Going Green in Greensburg, Kansas

In the wake of disaster, communities face many pressing questions. One such question is how to go about the rebuilding process. When a tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, Kansas, that process included a concerted effort to rebuild sustainably.

Greensburg, Kansas—population of just over 1,300—used to be known for little more than having the world’s largest hand-dug well. Then, on May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado (the largest possible) struck the town. The tornado, measuring an estimated 1.7 miles across, destroyed 95 percent of the town and damaged the other 5 percent of buildings. The tornado also claimed the lives of eight people.

When determining how the rebuilding process would go, Daniel Wallach, the founder of the movement that is now called Greentown Greensburg, presented a plan to the community that would entail rebuilding the town in a sustainable manner. After the community meeting, the decision was made: “On December 17, 2007 the City Council passed a resolution requiring all publicly funded City buildings over 4,000 square feet to be built to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification level and reduce energy consumption by 42 percent over standard buildings.”

LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), a program run by the U.S. Green Building Council, is seen as the standard for evaluating the sustainability level of a building project. LEED provides a metric for certifying that a building has met certain sustainability standards. By assigning a score for certain design features, such as dual-flush toilets, better recycling of gray water, and heat retention systems, a building can achieve a top score of 100. Retrofitting, or the process of redesigning or installing new technology with the goal of increasing the sustainability of a building, can also be LEED certified. To achieve Platinum level, a building project must reach a minimum score of 80 out of 100. For a point of reference, Fordham University’s residential halls Campbell and Salice-Conley were built to the LEED Gold level, which means they achieved a score between 60 and 79.

With these standards in mind, Greensburg took on the ambitious task of actually achieving this goal. In keeping with the traditions of Midwest America, the community took a large role in the planning and implementation process. The sense of community is evident in the official plan for rebuilding: “It is mandatory that in the rebuilding process the City pay special attention to those individuals who need the most help [the impoverished]. Job creation deserves particular attention.”

As for the actual steps taken, they are too numerous and complex to list in full here. Some of these include the highest concentration of LEED buildings in the United States, single-stream recycling throughout the city, LED streetlights and, perhaps the greatest accomplishment, the use of 100 percent renewable energy for the city’s electricity. This last accomplishment was acheived using wind energy, an interesting choice since it was the devastating power of wind energy that put the city in the position to achieve all these changes. The rebuilding process also included taking steps to prepare for future extreme weather, as well as education programs about sustainability.

Greensburg redefined itself during its rebuilding process. It is still the same community-oriented city it was prior to the tornado, but it has also taken steps to help itself economically. As the story of the city’s rebuilding process spread, it has become a tourist site. As Daniel Wallach stated, they turned the town into “a living science museum.” It has also attracted the attention of corporations wishing to tap into the green market, which have funded buildings and provided their products in order to be associated with the green movement.

Greensburg is the ultimate success story. From the ruble rose the greenest city in the country, as well as numerous opportunities for further growth and development. Greentown Greensburg, a nonprofit organization that has taken the lead on overseeing the implementation of the rebuilding plan, continues to look for ways to innovate. The nonprofit uses the lessons learned in Greensburg to offer advice and aid to other cities and towns that are looking to move toward a more sustainable way of life.

There are many facets to the green movement, and many steps that need to be taken to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Sustainable building is one of these steps. Future building projects should look to the example that Greensburg has set and attempt to mimic the practices that have been implemented there. This is especially true for areas that are rebuilding after disasters, as the ability to begin anew allows for greater opportunity to innovate.

For places that are looking to expand, sustainable building is the direction they need to take. When Fordham University released its Climate Action Plan in 2007, it made sure to include sustainable building as a means to achieve its goal of reducing carbon emissions 30 percent by 2017. The University plans to “design all new buildings to LEED Silver or higher standards.” Through retrofitting of buildings to make them more sustainable, as well as implementation of other sustainable practices, Fordham is making strides to achieve energy efficiency and sustainability throughout all three campuses.