In greentown Greensburg, seven years on

kbobblog-Greensburg-2014-07_9507-Silo-axis-North-700Greensburg, Kansas, has made fewer headlines in the past couple years. Nevertheless, it’s prudent to check in on the progress – and the manifestation of ambitions – of a community that lost nearly everything. Here, two designers observe and inquire on an impromptu afternoon drop-in…

The wind blows with some constancy across the plains of Western Kansas, a landscape that stretches for hundreds of miles; in the settlement days, little would distinguish the new town of Greensburg from the scores of others springing up around the state. Its anonymity would end in 1888, when a 109-foot deep, 32-foot wide hand dug engineering marvel put Greensburg on the map. Due to the Big Well, residents enjoyed a high quality of life into the 20th Century. Nearly 130 years would elapse before something surpassed the well’s notoriety: a 1.7 mile wide tornado.

The story of Greensburg since May 4, 2007, has been extremely well documented: international news agencies covered the record-setting enormity of the tornado’s destruction, and they returned to report on the town’s unprecedented commitment to sustainable reconstruction. Their recovery process would become the subject of books – some written by Greensburgers themselves – and TV series. I particularly appreciate the now-defunct cable channel Planet Green’s Greensburg that, for three seasons, followed the diverse community through its recovery with striking intimacy. (From heated city council discussions to life in the 500-trailer FEMAville, to design and funding negotiations, to the annual traditions the town maintained in their search for normalcy, Greensburg is a rare comprehensive account of a small town post-disaster.)

Greensburg did indeed become a poster town for rural America sustainability. The town would achieve milestone after milestone: “first LEED Platinum building in Kansas;” “first town in America to commit new public buildings to LEED Platinum standards;” “highest number of LEED buildings per capita in America….” Yet by 2012, news from Greensburg had slowed. Around the five-year anniversary, the new Big Well Museum (a departure from the pre-tornado gift shop and water tower) opened to the public, and that seemed to conveniently mark closure for the community’s recovery narrative.

Located three blocks from the highway linking Wichita and Dodge City, the Big Well Museum is Greensburg’s tourism and heritage hub. From here you can track the development of a small town that encountered a decades-long decline of rural America, and gaze over its efforts to reestablish relevance in an environment hostile to sustainability.

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The museum welcomes plenty of travelers again to Greensburg to see the engineering marvel of its day, in addition to a half-ton meteorite and, now, a 15-foot tall scroll of the town’s history and historic effort to go green.

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Just as easy as descending into the cool, stone walled depths, you can climb to an observation level exhibiting the actual reconstruction progress around Greensburg. Lettering against the windows indicates landmarks, new buildings and sustainability achievements.

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The Meadowlark House, in fact, remains incomplete. Apertures are boarded up and the underlayer of Tyvek weatherproofing has been sheared away by the elements. Perhaps the eeriest thing is the complete absence of equipment, staged materials or upturned earth. By all estimation (at least certainly the Museum’s), the house should have opened years ago.

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Across from this anomaly, a silo house run by Greensburg GreenTown serves as the hub for ongoing sustainability efforts and eco tours. The house showcases the latest in environmental spaces, materials and technologies even invites guests to spend the night and try it all out. At a desk upstairs, Jason, an AmeriCorps volunteer, explained to us that Meadowlark’s construction was still underway. A snag hit when, already well into the project, a large funder pulled out. Progress is now taken bit by bit as individual donations come in. (Online campaigns indicate that construction stalled back in 2011 – Meadowlark has been deteriorating for three years.) According to Jason, the next step would be installing windows. The windows, specified to exceed demanding Passivhaus standards, have been manufactured in Canada and await the ability to travel south. Cladding can’t continue until the windows are installed.

The view from the Silo Eco-Home may not measure up to that of the museum, but you get a stronger sense of what is still lost.

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Let’s talk about what Greensburg has accomplished in seven years: 11 LEED Platinum buildings, (1 Gold, 3 Silver), including a new hospital, a new school, new GM and John Deere implement dealerships (a first for John Deer to sell wind turbines from their dealership, let alone be exclusively powered by them), a wind farm, a business incubator. The population hovers around 800, down from 1300 before the tornado, but with an estimated 1% growth since the disaster. If this trend proves true in the next census, the growth reverses a decades-long decline that had galvanized the community around green development.

City Hall is one of the LEED Platinum structures. The space is gorgeous, and the structure, among many other attributes, recycles materials from the tornado’s devastation.

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Certainly more dignified than a FEMA trailer for the conduct of municipal affairs.

The Main St. business corridor is smaller than it used to be, but it’s filling out. The Twilight movie theater and community auditorium, was undergoing finishing touches. Sidewalks were noticeably wider, as promised by Kansas City-based BNIM, which undertook the master plan. The sustainable infrastructure (stormwater managing bioswales, etc.) is eye catching – yet it’s the unresolved spaces that dominate your curiosity, and your impression of the community’s health. Over here, pallets of reclaimed bricks and blocks await a phantom project; there, the remains of a church have become immortalized. And everywhere there’s a lot of lawn to mow. We could have gotten clarity on everything had anyone been walking around to chat with.

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Our last stop is the Kansas’ first LEED Platinum building: the 5-4-7 Arts Center, designed, built, delivered and installed in a matter of months by the KU graduate architecture Studio 804. The exterior seems to be weathering well, but the center itself was closed. Today was not one of the three afternoons each week it’s open.

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And the center’s dedicated wind turbines have seen better days.

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The collaborative development of the Arts Center (between its local directors board and the KU design studio) was conducted in the first year following the tornado, and tracked by Planet Green’s TV series. Watching the show, you get a sense of a missing element in the partnership: fundraising. The pursuit of grants was never a topic of conversation (although the board held community events and visited well-off former Greensburgers, and the graduate studio made loans on faith). To editorialize for a second, I’d be astonished to hear of no money being available for this groundbreaking LEED Platinum community center — or for the progressive Meadowlark House. Absent the details, I’m left with the impression that, despite the trend in some circles of interdisciplinary collaboration, the green building sector is still short expertise in working with foundations and granting institutions. Good chance I’ll circle back to this topic after some exploring.

Greensburg has come an astonishing distance in seven years, but it’s safe to say the town has yet to make a full recovery – and the jury is still out on whether the gargantuan efforts toward sustainability will truly sustain the town.

After 90 minutes wandering, hunger had set in, and the only cafe we encountered was closed. So we had little choice but to move on down the road.


Check out a map of the town & new construction, and this intro by Mayor Bob Dixson:

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