ISU Students Working Towards a Sustainable Future

This last February, Iowa State University had it’s third annual symposium on sustainability. I attended the student brainstorming session and got to see former ISU GSB vice president Chandra Peterson in action.  Her energy and enthusiasm give me hope for the future!

A wonderfully diverse group of students came up with ideas for improving energy usage on campus, educating students and promoting sustainable student lifestyles, reuse of design materials by students, and continuing and improving our food system initiatives of large scale composting and use of locally grown foods.

Chandra Peterson in the middle, leading the student sustainability brainstorming session
ISU students planning a skit to illustrate sustainable practices
Over 60 students attended the sustainability brainstorming session

I never cease to be amazed by the rich diversity found at this university in the middle of the American corn belt.  We have a large population of students from China, India, Pakistan and Latin America.  How do they wind up in Iowa, a state many US east-coasters can’t even accurately locate?! When I asked an administrator about this once, he replied that word of mouth gets many students here.  We have a good university and Ames is a nice sized city of around 50,000.  For ISU, these students will bring many of the ideas and world views that we need to create a sustainable future. It is also impressive that our African-American population seems to be growing at ISU.   One book I am reading now speaks of the overdeveloped countries, like the U.S.  Is it possible to go from overdeveloped, excessive energy use, over-consumption, new technology at any cost, and massive amounts of waste to something more sustainable?  It will be to our advantage to have a diverse group of brainstormers in the conversation.

Greenhouse Garden Community Garden in Chicago

Here is another community garden I visited with the American Public Garden Association a few years back.  All of these neighborhood community gardens were being supported by the Chicago Botanic Center at the time.    I wonder how many of these gardens are still going strong?

Chicago neighbors named this the Greenhouse Garden

I love picturing a family in the garden after a long hot Chicago day, perhaps after  fighting traffic and the general stress of life, working in the garden, working out their stress and bringing home some tasty produce from the land.  Neighbors talk to each other about the garden, about their day, and children explore broccoli and bugs while engaging in some creative make believe.  Stress relieved, social ties strengthened, growing hands-on knowledge about the environment …all benefits of community gardening!




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Another thing I loved about this community garden was the adult and child sized picnic tables.  Behind the picnic tables we learned that they had a “chopping table”.  All of the waste from the garden, inedible leaves, stems, etc….got chopped up and put in the compost bin.

There were a lot of  berries growing in this garden and  it made me think a lot about edible landscapes.   Here is one summary of the idea behind this movement.   Personally, I think a lot of the stock landscaping plants used by developers are boring, boring, boring.  I am sure there could be some problems if our towns, cities and suburbs were covered with berries, fruit trees and vegetables, but I’d kind of like to have to deal with that, wouldn’t you?!


Turn the lights off

Although I study sustainability, I’m not really a very green person.  I tend to think that the best changes will come from the top down, with legislation and policies about the way we use resources.  That said, I have thought some lately about my own resource usage.  I’ve been thinking some about Haiti, and my friends there.  What would I do if disaster dictated that I live with the bare minimum day to day?  Water, light, shelter, all the things I take for granted…..I shoud be more careful, more thoughtful…..and as a result, I’ve been turning off the lights, and scolding myself for running the water excessively.  Will it make a difference? I don’t know.  But I find myself not wanting to be a glutten.  I’m just one of 6.8 billion people on this planet earth.  I need to be mindful of that every day.

Mixed Use Development

Ok, I know, I’m getting a little technical here, but for anyone who lives or is going to live anywhere, this is important! Where you live will eventually affect your lifestyle.

One of the reasons I love Ames is because it is a small college town of around 50,000, including students, and its “livable”, so very very livable. You could actually walk to Target, there are sidewalks and bike paths all over the place, and the city mothers and fathers are even trying their hand at mixed used development.


But I do wonder how it all works out in actuality. Here are some pics from West Towne. Do you know anyone who lives there? Do they like it?


In West Towne, the businesses are on the ground floors and the apartments are up above. On the other side of the road are single family homes and up the road a little are the gas station and a few restaurants, and it’s all within walking distance. Of course, if you live in a small town or over on Clark Ave, you already have a lot within walking distance, although you probably don’t have apartments.

More theory says that you can grow and still stay in a mixed used development. You and your friends might start out there in an apartment, work at the local salon, then start your own business in the neighborhood and move to a house with the two kids and a dog, and still be in “your” neighborhood, and you’ll care about that neighborhood, because you’ve put down roots there.

Your quality of life will be better because you don’t have to spend so much time driving everywhere, you’ll see the same people more often, make more friends, feel more connected. You won’t have to lose two hours a day away from your family driving on hot, congested highways. You could walk, or ride your bike to work, maybe even get by with one car!

Anyway, you get the idea! But the businesses have been slow to come to West Towne. It might be starting to pick up…it will be interesting to see. So…stay tuned!

Sustaining Life


Wednesdays are the days I’ve chosen to really focus in on my professional life.  I am working on a masters in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on sustainability.  So, I think a lot about what it takes to sustain natural life.  Food, water, shelter/clothing, health…food in, waste out….and where does our energy come from, not the energy for our cars, which is a luxury, but the energy for our bodies?

Today it is easy to forget where our food comes from.  We feel dependent on the grocery store, which makes us feel dependent on our jobs and our money, rather than feeling dependent on the land and the environment.  Instead of a life based on physical effort, connection with our surroundings and humility about our place on the earth, our lives have become a game of numbers, kind of like gambling.  We make wild choices, betting on the future through credit, thinking we can beat the house, even when the numbers don’t add up.

Above are my friends Lois, Jacob, and his baby Joshua, sustaining life by having relationships with the land and other people.  We can’t all do that these days, but maybe we can do a little better job of balancing the numbers, playing by nature’s rules, humbly accepting less, in order to sustain future life.

Small Living


I’m thinking about moving this year. While paying my rent for January I was talking about some of my options with my apartment manager. In our conversation, the size of my current efficiency apartment came up: around 300 square feet! I basically have a nice dorm room/bedroom with a small kitchen on the other side of a wall cut out and short hallway with a closet and bathroom at the end. Part of my strategy is to use the outdoor veranda (first photo above) as living space when the weather is nice.

One reason for choosing the efficiency is that I’ve felt like I want to live “more in my community”. In Indiana when I was doing some work in community development I ran into some good books about community space. In the past, and also in other cultures, people haven’t been so “into” having their own private little mansions. People had smaller houses, lived in apartments or with family, had flats, and spent a lot more time at the local pub or cafe, museums, public parks…they actually lived in their communities and consequently felt more responsible for the spaces they shared with their neighbors.

In Indiana I had a three bedroom house on 3/4 of an acre and frankly, often felt overwhelmed at the personal expense and responsibility of maintaining our “little mansion”. Now that my son is grown and I live alone, I’m exploring small space living. I do feel cramped in my efficiency and sometimes downright depressed, but I still think there is value in finding new ways to live small. Maybe some day I’ll wind up in something like I saw in Wired this morning! (second photo above)