Ashland, Ore.: Pathways to Participation

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan stage.
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A popular promenade in Ashland, Ore.

Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of sustainable communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2014 installment:8 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.

Ashland, Oregon. One of the things 28-year resident Katie Gomez appreciates most about Ashland is the number of volunteer opportunities available, and the variety of people who participate in all aspects of the community. From the Jackson County Master Recycler Program, to bird-watching and nature classes at North Mountain Park, to volunteers who take tickets and usher for theatrical events, Ashland abounds in pathways to participation. ScienceWorks Museum, for example, offers hands-on activities, family science night, camps and even a telescope-lending program. “I volunteer with three organizations,” says Gomez. “I believe most folks here volunteer for at least one.”

Mention this town in southern Oregon and the response is likely to be an enthusiastic, “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival!” This internationally renowned theater has become an economic engine for the town, along with organizations such as the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and Ashland Independent Film Festival.

But, though the arts are a large part of this town, they are by no means the city’s only attribute. Ashland owes its comfortable, old-timey vibe to community insistence that its 19th-century buildings be preserved. The city now has 48 structures and two historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places. Southern Oregon University is the town’s largest employer, and businesses related to outdoor recreation, health services and tourism contribute significantly to the economy.

The city supports several energy-conservation programs, including net metering and financial incentives for residents who install solar systems. The region has experienced serious drought in recent years, but farming and gardening continue to thrive. Ashland recently launched its Lawn Replacement Program to encourage people to replace their lawns with less thirsty features.

“We have an amazing assortment of organic family farms here in the Rogue Valley that provide the region with a fantastic variety of food,” says Claire Anderson, managing editor for Home Power magazine, headquartered in Ashland. In May, voters in Jackson County (which includes Ashland) approved a ballot initiative to ban the cultivation of genetically modified crops within the county’s borders. “That was a huge victory for organic farmers here and for others who want to protect our food supply,” Anderson says.

Stats: Ashland, Oregon

Population: 20,713
Climate: 20” annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 50 degrees F; July avg. high: 85 degrees F
Median Household Income: $43,305
Median Home Price: $367,700

K.C. Compton is an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publication, GRIT. She has visited 44 U.S. states, and sees great places and meets great people everywhere she goes. Find her on Google+.