greensburg.jpgAs I mentioned last week, I headed over to Kansas City last Thursday to attend the fundraiser for Greensburg GreenTown, a non-profit supporting Greensburg, Kansas’ efforts to rebuild green after a tornado leveled the town last May. Despite ugly weather, the ballroom at the Scarritt Building was packed for both the world premiere of the Sundance Channel’s web series The Good Fight, and a panel discussion with Greentown director Daniel Wallach, and BNIM Architects’ urban planner Stephen Hardy. Among the crowd were a number of Greensburg residents, and the event, while informative and eye-opening, served largely as a celebration of these people’s tenacity and foresight in choosing to rebuild their community with an eye towards a future of economic, cultural and environmental sustainability.

First up was Simran Sethi of Sundance’s The Green, who’s become a passionate advocate for Greensburg’s resurgence. In introducing the first five episodes of The Good Fight (which all focus on Greensburg), she not only lauded the people who she’s come to know in making the “webisodes,” but also noted that the town is hardly a hotbed of radical environmentalism: Greensburg was a town of 1400 people when the tornado struck, and, like many mid-American small communities, had been in decline for several decades. The population had shrunk, the per capita income was below the Kansas average, and young Greensburgians were generally looking for a way out. She heard plenty of disdainful comments about “treehuggers,” and several people had told her that they just didn’t believe global warming is a reality.

Despite a conservative outlook, though, the people of Greensburg recognized the value the could create for their community by embracing sustainable thinking. Sethi also noted that stories such as these point to the need for more depth in coverage of sustainability: not just showing people how to change their lightbulbs, but also addressing the systemic changes necessary to ensure both environmental preservation and social equity.

The webisodes themselves provided a inspiring look at the people of Greensburg and the choices they’ve made since the tornado. Like victims of southern Louisiana’s hurricanes in 2005, Greensburg residents were living in trailers provided by FEMA after the tornado, and desperate to get back to “normal.” The choice to rebuild green meant extending the period of transition for many people… yet the residents in the videos all expressed hope and optimism about their community’s future. Young people were excited about the greening of Greensburg, and economic possibilities looked bright with new wind turbines, a biodiesel plant, and the promise of twenty different manufacturing facilities interested in joining the GreenTown redevelopment project. (A side note: our own Adam Bowman was involved in the production of The Good Fight)

That sense of hope continued as Sethi moderated the discussion with Wallach and Hardy. Wallach (who also appeared in the webisodes) was effusive in his praise for the residents of Greensburg, noting that most people, after suffering the trauma of losing everything, just want to find comfort… quickly. The people of this town, despite their loss, chose to take a “different turn,” and put off that immediate need for comfort in favor of a brighter future. Hardy, in looking at the physical rebuilding of the town, noted that the planners and architects involved in the project weren’t implementing any new ideas in terms of building practices, but the concept of a greener community had taken hold firmly in Greensburg. Not only did the town decide to rebuild to LEED Platinum standards, but also passed a net metering ordinance, making Greensburg the only town in Kansas to offer this incentive for shifting to renewable energy sources. This “community without a town” (Hardy’s phrase) may not be completely rebuilt yet, but was already a very different place.

It was a privilege to both hear the stories that have come out of this little town’s disaster, and to talk with some of the residents themselves prior to the formal program. Dealing with these ideas day in and day out, it’s easy to get caught up in the concepts themselves. Greensburg is just one community showing that a more sustainable way of life isn’t just a pipe dream of the environmental community, though: it’s a practical alternative to “business as usual” that can create real viability for communities struggling with economic stagnation, a shrinking population, and even a life-changing disaster.

You can assist Greensburg’s efforts to rebuild green by contributing to Greensburg GreenTown. The Good Fight will air on the Sundance Channel’s web site beginning on Tuesday, April 22. Many thanks to the Kansas City chapter of AIGA, and other event sponsors, for their contributions.

Image credit: soldiersmediacenter at Flickr under a Creative Commons license