In 2007, a devastating tornado flattened and almost completely destroyed the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. And when the town’s leaders began thinking about how to rebuild, they decided that it was time to build back better – sustainably. For them, It was common sense that harkened back to the town’s past.
“The original green people are our ancestors,” says Bob Dixson, the retired postmaster who served as mayor of Greensburg, Kansas, during most of the time it rebuilt itself as the greenest US town after the tornado. “We’re conservation value farmers.”
Greensburg now has the most LEED-certified buildings per capita in the world. “There are lessons learned that we can share,” Dixson says. “I totally believe that we’re a living laboratory here with a plethora of architectural design and sustainable environmental practices to share.” And a steady stream of people have been coming there since 2008 to find out what Greensburg did and does.
City of Greensburg, You Tube, 2015
Mayors of cities and towns are the people who deal with real – not theoretical – problems. They must make sure the water and sewage system works, that the garbage is picked up, that the library and fire department works, and that there is public transportation. And they are increasingly focused on clean energy and making their cities less carbon dependent. In the most recent survey of mayors by the US Conference of Mayors, they are favouring electric vehicles, LED lights, solar energy, and improving public buildings.
“As we’ve witnessed over the last decade, local action on global climate challenges can lead to more jobs, savings to taxpayers, and a better quality of life for all of us,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell who chairs the Conference’s Energy Committee. “The report will serve as a platform for mayors to exchange ideas about how to achieve these goals, and it will help to guide the private sector and federal policy makers about how they can best contribute to the effort.”
Ahead of the Curve
Greensburg was ahead of the curve, not because it chose to be, but because of 5-4-7, the day that the tornado destroyed 95% of the town’s buildings and its 1,500 residents, surveying the devastation, had to start over.
The town’s leaders began thinking about building back sustainably almost immediately. On the night after the tornado, local, state and federal officials took cover from yet another storm in the basement of the damaged Kiowa County Courthouse. “The discussion was, ‘Hey, we’re going to build back. Why don’t we do it green?’” Dixson said. “The seed was planted that night.”
City leaders worked to build consensus in the conservative farming community, and to persuade homeowners to also embrace green as they rebuilt their homes. “We tried to approach it in a practical way, not tree-hugger green, but economic green,” said John Janssen, who was then the city council president. “Ramming stuff down people’s throats — especially in this part of the world — doesn’t work.”
In a temporary tent downtown, they talked about the practical savings of energy-efficient windows and insulation in new homes. And they led the way with city buildings, becoming the first city in the US to require all municipal buildings over 4,000 square feet to meet the highest standards of ‘green’ construction – certification as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.
Powered by renewable energy
“A decade later, Greensburg draws 100 percent of its electricity from a wind farm, making it one of a handful of cities in the United States to be powered solely by renewable energy,” the Washington Post wrote in a story last year. “It now has an energy-efficient school, a medical center, city hall, library and commons, museum and other buildings that save more than $200,000 a year in fuel and electricity costs, according to one federal estimate. The city saves thousands of gallons of water with low-flow toilets and drought-resistance landscaping and, in the evening, its streets glow from LED lighting.”
The city hall, hospital, courthouse, a commons building with a media center and library and school are all built with green construction features like angled windows that make the most of winter sun, cisterns to collect rainwater for irrigation and geothermal heating and cooling systems. The 5-4-7 arts centre is energy self-sufficient, with solar panels and its own wind turbines.
It seems fitting that when wind that destroyed the town, wind helped rebuild it. The city gets its power from wind, in a state that generated 41% of its electricity from wind power – second only to Iowa. A 10-turbine wind farm south of town, owned and operated by Exelon, can produce 12.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 4,000 homes. The energy generated by the turbines goes into the Kansas Power Pool, which provides power to several municipalities and ensures Greensburg still has electricity on days when the air is still. Not only is it a green source of energy, it saves money. In 2011, the Greensburg Wind Farm was named Wind Project of the Year by Renewable Energy World.
The 132,000-square-foot school which serves students up to grade 12 has low-flow toilets and waterless urinals, a rainwater capture system for irrigation, lockers made of recycled plastic and cabinets of pressed wheat. Some of the wood trim is from cypress salvaged after Hurricane Katrina. A geothermal ventilation system moves fresh air in and out of classrooms. A system senses how much light is coming in the windows so lights use less electricity.
Scott Brown, whose auction and real estate company on the edge of town was located just outside the path of the tornado, played a key role in inspiring business recovery. At an early meeting, 63 people who had owned businesses in town said they wanted to rebuild. Brown thought it would cost about $1 million to rebuild the downtown as a strip mall. He put up the first $50,000 and asked others to give what they could, and when it opened in 2009, the downtown mall was fully paid for and fully occupied. Over the past decade, Brown said, occupancy has averaged between 80% and 90%. It includes a post office, antique store, a salon, a restaurant and a business incubator which has created a jewelry store and a yoga/art studio.
Not everything they tried worked, it is smaller than it was, and generating more jobs remains a challenging goal. But as North America struggles with climate change, it seems increasingly clear that Greensburg made a wise choice when it chose sustainability.
Greensburg, Kansas, Reborn. YouTube, Aug. 14, 2015.
The town that built back green. Washington Post, Oct. 23, 2020
Town destroyed by tornado rebuilds to go green, be eco-friendly. The Denver Channel, Jan. 8, 2021
The Story of Greensburg, Kansas. Energy Now, Jul. 14, 2011
Kansas Town Rebuilds Green after Disaster. National Geographic.
What Is the Future of America’s Greenest Town? Reasons to be Cheerful, Apr. 19, 2022