Signs of Sustainability: Sustainable Finger Lakes Map Created


By Gay Nicholson


The morning after November’s election I woke with an urgent awareness that we must find ways to be more effective in protecting our democracy and common future. I knew we’d be facing an era of even more denial of environmental, economic, and social realities. And I knew that organizing at the regional level might be the missing piece for us.

My friend Susan Christopherson taught me about the importance of working on economic development at the regional scale for the necessary balance in supply chains, workforce, and markets. The same holds true for political change at the level of state and federal districts. And a regional culture can be an expression of norms, values, and habits of mind as much as music, cuisine, or dialect. We can’t be content with trying to build tiny islands of sustainability practices in places like Ithaca. The necessary changes have to go across municipal boundaries and work at scale.

That’s why we created the Sustainable Finger Lakes Map – found at – as a first step in building a stronger regional sustainability and social justice movement. We’re just getting started but we already have placed hundreds of businesses, citizen organizations, campus groups, and government agencies on the map, showing how we are working toward a resilient economy, stronger democracy, and healthier regional ecosystem.

Right now it is rather Ithaca-centric because we moved the entries from our Tompkins Sustainability Map to it, but we are actively reaching out to colleagues across the Finger Lakes to learn about progressive and sustainability initiatives from Rochester to Binghamton, Corning to Syracuse, and points between. We hope the map will be useful to both residents and visitors, who can search on our eight primary categories, such as Energy & Climate or Democracy & Justice, or on dozens of subcategories and tags. (Later we’ll add the ability to search on geographical areas so you can make your own sustainability tour for visitors.)

Step one in creating a robust regional movement is to make ourselves known to each other. To feel our own strength and diversity, and to support each other in greening our economy and protecting our air, water, land, health, and human rights.

Our region already is making progress on being more sustainable, especially in the rapidly growing local foods and craft beverage economy, and the ongoing transition to clean energy. Since the election, we are also seeing a resurgence in civic engagement and political action as people realize we need to be actively steering at the local level to address inequality, and create better outcomes at the state and federal level. This summer’s widespread Harmful Algae Blooms outbreak is likely to spur new coalitions to protect our lakes and drinking water from the impacts of climate change and polluted stormwater runoff by insisting on better agricultural practices and infrastructure development across the entire region. We kept fracking out of our region, but now we have to address how our own behaviors threaten our water.

A friend of mine talks about “common wealth and common health” as the values frame for why we have the right to push back against business practices that pollute, sicken others, or exploit workers. To change those practices and their regulatory framework, we’ll need to work together at the regional level to shift markets and elect representatives willing to acknowledge when harm and risk to others outweigh personal profits.

But this isn’t just about preventing harm. It’s also about learning together how to craft the next systems for how we work and live here in the Finger Lakes. How to support communities in overcoming our bad habits and accepting mutual responsibility for creating an economy that meets our needs without spreading harm and risk to others – especially future generations. That will be a long journey, and we hope to add more tools to help with a shared platform for the movement at

But for now we offer you this map of the sustainability and democracy movement in the Finger Lakes Region. Use it to discover how people are working to relocalize the economy, make our system of governance more just and democratic, and protect our land, air, and water for future generations. Add what you are working on. Plug in where you can make a difference. Spread the word and share with others!

(If you have suggestions for the map or questions, send an email with details to

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This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. To learn more about the organization, visit its website at Nicholson is president of Sustainable Tompkins.


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