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12 Great Places: Ithaca, New York

Visitors to Ithaca, New York will discover an appealing mix of outdoor recreation opportunities, commitment to environmental preservation, and strong community spirit.

| August/September 2006

  • Ithaca New York - swimming hole and waterfall
    Summer fun at one of Ithaca, New York's many waterfalls.
    Photo by Jon Reis Photo & Design
  • Ithaca New York - farmers market
    Ithaca's renowned farmers market.
    Jon Reis Photo & Design
  • Ithaca New York - Ithaca hours local currency
    Ithaca Hours, the famous local currency.
    Jon Reis Photo & Design

  • Ithaca New York - swimming hole and waterfall
  • Ithaca New York - farmers market
  • Ithaca New York - Ithaca hours local currency

Ithaca, New York just might be a utopia for the eco-minded. Unless, that is, you mind snow — the area averages 67.3 inches of it each year. This dynamic college town (home to Cornell University and Ithaca College) enjoys beautiful scenery at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Within the city limits are gorges, numerous waterfalls and a scenic waterfront. Just a short drive away are charming villages, great parks and bountiful farmland, dotted with orchards and vineyards.

Food is an important element of Ithaca’s identity. The town is home to the famed Moosewood Restaurant, one of the original and most influential vegetarian restaurants in the country, and source of several best-selling cookbooks. Ithaca has an excellent farmers market, which is open four days a week over a long season. It’s under cover, in a volunteer-built pavilion right on the waterfront near the downtown pedestrian marketplace known as Ithaca Commons.

“Community builds” are an honored tradition in Ithaca. The Sciencenter, a children’s science museum with more than 200 hands-on exhibits, was built by volunteers — more than 2,200 people contributed more than 40,000 hours of work. When it was time for an expansion a few years ago, more than 1,000 volunteers pitched in to build an addition. The Sciencenter also has an outdoor park with science-oriented attractions; examples include a suspension bridge made of Kevlar cables and a miniature golf course where every hole poses a new problem, such as launching your ball with a giant catapult or getting it through swinging pendulums.

Ithaca is famous worldwide for creating a local currency called Ithaca Hours, which encourages people to shop locally owned businesses — more than 500 now accept the colorful bills, which are issued in various denominations of the value of an hour’s work at the prevailing wage. By using the local currency, Ithaca residents make sure their money supports their own community. The town also has cooperative health insurance called Ithaca Health Fund.

Ithaca recently joined the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, in which more than 200 U.S. cities have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement on climate change that the federal government rejected. Ithaca’s goal is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2001 levels by 2016. To that end, the city and Tompkins County have agreed to purchase wind energy — offsetting about 1 million pounds of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of planting more than 68,000 trees or not driving 868,000 miles each year.

The area’s environmental ethic is evident in the success of EcoVillage, a co-housing community in which 90 percent of the community’s 176 acres is preserved as open space. Residents live in passive solar homes and share ownership of many things, including cars, playground equipment, clothes washers and gardening tools. There’s also a community garden and a Community Supported Agriculture program.

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