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Susanne Torriente fights to keep ‘America’s Venice’ from slipping into the sea

Susanne Torriente.

In Fort Lauderdale, Assistant City Manager Susanne Torriente is working to get her city government prepared for rising sea levels -- and for good reason: Depending on what happens on worldwide climate action, 48 percent of South Florida could end up submerged.

Luckily, Torriente has experience weathering storms. In 2009, County Mayor Carlos Alvarez appointed the 20-year Miami-Dade County employee as sustainability director. Alvarez was the rare Republican who was very supportive of sustainability, says Torriente.

Two years later, the political climate changed. Upset over staff pay increases, property tax hikes, and a new stadium, local billionaire Norman Braman led a wildly successful recall effort against Alvarez and flooded the recall with $1 million of his personal money. “At the end of the day, Alvarez got caught up in an anti-government, anti-tax frenzy from a very conservative community,” Torriente says. After the recall, she decided to cut her losses and move on.

For a little over a year, Torriente has been restructuring and refocusing Fort Lauderdale government. "How do we look at what we do, and in light of what we know [about climate change], how do we need to start doing our jobs differently?" she asks. I talked to Torriente for Knope and change, our series on the women working to green, and in this case, save our cities. Here’s our edited conversation on talking climate in a politically polarized state.

Q. Fort Lauderdale has been called the Venice of America -- and in fact, Venice is your sister city. Venice is currently experiencing historic floods.

Wally Gobetz

A. We have 300 miles of canal coastline and 52 bridges in the city alone in 33 square miles. We’re all about the water here. Two or three weeks ago, we had Hurricane Sandy going through the Bahamas and the tail end of that was coupled with our full moon high tide. We experienced major tidal flooding in the city of Fort Lauderdale.

Q. Does your community seem concerned about climate change?

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A green Salt Lake City? Thank the Mormon pioneers, says Sustainability Director Vicki Bennett

Dave Gates

If you said "Salt Lake City" during a game of free association, not too many folks would shout "sustainability" back at you. Unless they've spent some time in the burg of 200,000, you'd probably hear a variation on one of three things: Mormons, snow, or sobriety.

The Mormons part is true -- this is their promised land and world headquarters -- but the city’s politics are decidedly progressive, never mind that over 70 percent of Utah went to Mitt Romney. “Those of us who live here in the city are almost responding to the rest of the state being so conservative,” says Salt Lake’s sustainability chief, Vicki Bennett. The snow? That’s real, too, but wait 40 years -- the climate will take care of that. As for the dearth of alcohol, Bennett assures us, “Yeah, you can get a drink.”

And there are serious discussions about what makes a city sustainable here, too. Mayor Ralph Becker (D) is an environmental planner by training, and that, says Bennett, makes her job much easier. “He really understands how this broad term of sustainability can be applied,” she says. “It wasn't a matter of having to educate an elected official as to why you are there. He’s usually five steps ahead of us saying, ‘Here’s where we need to go.’”

But where Salt Lake needs to go is directly tied to where the greater metropolitan area, population 1 million, needs to go. Between workers at local businesses and students and employees of the University of Utah, the population in Salt Lake doubles during the work day. The city suffers from poor air quality, due in large part to the never-ending river of cars pouring in and out from its burgeoning suburbs. Part of Becker’s, and Bennett’s, job is reaching out to much less progressive populations and governments.

I talked to Bennett for Knope and change, our series on the women fighting the green fight in our cities. Here are some snippets from our conversation about working with Republicans on environmental issues, a climate-changed Salt Lake, and whether or not Jon Huntsman is a freak.

Q. How does Salt Lake’s high Mormon population affect your work?

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Breaking: Portland sustainability chief admits ‘Portlandia’ isn’t really a parody

Being the sustainability director of Portland is a bit like being the oil minister of Saudi Arabia. You don't exactly run the place, but you do have the region's chief export on tap. Portland’s public transit system is held up as a model for the country. Per capita carbon emissions are down 26 percent since 1990. Portland consistently tops lists for most bike-friendly city. The city even has an eco-pub.

Susan Anderson.

Of course, you already knew this, thanks to Portlandia. But show creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein should thank sustainability chief Susan Anderson: She's been pushing the city in this direction since the early ’90s. Anderson started off at the energy office and was a key figure in its first climate action plan in 1993. She’s headed the sustainability department since 2000, and now runs the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the result of the Bureau of Planning merging with the Office of Sustainability in 2009.

“[Sustainability] doesn’t happen by chance,” she says. “There’s all the stuff that some people think of as the mundane side of city planning. But it’s the bones, the framework for allowing so much of this stuff to happen,” she says.

And just like Saudi Arabia's future oil woes, Portland's resources can dry up: The public transportation agency, TriMet, is facing up to $17 million in budget shortfalls next year. Even a place with designated ecodistricts has its challenges.

I talked to Anderson for the latest episode of Knope and change, our series about the women who are leading the charge to green our cities. Here's our edited conversation about how Portland got to where it is today, some of the challenges it faces, and how it really stacks up against the caricature we see on TV.

Q. Your city will now forever be thought of as Portlandia. What’s the biggest mischaracterization in the show?

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Phish Food for thought: Even Burlington can get greener

redjar
Historically sustainable.

Burlington, Vt.: It's the land of socialist senators and Ben & Jerry’s, of Phish and Burton snowboards. So it probably won't surprise you to learn that Vermont's largest city (at a whopping 42,000) is not new to the sustainability game. Residents voted for a $11.3 million bond for energy efficiency in the ’90s and the city has been working on climate change since 1996.

And while the city already has a lot to brag about (like getting around 8 percent of its food from within city limits), sustainability director Jennifer Green says Burlington still has its work cut out for it -- especially if it is going to be prepared for a climate-changed future.

The seventh installment of Knope and Change, our series about the women who are leading the green cities revolution, features an edited conversation with Green about Burlington's city-owned utility, urban farms, and unique approach to sustainability.

Q. Some folks would say, “Hey, this is the land of Cherry Garcia and Bernie Sanders. Why should we care what a liberal utopia like Burlington has to say?”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Heritage seed icons bring back pioneer chic

Brian Dunne/Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
The Gettles.

Emilee and Jere Gettle are an unlikely power couple. Dubbed "The Evangelists for Heirloom Vegetables" by The New York Times, the Gettles run the largest mail-order heritage seed business in the U.S. Their empire includes seed banks in California and Connecticut, Heirloom Gardener magazine, and a pioneer village on their Missouri farm. They host trade fairs and heritage festivals, write vegan cookbooks, and homeschool their 5-year-old daughter, Sasha.

Their lives sound like something from a different era. Raised by homesteading parents, Jere started gardening at 3 and opened Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at age 17. He met Emilee in 2006, when she interviewed him over the phone about homeschooled kids starting their own businesses -- then stopped by a few months later for a visit.  “When she walked into the seed store ... my heart stood still,” Jere writes of their first meeting. “She was beautiful and elegant, and I knew right away that I wanted to marry her.” And he did -- a few months later.

If you don’t already have a lump the size of a Tennessee Dancing gourd in your throat, the family dresses like they're straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. In photos, the whole family can be seen posing in farm fields and seed shops wearing carefully selected, brightly colored vintage clothing. While the look undoubtedly endears them to the press and makes their pioneer village feel authentic, Emilee says the aesthetic is sincere: “I just think older clothes are prettier than some of the modern fashion that’s out there.”

Emilee says her wardrobe is 75 percent vintage or vintage-inspired. Right now, she buys most of her clothing off of eBay or at consignment shops, but she is currently working on an online dressmaking degree and plans on whipping out her sewing machine more this winter. She scours old magazines and patterns and even seed catalogs for insight on how folks used to dress. She crochets in the car and fires off patterns to Coats and Clarks when she reaches an internet connection and her 5-year-old is napping.

It's heritage and craftiness taken to its logical extreme -- an (admittedly eccentric) rejection of most everything industrial and mass-produced. And while we may not all be ready to don pairs of pinstripe overalls, it's an ideal we can learn from.

I caught up with Emilee as they were putting the finishing touches on their annual seed catalog, getting ready to head to Italy for a slow food event and seed hunting, and getting Christmas presents together (all handmade or artisan-bought, natch) so she can just wrap them up when they return in December.

Q. Why is heritage so important to your family?

A. For the seed aspect, I think it’s really important that we maintain those variety of heirlooms that grandparents and parents passed down to us. One, they have more nutrition than modern varieties do. On top of that, the history. This is how food is supposed to taste. They grew it and it tasted good. It wasn’t “this looks like a tomato but you’re not tasting anything.”

I like that with old-fashioned clothes: They made it and it held up. With [modern] clothing -- it looks nice but it’s going to fall apart in a week. These clothes have been around for 30, 40 years and I can still wear them and they aren’t falling apart. I like that time-honored skill went into it.

Read more: Food, Living

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

slworking2
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?

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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