How to Turn Your City Sustainable

To move forward, communities need to take a step back and create a long-term sustainability plan—and you just might be the person to get your city’s started.

by Lisa Munniksma
Silo home

Courtesy Greensburg Greentown

Greensburg, Kan., residents merged rebuilding and repurposing, as evidenced by this silo home.

Amidst a movement toward more sustainable communities are stories of regular people leading the way and taking action in all areas of sustainable living.

Take Daniel Wallach’s story, for example. He and his wife, Catherine Hart, lost their life savings to medical bills while living in Colorado. They began anew in rural Stafford County, Kan., where they helped start a local foods co-op that served residents in the towns of Pratt and Greensburg. When a 1.7-mile-wide tornado destroyed just about everything in 1.5-mile-wide Greensburg, Wallach found himself once again with a blank slate. He advocated for the town to be rebuilt green, and today, just four years later, it’s a global model for what’s possible.

John Heneghan’s approach to sustainability was to work through the channels of local government. Heneghan was elected to city council when citizens of Dunwoody, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, voted for the suburb to become its own city. Committed to making the maze of suburban sprawl more walkable and bike-friendly before the new city started operating, he attended a Green Communities workshop given by a regional planning agency. Heneghan spearheaded the creation of a citizens’ advisory board to help Dunwoody pursue certification for implementing policies and practices that reduce its overall environmental impact. As a result, the city was awarded Certified Green Community status on Dec. 1, 2010.

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Holly Freishtat’s story bears some similarities to Heneghan’s. While living in Washington state, Freishtat worked with institutions to make her community more sustainable. She connected hospitals and retirement communities with local farmers and developed a program to teach low-income students about nutrition through gardening and cooking. Freishtat also coordinated the development of the first USDA-inspected mobile slaughter facility in the country, thereby enabling small farmers to process meat on their farms. When Freishtat moved back to her hometown of Baltimore, she was hired as its first food policy director.

Before he could get solar panels installed on the roof of his home in Salem, Ore., Larry Lohrman had to amend the covenants of his Creekside Estates neighborhood homeowners’ association. Lohrman spent nine months working to change the covenants and, as a result, changed minds, raised awareness and helped homeowners across the country change their neighborhood rules.

These four people are on the front lines of a growing movement to create more sustainable communities. They have different points of entry—green building, livability, alternative transportation and energy, food—but the sustainability movement is diverse and multifaceted. These people have a lot to teach us about making our communities more sustainable.

Why Cities Go Sustainable

Farmers' market

Photo by Lisa Munniksma

Farmers’ markets are a simple way of working toward a city’s sustainability goals.

According to a 1987 report by the United Nations, “sustainability” is the ability to meet society’s present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. Although most people immediately associate sustainability with the environment, it also includes economic and social aspects, such as creating robust local businesses and ensuring that no segment of society (like the poor) gets cut out of the good stuff (sidewalks, green space, farmers’ markets) while shouldering more of the burdens (landfills and recycling plants).

Why would a city even want to become more sustainable? Because sustainable cities use less energy and produce less waste. They make it easier for residents to walk and ride bikes, thereby improving their health. They make it easier for seniors to “age in place.” They prepare children for the challenges of a changing world and are more resilient in the face of disasters and emergencies.

Starting Over Green

“Greensburg was utterly devastated and materially depleted by that tornado,” Wallach says, “and there was a hunger to make something positive out of it.”

But green? Greensburg residents told Wallach that they didn’t want to carry the stigma of being left-leaning, liberal tree-huggers.

“Greensburg is the most conservative part of a very politically conservative state,” Wallach explains, “yet so many green attributes are really basic, sound principles that were already embodied in the community’s ancestors. These include using windmills, building with the sun’s orientation in mind, living off the land by hunting and fishing, and being tied to nature in ways that are truly authentic.”

Going green for Greensburg was not as big of a stretch as it might have seemed at first glance.

As city officials embarked on a comprehensive plan to rebuild Greensburg as a model of sustainable living, Wallach launched Greensburg GreenTown, a grassroots, community-based organization that works hand in hand with the city to educate the community, serve as a conduit for donations and information, establish incentives to encourage business and resident participation in building green, and stimulate green economic development. After four decades of decline, this small rural city of fewer than 1,000 residents in southwestern Kansas now finds itself in the spotlight as it aims to rebuild a prosperous future through common-sense green solutions.

“If the folks in this little rural town can embrace green living so enthusiastically, it can be done anywhere,” Wallach says.

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