Huntsville, Alabama: Civic Pride Comes First

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Huntsville actively designs a sustainable future by balancing industry, the arts and energy efficiency. Shown here, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. 
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Huntsville cherry trees in bloom. 

Officials in Huntsville, Ala., have launched an ambitious program to turn the city into a regional leader in sustainability. The highlights of the program are impressive: a city government that operates with zero waste; a transition of the city fleet to alternative fuels; and a recycling program that’s the best in the state.

But the philosophy behind these initiatives that makes them successful, according to Joy McKee, director of the city’s Operation Green Team, is a uniquely Huntsvillian trait: civic pride.

“First and foremost, people have to have pride in their community,” McKee says. “Only then can you teach the environmental side.”

In keeping with this approach, McKee has launched a number of simple programs designed to raise environmental awareness. The city runs a hot line, for example, that allows citizens to report littering as it happens. Offenders receive a letter from the city.

A tossed cigarette butt or soft-drink cup may seem like a little thing, but McKee explains that each littering incident is an opportunity to raise awareness.

With a wealth of educational opportunities and a major industrial center for space, air and military engineering (the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is located here), Huntsville is also home to a growing number of alternative artists and thinkers. One gathering point for artists is Huntsville’s Flying Monkey Arts Center. This refurbished industrial mill not only provides studio space for artists, but also hosts events ranging from spoken word slams to independent film viewings to the annual Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza, featuring performances on homemade instruments.

Another, even more ambitious industrial rehab is the Lincoln Mills project. Conceived of as a mixed-use, urban ecovillage, the 200,000-square-foot textile mill includes goats and chickens, and a living roof planted with edible gardens. This sustainable development effort contains a microbrewery and eventually will have a movie theater, residential lofts and a restaurant, along with space for a farmers market.

“There’s a lot of room for innovation in Huntsville,” says resident Angela Musquiz. “In a bigger city, you’re an itty-bitty ant, but here you have a lot more opportunity to make a difference.”

Stats: Huntsville, Alabama

Population: 176,706

Median household income: $46,014

Weather: A humid subtropical climate with hot, wet summers and mild winters with occasional snow.

What makes it great: A band of energetic thinkers are building a compelling arts and sustainability infrastructure.

Check out the other towns featured in our 2011 installment of Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.