This is the latest installment in the Signs of Sustainability series, organized by Sustainable Tompkins.  Visit them online at This installment was written by Tom Shelley.

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ITHACA, NY – The local sustainability movement, in all of its various manifestations, has developed significantly in Ithaca and Tompkins County over the past few years.   As anyone involved with efforts in climate, environmental, and social and economic justice issues knows, there is much that remains to be done.

I would like to take this opportunity to suggest some directions to pursue in the coming year.

First of all, we have a plan that addresses the way forward.  In fact we have several new or recently revised comprehensive plans.   A comprehensive plan is a vision for the future for an institution or municipality that takes a systematic approach to all aspects of the development of the institution or community.

The plan consists of vision statements, goals and recommendations for strategies and specific objectives to implement the plan.  Plans are usually reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Tompkins County and all of the towns and villages in Tompkins County have written and adopted a comprehensive plan or are in the process of reviewing and revising an older version of their existing plan.  The City of Ithaca just rewrote and passed into law a new comprehensive plan.

Tompkins County also recently adopted a revised comprehensive plan as did the Town of Ithaca and several outlying towns and villages in Tompkins County.  Sustainability is a “thread through” in the most local comprehensive plans, meaning that all aspects of the plan must consider and incorporate sustainability measures.

In addition, our local plans often have separate chapters on sustainability.  For example, Chapter 8 of the new City of Ithaca plan is devoted to sustainability and covers energy, water resources and flood water management and food systems.   Hopefully, all fall aspects of our future development will be guided by our comprehensive plans.

For example plans see:

Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan

City of Ithaca Comprehensive Plan

Town of Ithaca Comprehensive Plan

Fighting Climate Change through Sustainability

The largest challenge we face locally and globally is climate change.  Our local governments and institutions have implemented progressive greenhouse gas/carbon emissions reduction goals, usually stated in the comprehensive plan.  The challenge is to develop programs that meet these goals.

All of us, from the County Legislature to the individual renter or home owner, must develop practices and participate in programs that will reduce our carbon foot print and slow global warming. The goal was once to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade but this may be too much too late.  A new, even more stringent goal is to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees  centigrade.

Energy conservation, energy efficient design for new buildings, transition of transportation modes away from fossil fuel use, and rapid development of alternatives of all sorts to conventional fossil fuel consumption—including natural gas—and resistance to the development of fossil fuel storage and distribution systems are all important aspects in our efforts to combat climate change.   We must all take action, from our local governments to the individual at home or work, to meet our goals.

Locally, sustainable, equitable development will continue to be a central topic.  This means that any development, be it housing, business/industrial or institutional development must meet certain criteria regarding energy, environment and social and economic justice.  These criteria are being developed by instituting new zoning, building code, environmental review and tax abatement programs that address the “triple bottom line” of sustainable development and business practices.  

An example of local efforts is the grass roots coalition of sustainability and social/economic justice groups, the Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development, working with local governments to revise the Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program (CIITAP).  The CIITAP was devised to encourage development in the downtown core of Ithaca.  

It has had little or no relationship to our sustainability goals.  The sought after goals of the revised CIITAP program would only grant tax abatements to those projects that incorporated energy efficient, renewable energy sourced, affordable housing, the hiring of a diverse local workforce and payment of a living wage.  Building Bridges is one of the lead organizations in this effort, along with Sustainable Tompkins and the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council.  (We are looking for new members!)

Community resiliency to severe weather events is another critical topic to be addressed in the coming year.  Climate change is demonstrably causing an increase in the number and severity of often erratic weather events.  The response to increasingly adverse storm and flood events is the responsibility of all of the residents of Tompkins County.

Our local governments are working together, as outlined in various comprehensive plans, to address community resiliency and mitigation of adverse weather events.  The City of Ithaca is currently conducting a Flood Mapping and Mitigation Study through the Department of Public Works and Tompkins County has developed a Stream Corridor Protection and Management Program.

Individuals can contribute to these efforts with stormwater collection and simple property improvements that contain storm water on a property.  See, for example, this information on rain barrels.

Tackling the food security problem

Food security is a critical component of most comprehensive plans and one of the more critical aspects of local and global sustainability efforts.  Eighteen (18!) percent of Ithaca’s population lives in  poverty and many of these people are food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to or can’t afford adequate nutrition.  It is much to our collective shame that many of our fellow citizens go to bed hungry or malnourished every day.

Many efforts, from food banks and food redistribution programs to community gardens, local school lunch programs and urban agriculture efforts, are attempting to address food security, equity and nutrition efforts.  Local governments have developed agricultural protection programs and non-profits have evolved to help train new farmers and support local agricultural efforts but much work needs to be done.  Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County is one of the lead agencies in this effort.

Here’s an example of a local ag protection plan.

Wood’s Earth is an example of a non-profit working on food security issues see.

This coming year holds great promise as the Tompkins County Food Policy Council is in the formative stages.   The role of a food policy council is to advocate for a diverse set of actions that deal with how food gets from our farms to our dinner plates.  This involves everything from agriculture, food distribution, nutrition and the mitigation of hunger in our populations.

Here is an overview of food policy councils and some information on our local efforts.

What you can do in 2016

So how do we proceed to achieve real results in 2016?  One way is to organize citizen input into the governmental decision-making process.  There are many ways to achieve this goal but one of the most substantial, meaningful ways to further citizen input to the governmental processes is by the formation of neighborhood associations.  A neighborhood association is an organization of the citizens of a defined neighborhood to advocate for the interests of the members of the association at a very local level.

Neighborhood associations can be very powerful influences on the decision making of local legislative bodies and,consequently, on decisions that effect the character, growth and development of a neighborhood.  This coming year will see a resurgence in the development of local neighborhood associations in the City of Ithaca and of their influence on local political processes and decisions that are made.   For example, look at Dewitt Neighbors.  

So what can an ordinary concerned citizen do to support our collective sustainability goals?  

Here is a partial list:

  • Educate yourself on the issues facing your local government and neighborhood. Learn who your local governmental representatives are and communicate your concerns to them.
  • Attend and participate in meetings of local governing bodies and the many local governmental councils and advisory bodies.  See for example, the Conservation Advisory Council of the City of Ithaca. (We are looking for new members!)
  • If your local representatives are not responsive, run for a local office or support the efforts of those who advocate change. Volunteer to join the efforts of one of the local organizations that supports some aspect of  sustainable development and the needed changes in your community to promote social and  economic justice .   Dozens of local organizations would like your assistance.
  • Seek out, join and support your neighborhood association.  If your neighborhood doesn’t have an active neighborhood association work with your neighbors to revive a former, inactive association or start a new neighborhood association.  This is the best way to collectively address neighborhood concerns.
  • Seek out ways to conserve energy, water, and food resources at the local, household level.  It  may not seem so on the surface, but each individual effort makes a difference!

Tom Shelley is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Sustainable Tompkins and is involved in many local community sustainability efforts.  He may be reached at

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.