Sustainable communities: When we decide to make them, sustainable communities will come in all sizes, forms, and locations


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By W. Cecil Steward and Sharon B. Kuska

Greensburg, Kan., by the brutal forces of nature, has been given the opportunity to be a ghost town, or to be a newer-old town or to reinvent itself as a dynamic, green and sustainable community on the high plains of North America.

On the evening of May 4, 2007, an F-5 tornado destroyed almost 95 percent of all the structures in Greensburg. Miraculously, the loss of life in the community was only 12 persons. Today, 20 months after the storm, even though an estimated 81,000 truckloads of debris, including recycled metals and concrete, have been hauled out of the community, much evidence of the destruction, loss and temporary recovery efforts dots the landscape of the former “typical” Midwestern rural town.

Before this fateful night in May, Greensburg’s claim to fame was the world’s largest hand-dug water well, “The Big Well.” Farmers, ranchers and local townsfolk, in 1887–88, hand-dug a water well to a depth of 109 feet by 32 feet across for the supply of water to the community and to the newly anticipated railroad traffic through the community. Perhaps some of the community’s conservation genetics were born with this project in the use of the soil and rock from the dig to level and smooth the surface of the town streets.

With 95 percent of the homes and businesses blown away and only approximately 1,400 people remaining from a long period of population attrition, who would have been surprised if the well had been closed and the town turned back into prairie? Nor would it have been surprising to have the approximately 700 people who did not want to be “from” Greensburg say, ”I want to stay, but I want my community back as it was, as quickly as possible.” After all, the “rebuild it as it was” is the normal psychology of disaster recovery in the U.S.; witness New Orleans after Katrina, Florida after Andrew, Grand Island after the 1980 tornado, etc. Even many of the policies of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have become codified around “replacement planning,” rather than opportunities planning.

Sometimes, though, as the saying goes, “The planets are accidentally aligned”—and the best of the possibilities and opportunities begin to take shape.

Some people in the community were already thinking about green and sustainable solutions to community issues. Matt Deighton (now the coordinator for Volunteers) had, just days before the tornado, suggested that the mayor should hand out free compact fluorescent light bulbs at Earth Day instead of the traditional green plastic bags. Others were also beginning to think about conservation and nonpolluting steps for this and other communities.

Immediately after the tornado, the governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, recommended individuals and an architectural firm renowned for their knowledge and practice of green planning and design (BNIM of Kansas City) be available to assist Greensburg in its recovery planning.

Meanwhile, in the immediate recovery mode in Greensburg, the city administrator, Steve Hewitt, was not thinking cleanup and demolition but cleanup and reconstruction of the city’s infrastructure. The Greensburg Schools superintendent, Darin Hendrick, was not thinking of closing the destroyed school but of reopening school in the fall of 2007 with no lost educational time or opportunities. Tom Corns, president and owner of an 85-year family institution, the Greensburg State Bank, was not thinking of walking away from his customers, he was thinking of opening on Monday morning, of keeping his trust with the community after the tornado on Friday night. (Which he accomplished by placing a teller at a card table on the sidewalk in front of the destroyed bank building, with $150,000 in cash for check cashing for anyone in the community.)

“The challenge” says Matt Deighton, “was to begin to build homes, not houses,” because these people were committed to rebuilding their community.

But a lot of learning had to take place … six weeks of public scavenging, trying to separate your salvageable things from your neighbors’ things; transition survival, where to find—how to find— daily needs; learning how to accept kindness, how to be a receiver rather than a giver; learning and relearning the beliefs and values of your neighbors; respecting others’ needs and emotions; listening to leaders and professionals about the necessities, the choices and the opportunities; being a participant in the largest decisions of your life, thinking about community in new ways and new terms … sustainability?

During the cleanup and establishment of the emergency-management services for some semblance of typical daily life, the community and community leaders found time to attend numerous meetings on recovery strategies and the principles of sustainability. In August 2007, just four months after the tornado, the BNIM architects presented the community with a Long-Term Community Recovery Plan. More than 500 people participated in the review and discussion of the plan’s features. By the end of August, the recovery plan had the endorsement of the state’s federal congressional delegation, FEMA, the governor of Kansas, the Kansas House of Representatives, the Kansas Senate, the Kiowa County Commissioners, and the mayor and City Council of Greensburg.

The plan presented strategies for four key elements of the new Greensburg: Sustainable (Green) Development, Housing, Economy + Business, and Community Facilities + Infrastructure. The Sustainable Development section of the plan outlined strategies for three key projects: Establishment of a Sustainable Development Resource Office, Development of a Sustainable Buildings Program, and Identification and Utilization of Energy Alternatives.

Largely as a response to these recovery plan recommendations, a new nonprofit organization has been established to provide community coordination, promotions, incentives and fundraising for sustainable development projects. Greensburg GreenTown Executive Director Daniel Wallach is new to Greensburg since the tornado, but he is emblematic of, and a strong supporter of, new residents, new ideas and new economic and lifestyle opportunities—because of the new community commitment to green and sustainable development. There already is evidence of a younger profile of residents from the K-8 school census between 2007 and 2008 that shows an increase from 201 students to a present population of 253.

Wallach has an extensive community-development and community-organizing background. He says community change is never easy and that it often depends upon some perceived crisis in the community. He observes that “Communities will only make major changes when people perceive that the pain of not changing will be greater than the pain and sacrifice of change.” Greensburg’s population was growing older (average age of 60 in 2007) and diminishing in numbers. The economic base was disappearing, and the aged infrastructure was deteriorating. The Kansas highway department had recommended a bypass around the dying town that many felt would only accelerate the demise.

Now, in addition to the Long-Term Community Recovery Plan, the community has a new Comprehensive Master Plan, a new business incubator building under construction on Main Street, plans for new schools, hospital, city administrative offices and a refurbished county courthouse. The state has relocated the highway bypass plan to a more central location and the city has put a “no-build” ordinance along the bypass to protect the central business district.

The City Council has resolved that all construction of public facilities will meet or exceed “Platinum” standards of the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Greensburg now has the distinction of being the first community in the U.S. to officially adopt the highest existing green-building standards. Homes and other new constructions are voluntarily adopting some level of the LEED standards. The Greensburg State Bank set an example of sustainable development by being among the first to build a new building, on the site of its former location, and to build according to the LEED standards.

The commitment to rebuild green has brought national and international publicity to this small community in the heartland of America. The architectural firm, BNIM, has won the coveted “2008 Sustainable Cities Award,” an international prize from the Financial Times of London and the Urban Land Institute for the Greensburg Plan. Key features noted from the master plan included “Planning for a 100% renewable supply of electricity, decreasing the town’s carbon footprint, rebuilding City projects to Platinum standards, increasing the town’s economic vitality, and maintaining the vibrant cultural heritage of Greensburg’s people.”

Bob Berkebile, FAIA, founding principal of BNIM, says, “The citizens decided to create a better, healthier Greensburg that would serve the generations to come. The plight of shrinking rural towns had to be reversed, and Greensburg decided to show the world the way through sustainable design.” He indicated that at least 50 percent of the town’s previous energy consumption will be conserved through the new energy standards for rebuilding, and the remaining needs will be met by the installation of wind and solar generation plus the purchase of only “clean” energy from the Kansas utilities. He also noted that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Golden, Colo., with representatives on the ground in Greensburg, has been exceptionally helpful with consultations and advice to individuals, architects and builders who want to rebuild with the best technologies for energy efficiencies.

There are already signs of impressive improvement of the town’s economic vitality. The Frito-Lay Company donated $1 million to the “Sun Chip Business Incubator” project. A California-based company is planning to build a manufacturing facility for pre-fabricated green housing that will employ approximately 30 people. And an Australia-based company is investigating establishment of a manufacturing facility for green plumbing fixtures. As more green reconstruction takes place, the Greensburg GreenTown group believes that new residents and green businesses, who are looking for a community with commitment and green values, will be attracted.

There are signs, however, that vigilance, hard work and patience will be required to meet these plans and expectations. The incubator building, when completed, will be smaller in size than originally envisioned. Several original businesses seem to be attracted to properties on the new highway bypass rather than on Main Street in the former center of businesses. Three mayors have held office over the 17 months since the tornado. Some builders are complaining about the new building codes and regulations as being too restrictive in their attempts to assure green standards. All of which brings to mind another truism in sustainable development: “The difference between a good community plan and a good community is the quantity of political courage available to implement and maintain the plan.”

All community plans should be “comprehensive,” but plans for community sustainability should be comprehensive, holistic and dynamic, suggesting, in other words, complete coverage of all the elements of a community with green principles, interaction and interdependence strategies with all of the natural and man-made context of the community, and changing—changing in stride with the evolving values, technologies and public policies of the citizens of the community. Greensburg’s tragedy and opportunities have occurred at a time of change and new determinants, and new language and criteria for new plans for sustainable, energy-efficient communities. Our communities cities were not facing such imperatives for change five to 10 years ago.

Not every community, hopefully, will have a catastrophic event that wipes the old constructions from the earth, but Greensburg presents every community, district, neighborhood or street of homes and businesses with some valuable “best practices” and “lessons learned” for making our towns, in incremental ways, more sustainable and more livable. Thanks for their courage and wisdom.


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