THE BLOG
01/22/2015 09:11 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Bringing Sustainability to Small-Town America

In my writing I frequently celebrate leadership in community sustainability from such progressive, highly urbanized metro areas as Portland, Seattle, and Philadelphia, and even from more sprawling locales such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and the DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. But it can be tougher to find prominent green practices in America's smaller towns and cities, many of which are struggling to stay alive and have trouble assembling the resources for new initiatives of any sort. A detailed survey of 1,844 municipalities conducted in 2010 by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) found that the smallest communities (population fewer than 5,000 people) were only a third as likely to adopt sustainability measures as were larger communities of 100,000 or more.

Yet residents of small and rural places are every bit as deserving of a clean and healthy environment as are city dwellers. Indeed, these places retain great significance for Americans: polling shows that more Americans would prefer to live in a small town or rural area (30 percent) than live there now (22 percent), and that more would prefer to live in a small town or rural area than would prefer to live in cities (28 percent).

The good news is that there are some terrific examples of green initiatives beginning to emerge in small-town America. While these communities may frequently lack institutional capacity and fiscal resources to undertake big initiatives, they do have the benefit of agility. Even a single leader can make a difference.

Moreover, initiatives don't necessarily need to be "big" to have a major impact in smaller communities. Even a smaller grant or loan from a government or philanthropic agency can make a major impact in a small town. And, in some cases, small towns and cities find themselves in a position to draw upon available resources from outside the community that enable them to undertake sustainability efforts significant enough to rival those of big cities.

In this blog post I'll mention a few examples to illustrate the range of what's possible, but bear in mind that any one is worthy of its own post. (I'll try to provide links for interested readers to learn more.) In every case, they deserve our applause and encouragement.

Putting the green in Greensburg

I'll start with a big one. Among small-town sustainability efforts, none is more celebrated, and rightfully so, than the comprehensive green strategy currently being implemented in Greensburg, Kansas (population 785 as of 2013). It was born of a tragic event that no one would wish on any community: Greensburg was destroyed by a tornado in May of 2007, killing 13 people and wiping out or seriously damaging 95 percent of the town's structures.

At the time, it wasn't certain that Greensburg would rebuild at all. But the townspeople knew that, if they were to do so, the enormous effort required would have to be undertaken with a strong sense of purpose. After much deliberation, and with considerable support from the Kansas state government, that purpose came in an environmental form: in one of the boldest moves I have seen in any community, the citizens of Greensburg decided to leverage state and federal disaster recovery funds to rebuild with a striking new identity, remaking the little town as no less than the country's greenest.

The near-term result was the Greensburg Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan, which committed to shrinking the community's carbon footprint by half and adopting state of the art environmental practices. These would include green buildings; a rebuilt, walkable, mixed-use downtown; green infrastructure to manage stormwater; and powering the town with renewable energy.

Today, Greensburg is well on its way. Writing in USA Today's Green Living magazine in 2013, Patrick Quinn reported:

"Six years after the tornado, Greensburg is the world's leading community in LEED-certified buildings per capita. The town is home to a half-dozen LEED-platinum certified buildings, including the new City Hall and the new 48,500-square-foot Kiowa County Memorial Hospital. Renewable [mostly wind] energy powers the entire community, and the streetlights are all LED."

One cannot overstate the importance of leadership in this effort. Greensburg resident Daniel Wallach is credited in Quinn's article as the first to put forward the idea that the town could become a model green community; Wallach then founded and still maintains Greensburg Green Town, a clearinghouse of news and information about the community's rebuilding efforts.

Another local leader was the company Bucklin Tractor and Implement, or BTI, the town's John Deere dealership; the company not only rebuilt its own facility to LEED-platinum standards but also started a new branch of the business, BTI Wind Energy, to market small-scale wind turbines that can meet the energy needs of individual farms and businesses. BTI subsequently formed The Harvest the Wind Network of dealers to sell, service, and support wind energy products across North America.

(Greensburg is a great story, too rich to tell here in this blog post. For more about the town's internationally-recognized leadership for sustainability, start here.)

Visible steps, a few at a time

Greensburg's situation is unique - the tornado meant the town had to start over, and that it had significant outside resources to assist the effort - and the town is making the most of it. For most small communities, though, going green means doing so with small steps. These steps can nonetheless be powerful, not just because of what they accomplish directly but also because of their educational impact.

The ICMA report cited at the beginning of this blog post (Defying the Odds: Sustainability in Small and Rural Places) features, for example, the town of Columbus, Wisconsin (population 4,991 in 2010). In 2007 Columbus leveraged a $40,000 grant from a regional energy wholesaler into a new staff position responsible for furthering the twin goals of economic development and sustainability. Subsequently, the town made a commitment "to create a marketing persona for the City of Columbus as a green community, a sustainable community," in the words of staffer Steve Sobiek.

Visible green improvements include high-efficiency LED street lighting, hybrid electric municipal vehicles, plug-in stations at municipal parking lots, energy-efficiency audits and upgrades of municipal offices and services, and small subsidies for energy and water efficiency efforts and for tree planting by homeowners.

That's a lot for any community, especially for one of that size. But the upside of being small is that Columbus' small size has made such improvements within reach financially. City officials believe that the commitment to go green has paid significant dividends towards meeting its economic goals. From the report:

"Articles about these programs appeared in statewide economic development and construction magazines and those generated a lot of economic development leads for Sobiek to follow. In the twelve months leading up to the fall of 2012, the city saw about $30 million dollars in capital investment including a new housing development, an assisted living center, and the expansion of a packaging operation. An arts incubator chose Columbus over Madison and a local pump manufacturer has broken ground on a larger facility that will anchor a new business park.

"Columbus has many traits that make it desirable: it lies less than 30 miles from the state capital and it is right on the highway. But many communities in the region share those benefits. Indeed, former city administrator [Boyd] Kraemer estimates that 50 percent of his community's recent success is attributable to its sustainability marketing program."

(The ICMA report was authored by George Homsy of Binghamton (NY) University and Mildred Warner of Cornell.)

Energy efficiency was also targeted in recent sustainability efforts of South Daytona, Florida (population 12,252 in 2010). In 2009, according to ICMA, South Daytona completed a greenhouse gas emissions inventory for its own operations as well as for the community at large. The city adopted a goal of reducing emissions 25 percent from 2008 levels by 2031. So far, the city has focused on energy conservation in municipal facilities by changing to more efficient lighting, installing a solar water heater in the fire department, and educating staff about energy usage.

The city also replaced parking lot lights with more efficient fixtures and found other lights that can be turned off completely without compromising safety. In the near future, the city is looking into providing low interest loans for energy improvements, offering free trees to property owners to increase the community's overall canopy, and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy in the electricity purchased by the city. For water efficiency, the city started offering a $50 rebate for replacement of older toilets with ultra-low flush models. (According to ICMA, an amazing forty percent of home water use is typically flushed down the toilet.)

Other communities featured in the ICMA study include Homer, Alaska (population 5,003); the wonderfully named Sleepy Eye, Minnesota (population 3,599); West Liberty, Iowa (population 3,736); Hurricane, Utah (population 13,748); and Kearney, Nebraska (population 30,787).

Bringing back Main Street

Many smaller communities retain traditional shopping streets at their core, albeit frequently disinvested at this point since so much retail fled downtown to malls, big boxes and strips in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, these historic centers offer wonderful urban fabric to build upon in consolidating economic development efforts. Some communities are taking note and, when successful, such efforts help the environment by recycling buildings and infrastructure, by prioritizing walkability, and by obviating increments of suburban sprawl that eat up the rural landscape and lengthen driving distances and consequent emissions.

I'm not sure that I have seen a better example of a "Main Street" revival than Market Street in Corning, New York (population 11,183). I wrote about Corning at length earlier this year, positing five key elements that I believe can make Main Streets more likely to thrive:

  • A superior pedestrian experience, assisted by such design features as ample sidewalks; convenient, well-highlighted crosswalks; vehicle traffic at calm speeds; entertaining, transparent storefronts abutting or very close to the sidewalk; relatively short block lengths; in particularly warm climates, shading.
  • Density, but at a human scale. For Main Streets in smaller cities and towns, I personally prefer a mixture of building heights ranging from two to about eight or so stories.
  • Viable local businesses. Some chains are OK, but not too many. Especially in small towns, many older districts today provide opportunity for small, local businesses to have a chance at success.
  • Integrated nature. This can include green stormwater infrastructure, as on Greensburg's Main Street, or a properly scaled park, as on Corning's Market Street. But also don't overlook the potential of street trees, window boxes and hanging flowers to contribute to a sense of place while satisfying the basic human need to connect with nature.
  • Nearby residences. The more within walking distance, the better. If there are no residents at all living close enough to walk, I'm not sure you have a true Main Street. You may have something akin to a quaintly designed outdoor shopping center.

In Corning, the Market Street Restoration Project, founded in 1974, supports the vitality of the historic district by offering free design advice to businesses exploring new signage and façade restoration, by supporting residential development and rehabilitation on upper floors of Market Street buildings, and by conducting educational programs and advocacy for historic preservation. Nationally, the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, offers a range of resources for those interested in revitalizing older commercial districts.

Harnessing land use strategies and zoning

Finally, the sustainability of any community is inextricably tied with its land use practices. This can be especially true in smaller towns and cities where the absence of capacity to create and implement good planning and policies can make it all easy for an ad hoc culture of poorly designed, haphazard development (and abandonment of well-located, viable properties) to prevail. But on these issues, too, there is a lot that can be done to guide the right kind of development to the right places in order to support economic, social, and environmental vitality.

Surely the gold standard for a concerted, multi-faceted, small-town land use planning effort is exemplified by the work begun in 2011 by the adjoining towns of Ranson (population 4,440) and Charles Town (population 5,259) in West Virginia. I profiled the efforts of Ranson and Charles Town in an article shortly after the work began. The work was promising then, and today it is beginning to pay dividends.

(NOTE: Earlier this month, I joined the planning consultancy PlaceMakers, which was deeply involved in assisting the planning process in Ranson and Charles Town. I have not been involved in those efforts.)

In particular, the communities sought and leveraged several sources of federal funding into an innovative and quite comprehensive planning exercise. Drawing upon support from the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and from the Environmental Protection Agency - collectively, the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities - Ranson and Charles Town impressively undertook the following:

  • A form-based "SmartCode" zoning system that joins a green downtown overlay district with an additional new zoning approach for undeveloped, outlying areas;
  • A redesign of the prominent Fairfax Boulevard-George Street Corridor into a "complete street" with green infrastructure, to promote a better transportation route for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit;
  • Establishment of a new regional Charles Washington Commuter Center in downtown Charles Town that will facilitate access to regional rail and bus transit systems for Ranson, Charles Town and Jefferson County; and
  • A master plan for downtown that spurs job growth and economic development in former dilapidated manufacturing sites.

Wow. This is amazing stuff for towns of this size. Since my 2011 summary (which, to be fair, also expressed a couple of misgivings about the exercise), the comprehensive planwas adopted for a planning area of 6,700 acres in April, 2012. An area-wide brownfields redevelopment planwas adopted by Ranson and Charles Town, also in 2012. And ground was broken for $100 million of community revitalization and economic development projects on December 2, 2013, including along the "green corridor" of Fairfax Boulevard and George Street.

(For more about Ranson and Charles Town's accomplishments, see the website of Ranson Renewed , this summary from Smart Growth America, and especially the short video at the end of this blog post.)

It must be said that few small towns will have the resources to undertake as large a planning effort - with so many elements addressed at the same time - as that addressed by Ranson and Charles Town. In this case, the communities benefitted greatly from federal funding that has since become harder to tap into because of budget-slashing. But many communities may be able undertake one or more of these kinds of initiatives and find government and/or philanthropic support to do so. Incremental steps matter.

The keys to success

The ICMA report lists six "key takeaways" from the organization's study of small-town sustainability efforts:

  • Entrepreneurial leadership makes a difference.
  • It is important to show early benefits to build support for further efforts.
  • Education of local staff and the public pays off, since they can be a force for change over time.
  • Regional networks are critical for information exchange and learning best practices.
  • Municipal utilities are key partners. They have expertise, investment capability, and regulatory incentives to play a leadership role.
  • Sustainability can be a competitive economic development strategy -- one that promotes social inclusion and community revitalization.

That seems like good advice to me. The short video below shows what it's like when some of these ingredients are put into place in a real-world situation:

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid's latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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