Conventional wisdom may hold that climate action and sustainability are on the back burner in the current political and economic climate, but that's not Normal.
Led by Mayor Chris Koos, Normal, Ill. is moving quickly toward a better future by utilizing smart energy, transportation, planning and water policies that push the envelope but at the same time make a lot of sense in the current economic climate. State Sierra Club leaders had a chance to hear from Koos about many of these projects during a recent visit. Working with the town council, local businesses and a vibrant community, Koos is making Normal into a showcase for smart sustainability. Here are a few of Normal's recent successes:
- Rather than pave over some of the best farmland on Earth with new sprawl, Normal has decided to invest where its citizens already live and work. A top priority is focusing investment on Uptown and the Main Street corridor, which were existing centers of activity with lots of potential. They listened to residents and local experts and planned streets and sidewalks that are safe and inviting for pedestrians and bikes.
- Normal asked for the best building practices for these areas, becoming the first city in America to require commercial buildings to be LEED-certified. Developers didn't balk; they built. Now Normal has a bank headquarters, a transportation center, a Children's Museum and other state-of-the art buildings that don't waste energy and offer a healthy indoor environment.
- Like most towns, Normal faces aging water infrastructure problems in Uptown but fashioned a brilliant and beautiful solution: they've converted a leaky old sewer to an underground cistern to capture rainwater, run the water through a living fountain to cleanse it, and then use the water on Uptown's great landscaping -- sparing increasingly precious groundwater and providing a new green amenity that has become a community focal point.
- While some choose to demonize fast modern trains, Normal is seizing the opportunity that arrives with high-speed rail investment. A new terminal will link high-speed Amtrak passengers with local buses, shuttles and taxis and makes Uptown a bustling job site for workers at a time when jobs are needed most.
- Normal is doing everything it can to encourage new development that offers residents transportation choices, but it recognizes that the car is the first and only choice for many. That's why it has launched the EV Town project, to prepare for electric vehicles. Mitsubishi, which has an auto assembly plant nearby, has pledged to ship at least 1,000 electric vehicles to Normal and Bloomington by 2014, and Normal wants to be ready. The first 33 public charging stations are in the works already, with more to come.
All this is only the beginning. Koos and town leaders convened over 150 residents to prepare a Sustainability Plan to chart a course for the future, and it's chock full of good ideas.
What's perhaps most impressive about Normal leading the pack on sustainability is that the town is, well, normal. Normal doesn't have especially unique geography, economic conditions or demographics. Like anywhere, it has residents who want a cleaner environment and need good jobs. But Normal does have Chris Koos, and with the support of the community, he's quietly showing the way to a better future -- for Normal, and for all of us.