Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at Greentown conference

By The Columbia Chronicle

By: Ivana Susic,

Contributing writer

Environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.,  the founder of the water quality advocacy group Riverkeeper, was just one of many speakers at this year’s “GreenTown: The Future of Community” conference encouraging businesses and individuals to take more steps to improve the environment through lifestyle choices.

On Oct. 15, Columbia hosted the two-day conference that brought together professionals, community leaders and anyone interested in making the city a greener place.  In its fourth year,  GreenTown aspires to bring the public and private sectors together to form a comprehensive plan for reducing waste and creating healthier lifestyles.

Kennedy, who served as keynote speaker for the conference,  began the day with a private breakfast for approximately two dozen people after an introduction by Columbia President Warrick L. Carter. Kennedy, well known for his work on environmental issues and named one of  Time magazine’s “Heroes for the Planet” , spoke of his history fighting against companies known for excessive pollution and of the need to keep on track with renewable energy sources.

“We’re keeping the hope alive, it’s catching fire. It’s going to burn faster than anyone can know,” said Kennedy, speaking about the progress made for a greener Earth.

Mayor Richard Daley gave the welcome address for the conference, focusing on the work he plans to do to make Chicago the greenest city in the country.

“Living in the city all my life,  I’ve always believed an urban community can coexist with nature,” Daley said. “Usually when people want to enjoy nature they have to leave the city, but I firmly believe nature can exist in an urban community.”

Daley also talked about coordinating all development and maintenance of water quality for the Great Lakes, explaining that even with as much water as we have now, we still want to preserve it.

“We need more advocates on a daily basis,” Daley said.

Kennedy began his keynote address expressing his concern about protecting nature and our environment. Calling nature the property of the whole

community, he explained we have to protect our environmental infrastructure to avoid the “spread of climate chaos.”

Poking fun at lobbyists and large companies associated with massive energy consumption, or “carbon cronies” as Kennedy called them, he said they want to deceive people about the science behind global warming but don’t stop at trying to fool the public.

“One day they’ll say seat belts are dangerous for you, or a high cholesterol is great for you; what else, that whales like being harpooned,” Kennedy said to a laughing audience.

Kennedy also spoke about the cost of coal beyond dollar signs,  and touted wind energy and turning every home into an energy efficient, carbon-neutral location.

Throughout the day, more than a dozen speakers and panelists led discussions that covered five separate categories: energy efficiency and renewables; transportation and community; adaptation to climate change; design and building; and waste reduction.

Divided into one-hour segments, each category had three sessions, allowing guests to find one that best suited his or her interest. One session in waste reduction focused on creating zero-waste communities,  while another in transportation and community discussed the possibility of a

high-speed rail in the Midwest.

“Alternative Transportation: Designing Walkable and Bikable,” a session in the transportation and community section, discussed the need to increase motivation in physical activity.  Rob Sadowsky, the executive director for the Active Transportation Alliance  stressed the need for earlier education in alternatives to driving.

“The later you wait to educate, the less they’ll retain,” Sadowsky said.

Sadowsky talked about a plan pitched to the city and in the works with Lane Technical High School to remake typical driver’s education classes into mobility education classes. The new class will not require a transformation of the current class, but rather extend it for just a week or so to offer alternatives to driving, Sadowsky explained.

The desire to increase walking and biking in communities is not just a green issue. Not only are rates of obesity higher but we’re seeing them younger, Sadowsky said. While it is an issue for adults as well, we need to focus on improving the health of the children, he said.

“Healthy kids means healthy communities,” Sadowsky said.

Getting people of all ages on bikes requires making it more fun and accessible, which is why ATA is working with the city of Chicago to try to create a bike sharing program, such as those seen in Washington, D.C., Montreal and Paris, Sadowsky explained. While cost is the biggest issue right now, bike use was shown to go up more than 100 percent in cities that implemented the programs.

As the sessions wound down, the final meal of local, organic food was served for all and local beers from Rock Bottom and Goose Island breweries were offered to attendees and speakers. Recycling bins were separated by function—compost, for example—with the acceptable contents modeled on the container.  As a zero-waste, carbon-neutral event, no plastic foam cups or bleached white napkins were visible.

To end the day, a screening of Greensburg: A Documentary Film About the Most Destructive Tornado in History was offered. Columbia alumnus Brian Schodorf directed the documentary about a 2007 tornado that left the Kansas town destroyed.  It is rebuilding totally green.