In late February, two days after President Barack Obama cited Greensburg, Kan., as a beacon of green development in his address to a joint session of Congress, the cell phone of the town’s mayor, Bob Dixson, will not stop vibrating. “They all know about us,” he says of Greensburg, a soft hint of pride in his voice. “They’re all keeping an eye on us.” We’re sitting in the living room of Dixson’s year-old ranch home, which he uses to receive guests. He prefers it to the beige FEMA trailer that is his office until City Hall is finished in May. As we talk, a French film crew sits patiently in the chairs by the front door. A Wall Street Journal reporter is arriving at noon.
Why so much attention to this one-stoplight town? On May 4, 2007, a class EF-5 tornado (the highest rating, indicating winds of more than 200 miles per hour) destroyed 90 percent of Greensburg’s buildings. When the storm passed and the town’s 1,200 residents emerged from their basements, they faced a choice: Abandon Greensburg—which, like many rural Midwestern hamlets, had been dying for decades—or rebuild it in a way that would make sense for the future. Picking the latter, the town opted to become a model green community.
Working with Kansas City, Mo.–based design firm BNIM, town leaders adopted a sustainable master plan and mandated that all municipal buildings larger than 4,000 square feet be built to the equivalent of LEED Platinum, an eyebrow-raising decision for a state that, at the time, had none. (The plan also includes stormwater mitigation, a low-flow irrigation system, and the use of native plantings. And in an effort to address broader issues of sustainability, BNIM placed all civic buildings and activity generators along Main Street and recommended smaller lot sizes within a quarter mile of the thoroughfare.) Now, nearly two years on, the first results of this eco-experiment are tangible. The initial wave of green buildings has gone up. The breadth of participants—private businesses, residents, nonprofit art centers, civic entities—remains formidable. And the world’s gaze continues to be fixed on this tiny town.
Greensburg’s boldest addition is the 5.4.7 Arts Center, built by Kansas State University students as part of Dan Rockwell’s Studio 804 program. Finished in May 2008, the 1,670-square-foot structure, which boasts wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, and geothermal climate control, received its LEED Platinum certificate a month later—the first for the town and the state. Soon after, the first townhouses in the Prairie Point development (LEED Gold) began rising along Main Street; they’re now housing elderly residents and working-class families. The February 2009 opening of Dillon’s Quik Shop drew Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. While not up to LEED standards, the grocery and convenience store, which contains an ICF wall system and LED lighting, brought a modicum of normalcy along with its Yoplaits. Finally, residents didn’t have to drive 30 minutes, to neighboring Dodge City or Pratt, to get fresh fruit and a box of cereal.
Another slate of buildings should be finished by the storm’s second anniversary. Among them will be the BNIM-designed City Hall; the BTI-Greensburg John Deere dealership, on track for LEED Platinum; and the SunChips business incubator, started with $1 million donated by Frito-Lay. In addition, the concrete Silo Eco-Home, the first in the Chain of Eco-Homes—11 sustainable houses intended for education and eco-tourism—will be up.
Daniel Wallach, co-director of the Chain and founder of nonprofit Greensburg GreenTown, sees the homes as a “living laboratory” where people can experience different types of green building. “It’s a way the town could thrive,” he says of the structures, which are relying on corporate donations to cover construction costs. “It can keep Greensburg as a place where media and tourists want to come, especially those interested in sustainability.”
Wallach, like Dixson, acknowledges that press attention and donations—money, building materials, goods, and services—remain critical to Greensburg’s green growth. The town’s civic buildings, including the USD 422 Greensburg K–12 School and the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, both of which have just broken ground, can rely on federal money for their rebuilding. Homeowners face a different story. Few had stick-for-stick replacement insurance, so their payouts were enough to buy a comparable house in the county—but one-third the amount needed to rebuild what they had. To bridge the difference, many have drawn upon a patchwork of low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration, USDA Rural Development funds, state of Kansas grants, and those donations.
Given the financial challenges, it’s amazing how many houses have been rebuilt. Dozens dot the dirt lots around town, with 20 or so more in different stages of construction. Many are ranches and bungalows, styles typical for the area. But make no mistake, says Dixson: Beneath the traditional exteriors are energy-efficient elements, including passive solar heating, geothermal pumps, berm construction, and extra layers of insulation.
Dixson is a clear believer in sustainability and its role in Greensburg’s future. He sees his next step as using the town’s focus and buzz to entice eco-minded corporations to relocate to Greensburg. Perhaps these companies could set up research and development centers here—or open a factory that would create green-collar jobs for residents.
Such a turn would bring things full circle, according to Dixson. “We in the Midwest are the original green pioneers,” he says forcefully when I ask him if sustainability was a hard sell to the townsfolk. “Our ancestors knew about the wind, they knew about solar. … They understood these concepts that the East and West coasts think that they invented.” He pauses to collect himself, and then pulls the corner of his blazer over his cell phone, which is vibrating again. “I’m just telling you,” he says with a smile, “it was no great leap.”