City of Greensburg, Kansas : a story of urban resilience

Posted on 12 August 2016.

Devastated by a tornado in May 2007, this Kansas city has been completely rebuilt with sustainable development in mind.

Resilient, creative and sustainable reconstruction - the choice made by the small rural city of Greensburg, Kansas, after the devastating tornado in 2007.

On May 4, 2007, in the heart of Kansas, a tornado destroyed 95% of Greensburg and Kiowa County. The rural city, home to 1400 people, was humanly and physically devastated. Just weeks after the tragedy, local authorities and residents gathered to discuss reconstruction. An idea popped into the head of resident Daniel Wallach: what if the town chose to rebuild itself by becoming a laboratory for sustainable development?

The Greensburg Greentown association that he then founded became one of the main driving forces behind this green reconstruction. An ambitious plan was agreed in September 2007, supported by local and national authorities, including FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city was gradually rebuilt in green, starting with a dozen new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified public buildings. An international environmental certification introduced in 2000 by the US Green Building Council, it validates the building’s sustainability, energy efficiency and greenness. The 5.4.7 Arts Center was the first Platinum LEED building in Kansas – the highest and most demanding level of certification. The town hall, hospital, school and industrial units followed.

After suffering such a terrible natural disaster, the city gradually accumulated positives: it now has the most LEED certified buildings per capita in the United States. It is also the first to use all LED streetlights, with the positive effect of a massive drop in its carbon footprint. The thirteen LEED buildings save almost 200,000 dollars a year in energy costs.

In Greensburg, wind has become the main resource of the city

The irony is that the wind that destroyed the city in 2007 is now its main resource. Energy in Greensburg is 100% renewable – all of the electricity used in the city is wind energy. A wide-ranging policy to save water has also been put in place with low flow fixtures, and rainwater is collected for use in irrigation and as grey water for flushing toilets. Single stream curbside recycling has also been introduced.

The city has demonstrated incredible creativity in its resilience planning. By rethinking its urban space and architecture, it has also redesigned its lifestyle: there’s a holistic park, a cycle path, pedestrian areas, shared gardens, and a participatory approach with numerous public debates about the life of the city. The grain silo that was spared by the tornado is now the Greensburg GreenTown Silo Eco-Home Bed and Breakfast, the Big Well Museum is dedicated to sustainable initiatives, there is an ecological housing exhibition, and The Chain of Eco-Homes was launched in 2009.

Greensburg’s story is full of symbolism – enough to attract the superstar Leonardo DiCaprio, who is very committed to environmental issues, into co-authoring a TV series about rebuilding the city. Day to day, the city continues its "sustainable" lifestyle. Its "stronger, better, greener" motto sounds like proof that urban resilience is not just an abstract concept.

Very proud of its new look and exemplary approach, Greensburg - through the Greentown Association - has even developed ecological tourism and now offers a Green Tour that tells the whole story!