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Greensburg, Kansas is in the middle of nowhere or everywhere, depending on whom you ask. It’s a red town in a red state that became the greenest town in America as a result of rural residents like Ruth Wedel engaging in restorative leadership following a natural disaster. On the evening of May 4, 2007, the town of nearly 1,400 was hit by what was at the time the largest tornado in recorded history. Nearly two miles wide with winds over 200 MPH, the EF-5 tornado took twelve lives and reduced Greensburg to over 388,000 tons of rubble. The community of Greensburg chose to transform the devastation to opportunity with a vision that turned the town into a model for the nation and the world. Motivated to create a more prosperous future for generations to come, Greensburg rebuilt as a sustainable community from the ground up, literally. The historic transformation was profiled in a series produced by Leonardo DiCaprio for the Planet Green network.
Within one year after the tornado, the community of Greensburg had designed a Sustainable Comprehensive Plan and inspired widespread engagement to implement it over the following few years. As a result, today Greensburg is home to the most LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings per capita in the U.S., runs on 100% renewable energy 100% of the time, has integrated water conservation strategies into the very core of the city design, provides green spaces and single-stream curbside recycling to all residents, and is the first city in the U.S. to use all LED streetlights.
When this tiny community made the choice to place their focus on sustainability and collective wellbeing, the resounding impact and influence was heard worldwide. For its remarkable achievements, Greensburg was mentioned by President Obama in his 2009 State of the Union Address, and has been featured on National Public Radio and the Discovery Channel. In addition, the community has received several prestigious awards including the 2011 United Nations Global Green Community Award and the 2010 Edison Awards Innovations and Innovators: Green Game Changer Award.
Ruth Ann Wedel, a longtime resident called by some the “unofficial mayor” of Greensburg, was at ground zero of the town’s renewal. Playing a grassroots leadership role with Greensburg GreenTown, the not-for-profit founded to help facilitate the rebuilding, Ruth Ann assisted community organizing and developing a chain of eco-homes to demonstrate sustainable designs. Through GreenTown, Ruth Ann also hosted visitors from around the world interested in learning from Greensburg’s story and touring the innovative LEED platinum buildings. In this interview, a decade since the disaster, Ruth Ann reflects on the community’s sustainability journey of doing the right thing for the future. With grounded insight, humble fortitude, and lighthearted determination, she helps us understand what it takes to engage in restorative leadership to be of highest benefit during the most challenging of times.
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Translate Vision Into Sustainable Reality
Green Town U.S.A. recounts Greensburg’s inspiring story of resilience, community, and sustainability which began on the evening of May 4, 2007, when disaster struck the quiet Kansas city. A tornado topping all the scales touched down, and in a matter of minutes, Greensburg, which stood for more than 120 years, was destroyed. Greensburg committed to reconstructing itself from the ground up while embracing green technology and building methods, along with solar and wind energy. The new Greensburg stands testament to the values of rural community and the viability of sustainable community redevelopment and energy-efficient living.