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Turning Tragedy into Opportunity in Greensburg, KS

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After a category five tornado devastated the town of Greensburg, KS, Mayor Bob Dixson brought community members and staff together through a Public Square process to rebuild their town for the better.  

A Rude Awakening

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When the tornado struck Greensburg, KS, at 9:45pm on May 4, 2007, little could have been done to prepare for the storm, which killed 11 residents, destroyed 95% of the rural prairie town, and painted scenes of devastation that greeted the community the following morning. 

Following the storm, residents were certain that Greensburg could successfully rebuild itself. With their decision to rebuild ‘green’, community members agreed to seize new opportunities to better position their community for tomorrow, putting Greensburg on a path that earned them the title of “Greenest Town in America.” Through an arduous, full-scale community program, Greensburg effectively engaged its citizens in the effort to rebuild their town for the better. This video shows the devastation and the inspirational rebuild this town endured. 

The Town Tent

Mayor Bob Dixson describes how the town got to work. “With virtually no buildings left, we erected a circus tent in the middle of town. This became the town hall, the church, the mess tent – the hub of all of the planning work we would do for the coming two years as we reinvented our community.”

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The planning process drew 400 to 500 community members to the tent meetings. “These gatherings brought people back together,” recalls Mayor Dixon, “and started the process of emotional healing.” With the sense of community restored, the hard work of rebuilding Greensburg began.

The tent was outfitted to facilitate working sessions that became known as the Public Square process, which was broken into four topical “squares”: education; health and human services; business; and government. A steering committee served as a decision-making hub, connecting the squares and facilitating the process of surfacing recommendations and making decisions. “There were some lively and contentious discussions under that tent,” Mayor Dixson remembers.

Every community in this country has a disaster they’re facing – economic, weather related, pubic health, failing infrastructure. A community’s character, and its priorities, are foundational to finding the right solutions to these specific problems.

Bob Dixson
Mayor, Greensburg, Kansas

On the Path to a Positive Future

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Greensburg Hospital
For three years, the Public Square process kept the community focused on rebuilding Greensburg. Through this process, leaders devised, adopted, and enacted a Sustainable Master Plan, which guided every decision from planning to zoning, and which was flexible enough to allow for ongoing revision.

The inclusiveness of the Public Square, and the adaptability of the process, kept most people involved throughout the planning stages. Transparency was a critical factor, according to Mayor Dixson, so the minutes of every meeting were made public, reports were drafted and shared, and ideas were considered, advanced, and then deliberated on through the four squares before final Steering Committee approval.

Citizens formed and staffed Advisory Committees for specific projects, such as the design and construction of the community pool, providing research, information, and advice to the City Council on an ad hoc basis, ensuring broad public participation and a steady flow of information to the Council.  “All the ideas were community-based,” explains Mayor Dixson, “allowing the community to establish trust, build mutual respect, share ideas and information, and finally make choices.”

Persistence Pays Off

Today, Greensburg has rebuilt City Hall, the hospital, schools, the 5-4-7 Arts Center -- the first LEED Platinum building in Kansas -- and other key facilities. Renewable energy powers most of the town’s buildings, and solar arrays and wind turbines (including a town-owned wind farm) are common features of the landscape. Public buildings larger than 4,000 square feet must be LEED Platinum certified, the first such law in the country. All private homes were re-constructed to be 35% more energy efficient than required by Kansas building codes, with 25% of them achieving 75% greater efficiency. 

“The Greenest Town in America”

Reflecting on Greensburg’s disaster and its rise from the rubble as a greener, more sustainable

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community, Mayor Dixson offers this thought: “Every community has a disaster they’re facing – economic, weather related, pubic health, failing infrastructure – and these situations require solutions. A community’s character, and its priorities, are foundational to finding the right solutions to these specific problems.”  

“I have talked with hundreds of people about our story,” recounts Mayor Dixson, “and more than a few have remarked, ‘You guys really thought outside the box.’ We had to -- our box got blown away.”

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Mayor Dixson suggests that communities collaborate to solve problems based on four key takeaways: 

  • Know who you are and what you want before you begin planning.
  • Refrain from making hasty decisions; involve everyone in the discussion and build consensus.
  • Be humble, admit mistakes, and don’t be afraid to start over again.
  • Build spirit by celebrating success every step of the way, not just at the end of the process.

In retrospect, Greensburg has gained international acclaim not for the disaster, but for the way the community put it behind them and focused on their future ahead.