Mississippi blog from Dubuque IAThere’s no free lunch — unless you happen to be a Grist reporter crashing a sustainability conference in Dubuque. I showed up, hungry, for a 12 p.m. presentation by City Manager Mike Van Milligen that was kicking off a three-day Sustainable Design Assessment Team visit. I was rewarded not only with more inspiring examples of this city’s initiatives, but with a sandwich.

Let me back up a little. Dubuque — which, as Sarah said, is turning out to be a more progressive place than either of us realized — was chosen this year as one of six cities to receive technical assistance from the American Institute of Architects through their SDAT program. Basically, a bunch of smartypants architects, landscape architects, land-use planners, and climate types volunteer to come to your town to meet with officials and the public, and together you jaw your way through local challenges — in this case, sprawl, bluff development, stormwater management, sustainable design, and neighborhood revitalization.

I ate my lunch in the company of the city’s solid waste supervisor (a fan of Ask Umbra, as it turns out, especially the recent eco-litter column), two regional planning officials, a couple of soil and water conservation specialists, and a member of the city housing commission. If there were some sort of terrorist plot against Dubuque’s infrastructure, this would be the gathering to hit.

After lunch, I had a chance to talk with Van Milligen, whom many credit with the incredible turnaround experienced by this self-proclaimed “Masterpiece on the Mississippi” — but who modestly and Midwestily gave much of the credit to others. He noted especially the importance of community participation in projects including the restoration of the riverfront. “The saying was, ‘The last person to leave Dubuque turn out the lights,'” he said, referring to the city’s population hemorrhage in the 1980s. “The community … has seen what bad is, and they don’t want to see it again. And they’ve seen what good is, and they like it.”

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