost.

Have you ever wandered down to the laundry room, pulled out a soiled shirt for inspection, and found alien hieroglyphics blinking back up at you? Are you secretly stoked when crop tops and ratty tights become trendy because you've got a closet full of dryer casualties?

The average American throws away around 68 pounds of clothing a year. Time to learn to take care of your clothes, America. It'll make your clothes last much longer -- which a) is more sustainable than buying more, and b) will make your mom (or rad dad) proud. Here's the Rosetta Stone for decoding laundry labels. (We know this is remedial algebra for some of you, but let's be honest: Some of us are 25-year-olds who can barely manage getting dressed.)

Read more: Living

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You look great in green: Clothing industry gets a makeover, maybe

Damn, clothing industry, did you get a new haircut, too!?

The clothing industry is finally partaking in a little retail therapy, as a band of brands -- from Adidas to Patagonia to Walmart -- takes the first steps in measuring the environmental impacts of making our tees, ties, and toe shoes.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which represents around a third of the world’s apparel dollars, publicly released its long-awaited Higg Index Thursday morning. The index measures the overall practices and policies of a company, specific product components (such as fabric), and the water, waste, and energy used to run facilities (millhouses, warehouses, etc.).

The Higg Index is a mashup of tools developed by Nike and the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group for companies that make gear and clothes for the hiker/boater/climber set. The coalition piloted the index with over 60 companies and hundreds of products and spent over 1,300 human hours improving the tool, according to Executive Director Jason Kibbey.

If you’re waiting for an “organic”-style label for clothing, don’t hold your breath, however.

Read more: Living

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From muumuu to Miu Miu: Turning thrift-store rejects into cute couture (SLIDESHOW)

Jillian Owens dyes, snips, and sews landfill-bound secondhand clothing deemed too ugly or damaged to sell. The envy-worthy results are donated to a charity shop, where the proceeds go to a women’s shelter. Get inspired by her remakes -- and head to her blog for a look at the process.

Read more: Living