Friday, November 2, 2012

A Hopeful Note in the Wake of Disaster: Lessons from a Small Town in Kansas

Nearly all my family and oldest friends live somewhere along the East Coast, so naturally I have been consumed over the last few days by the news and images of hurricane Sandy. The devastation is shocking, sad, and unsettling. It is certainly difficult to find anything positive to report on the situation, and yet, standing at a distance, I am feeling hopeful that something positive might come from the catastrophe.

First,  I hope that coming so close to the election, this disaster will draw some political attention to an issue that has been noticeably absent from the discussion: that of climate change. There is little doubt that our choices, individually and as a nation, have contributed to global warming and global warming is contributing to colossal shifts in our weather patterns. In the end, as Sandy and others before her have so poignantly punctuated, mother nature will prevail. It is time to show some respect. If we don't, we won't have an economy, health care initiatives or jobs numbers to worry about.

Second, I hope that in the face of such devastation, people will be able to come together and think creatively about sustainable options for the future. Sometimes, when things are stripped bare, our prime concerns come into a sharper focus and we have the incentive needed to create meaningful change.

I have seen transformation of this sort in my small towns work. In 2007 the tiny, conservative farming town of Greensburg, KS was obliterated by an EF5 tornado that destroyed 95% of the town. Within a week, a soft-spoken man -a transplant from the liberal enclave of Denver- delivered a concept paper to state and municipal officials suggesting that the town rebuild to LEED- platinum standards. Remarkably, in the wake of complete and utter devastation, folks who might normally find themselves on opposite sides of the political aisle were able to find common ground and creatively and energetically come together to create something positive and lasting. They were able to construct a sustainable future together as the municipality led the way for homeowners and businesses. Fueled by 10 wind turbines, the lessons learned in a small Kansas town have now undulated outward, creating a legacy. The people of Greensburg have reached out with support and guidance to others across the nation who have been touched by similar disasters. And while it may seem implausible that the East Coast, teeming with industry and humanity alike could have much to learn from a humble Midwestern town, the shared plight of humanity would suggest otherwise.

It is my hope that, as we rebuild up and down the East Coast, we will respect the power of mother nature and give credence to the models that have done so before.  Ultimately, by treading lightly in the face of this tremendous tragedy with have an extraordinary opportunity to improve.

To see images of the destruction and re-building of Greensburg Kansas, click here:
Stefan Falke/Greensburg Kansas

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Is Working

As the second anniversary of the RealSmallTowns website approaches, I feel inclined, once again, to present an overview of the work I've been doing and why -though it is slow-going- I am still enamored with it.

While my original intent was to create a travel site highlighting progressive small towns, the past two years have presented me with challenges and questions that continue to inform and shape my work.  When I first set out with my vision, I anticipated it would be easy to find the kinds of towns that I was looking for. Surprisingly, it has been quite difficult, but there are still many sources of inspiration to be found.  This unexpected challenge has led to the question of why some small towns are flourishing while others -even just a few miles down the road and saddled with the same set of environmental and cultural constraints- are not? While I have not been able to answer these questions definitively, I am increasingly able to see a series of touchstones that are common among the towns that are working.

First, the towns that are thriving are doing so because they reflect and embrace the people and culture of their particular place. Those towns that have tourism welcome their visitors into a local culture that is centered not around attracting tourism, but around the people who live and work there. They take advantage of the tourist traffic, but are not overly focused on trying to attract tourists. Belfast, Maine and Ouray, Colorado are good examples of such towns. 

Belfast has plenty of summertime tourism, as folks flock to the mountains and water that distinguish the area, but the town itself, with its thriving food co-op, restaurants working collaboratively with the regional farm families, and its celebration and support of local arts, works to support the needs and skills of the local community throughout the year. The same is true for the rugged mountain town of Ouray. Those who live there are drawn to the uncompromising landscape and the lifestyle that accompanies it. Folks who live and work there year round do so because they love it, and that energy is palpable throughout the town. The biggest concentration of visitors actually comes in January when Ouray hosts the International Ice Festival; an event that grows in attendance every year and was the brainchild of a few dedicated ice climbers who transformed their passion -at that time known to relatively few devotees- into a larger movement, making ice-climbing increasingly accessible to larger numbers of inquisitive athletes.

Second, the towns that are thriving consider sustainability as an important piece of their long-term planning. They have leaders who are able to bridge differences and form collective alliances for a sustainable future. The qualities of these leaders vary, depending on the local culture. Interestingly, most of the towns I have visited exhibit some tension between those who are "from here" and "not from here" -the old and the new. Bridging the gap in perspectives can be an enormous challenge and some leaders have managed it better than others. Greensburg, Kansas and Fairfield, Iowa are two towns with respected leaders who have shown strong stewardship and capacity for community-building.

Greensburg was a remote, agricultural, Kansas town that was losing numbers to the twin problems of an aging population and few opportunities for young people. But after a 2007 tornado demolished 95% of the existing structures, a soft-spoken newcomer brought a carefully crafted proposal to the city council, suggesting Greensburg rebuild to LEED-platinum standards. After lengthy discussions and debates, the city council voted to rebuild all municipal buildings to such standards, and many of the residents have followed suit with their homes and businesses. Today, the town of Greensburg gets its energy from 10 wind turbines. All municipal, and many other buildings in the town have met LEED-platinum standards. The local initiative Greensburg GreenTown was founded to help local residents learn more about eco-friendly resources and it now serves as a national model from which other towns can find resources and inspiration. Many of the towns that were devastated by the string of tornados that ripped through the South in spring of 2011 have turned to Greensburg for information and inspiration in the wake of their own tragedies.  The fact that someone “not-from-there” was able to bring a radical idea and garner support for such a radical idea is truly remarkable.

The story of Fairfield, Iowa is an equally astonishing one. It also was a small, traditional, midwestern agricultural community until 1974, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi purchased the campus of the bankrupt Parsons College, and opened Maharishi University of Management there. With the university came a large influx of academic East and West Coasters, and with them, a demand for the cultural corollaries: arts, unfamiliar foods, and more liberal ideas. Swiftly and strongly, two vastly different worlds collided.  It is difficult to imagine the tension that came with it. But today, a short 40 years on, one finds a dynamic community that celebrates both midwestern traditions and “New Age” ideas, often knitting the two together.

Finally, the towns that are featured on RST are driven by creative thinkers who are willing to lead.  By "creative" I am talking not only about the artists, but about anyone who can think outside the box and look for creative solutions to local challenges. I am talking about people who question the status-quo and do not believe that there is only one solution to a problem. I am talking about people who do not accept the idea of "TINA" (There is No Alternative). I am talking about people who are willing to invest their time and energy into creating new realities. These are creative folks who can envision alternatives and challenge the status-quo. They have the initiative to try a different path. My own town of Viroqua, Wisconsin gives plenty of inspiration in this regard. From the thriving Organic Valley Cooperative to the sensational food co-op, the regional sports co-operative, the large number of alternative schooling initiatives -including a folk-arts school- the variety of choice when it comes to health care, birth, and even death, the common practice of trade and barter, and the increasing solutions to combating our dependence on fossil fuels (including an eco-village initiative and, as of next week, our official status as a Transition Town), Viroqua is rife with energetic and innovative thinkers willing to act on good ideas.

In short, the towns I see thriving are those that are focused on creative solutions that work with both the assets and the constraints of their local community. They are places with popular energy, and they reflect my absolute belief that the global challenges we face can only change when we change ourselves first, when we develop and expand the number of grassroots initiatives in our own towns. It may be slow work, but it’s necessary, with the potential to empower people and communities.

My hope is that RST can ultimately be more than just a source for travelers. I hope to provide a place for towns to connect, share ideas, learn from each other, and be inspired. Two years in, and moving at a snail’s pace, I find the work more meaningful than ever. There is so much good happening out there, good people with integrity, intelligence, workable ideas, and the enthusiasm to make something happen. My work may be slow-going, but it is fun, engaging, and rich with discovery. Again and again it reveals to me the significance of place, the power of good leadership, and the joy of community.