On 4 May 2007, a tornado nearly three kilometres wide ripped through Greensburg, in Kansas, USA. It levelled the town and killed 11 people. The townsfolk decided to build back sustainably, with all city buildings to meet the highest level of the US Green Building Council’s rating system. Their blueprint for recovery was all green, taking in public buildings, infrastructure, housing and the downtown business area.
Last year, Greensburg mayor Bob Dixson visited Australia. He spoke to the Green Building Council of Australia, and also to the people of Flowerdale, who lost much of their town during the Black Saturday fires.
MG: What was your message to people in Flowerdale?
BD: The number one thing is to know that there is hope and you will recover. The other thing is sometimes you have to be real patient – we want things to happen faster than they do. Sometimes you have to plan and do the best you can without getting in such a rush that you find out later mistakes are made.
Over 95 per cent of the buildings in Greensburg were totally destroyed and that’s a lot like in the Flowerdale area, so there was a real kindred spirit between us because of the smaller town atmosphere and the sense of community.
MG: How did you come up with Greensburg’s long-term community recovery plan?
BD: Planning started the first week after the storm. The community had no place to meet so we met under a big circus tent and we did everything there; we had meetings, we ate together, we had church services together. And part of the planning process then was to come up with a sustainable long-term recovery plan. It was facilitated by government agencies, but we were the ones who had the input in what we wanted the community to look like. It’s a living document and we need to revisit it regularly.
We’ll be totally sustainable. We’ll have a community wind farm that will generate electricity for our town and it will be big enough to [connect to] our fellow communities that belong to the power pool. It’s kind of a cliché, but it’s a wind-wind situation.
MG: It’s a big change from the way the town was before. How did it come to be so environmentally focussed?
BD: We knew what we were doing was for future generations. We needed to make sure we built back for the 21st century, not for the way it was beforehand. It was about being good stewards of those resources we’ve been blessed with, and about seeing how our ancestors handled it when they pioneered our area. They utilised the resources they had available; no more, no less. And they understood that if you took care of the land, it took care of you. So really the concepts of being green have been around for generations. It’s just that we have such modern technology now to take advantage of those environmentally friendly and energy-saving green initiatives.
MG: What message do you have for communities, towns or cities that haven’t suffered such a disaster?
BD: One thing we’re really proud of is we’re the first community in the United States to have totally LED street lights. That’s a saving of 43 per cent on our energy and when you figure energy and maintenance combined, it’s a 70 per cent saving. It reduces our carbon footprint by 40 tonnes of CO2 per year. If Melbourne went to LED street lights, it could cut its emissions tremendously. Any community can implement things – you just have to do it.
MG: Has the Greensburg community changed since the tornado?
BD: It reinforced the values of our community. It mattered not your economic status in the community, you lost everything. So the only thing you had left was not your possessions, not your vehicle and not your home; all we had left were our relationships with each other. And we found out they were there all along.
Several young couples have moved to the community who have no ties to the area and that’s because of the excitement and the sense of renewal and rebirth. In the midst of it all we’re seeing interest from all over the world. To me, it’s beyond the disaster and building sustainably. People see hope in Greensburg right now; hope that you could come back from a disaster. We have been blessed with a tremendous opportunity, but we also understand we have a tremendous responsibility to share with the world anything we’ve learned, because as far as sustainability goes, we are all the new pioneers of the 21st century. We live in the most exciting times in the history of this planet, because we have an opportunity right now to truly make a difference in where we’re headed.