Arcata, Calif.: Activists Welcome

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Volunteers discuss habitat restoration in the Arcata, Calif., community forest.
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The Arcata plaza is a focal point for this active community.

Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2013 installment of 9 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard of.

Arcata, California. As director of the city’s Environmental Services Department, Mark Andre has a front-row seat to some of the city’s most remarkable ecological offerings. It’s an impressive array, beginning with Arcata Bay, which encompasses the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary and forms the southwestern boundary of this small city on the Pacific Coast. To the west of town lies fertile agricultural land, and encircling the city are iconic expanses of redwood forest.

“There’s a tremendous community spirit, with a powerful environmental ethic that pretty much shapes life here,” Andre says. “The community is diverse, with a real mix of ages and cultural backgrounds, and there’s a tremendous sense of ownership in creating a healthy, environmentally intelligent community.”

Home to Humboldt State University, Arcata has all the amenities of a college town. The university boasts one of the country’s top environmental science and engineering programs.

Arcata owns the nation’s first community forest — 2,300 acres certified by the Forest Stewardship Council — which serves as a demonstration forest for sustainable forestry practices.

Its lumber harvest creates jobs and revenue for the city, Andre says. Arcata has succeeded in turning its wastewater into a community asset: Its effluent treatment system creates a haven of freshwater and saltwater marshes, grassy uplands and mud flats that is home to a stunning variety of flora and fauna. Walking and biking paths, an interpretive center and wildlife sanctuary draw more than 150,000 visitors each year.

“Community spirit” in Arcata often translates into social and political activism — its feisty denizens take their role as citizens seriously. Concern about sea-level rise has led to the city’s comprehensive Community Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan. Arcata was the first municipality in the nation whose residents voted to ban growing any genetically modified organisms within city limits. City-wide festivities such as the Kinetic Sculpture Race and the Oyster Festival provide good excuses for community participation. Arcata boasts an excellent farmers market and the Foodworks Culinary Center, an incubator for food-related businesses.

Though lower than those in the Bay Area, real estate prices are still Northern California-steep. Somehow, though, residents manage to find solutions. They fall in love with Arcata and stick around. “People are here because they want to be,” Andre says. “They carve out a niche for themselves because they want to stay.”

Stats: Arcata, California

Population: 17,248
Climate: 42” annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 53 degrees Fahrenheit; July avg. high: 60 degrees F
Median household income: $31,815
Median home price: $259,000

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden. Find her on .