Indiana State University Newsroom

GreenTown conference focuses spotlight on sustainability

November 21, 2011

The mayor of one of the nation's best known "green" communities told the "GreenTown-Terre Haute" conference that it takes a grassroots effort to implement a successful environmental sustainability program.

Four and one-half years after a tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, Kan., homes and businesses as well as schools and other public buildings have been rebuilt to maximize conservation and reliance on renewable energy.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state officials came to Greensburg after the May 4, 2007, twister, the townspeople themselves made the commitment to "go green," Mayor Bob Dixson told about 300 Greentown attendees gathered in the University Hall Theater at Indiana State University.

Dixson said Greensburg residents gave their "financial, emotional and spiritual life savings" to rebuild in a way best suited for the 21st century just as their ancestors built the town in a way that was best for the 19th century.

As in the 1800s, that means skylights, abundant south facing windows, no north facing windows and wind power.

With no building left standing that was large enough for a community meeting, several hundred Greensburg residents gathered in a FEMA tent, hugged and consoled one another and then decided to rebuild.

Rejecting suggestions that his community of 1,400 was in the middle of nowhere, Dixson said he and his neighbors decided to rebuild the community "because it was our home and we, by the way, are in the middle of everywhere."

Dixson said Greensburg was facing systematic problems even before the tornado struck and the twister, though it took 11 lives, provided an opportunity to address those problems. He said communities everywhere, including Terre Haute, face similar problems but they are not as obvious as the rubble left by an F-5 tornado.

He called on Terre Haute residents to identify the community's rubble and work together to get rid of it.

"It's not about waiting for the government to come and have a plan and an idea of how it's going to work. It's not going to be D.C., it's not going to be Indianapolis and it's not going to be city hall here. It's going to be our responsibility to walk hand-in-hand with other private partnerships of making this work," he said.

Other speakers stressed how designing streets, homes and other buildings with sustainability in mind is not only good for the environment, it can actually help make people healthier and even save lives.

GreenTown Conference

Dick Jackson, M.D., professor of public health at UCLA and former director of the Centers for Disease Control, called for a move away from the decades long trend of building suburban homes with three-car garages, often with no way for backyard neighbors to get to one another's houses without "climbing the fence and going past the Doberman and Rottweiler." He also argued against windowless schools at the edge of communities with no sidewalks leading to them and for more pedestrian friendly roadways.

Natural sunlight raises levels of serotonin, thereby promoting alertness and learning, Jackson said. Walking and other forms of physical activity can fight many current health issues, including diabetes and depression, better than medication, he said.

Heavily traveled streets in many communities are not pedestrian friendly, Jackson said. He cited Buford Avenue in Atlanta, which runs through a neighborhood of low-income rental properties where crosswalks are one mile apart, putting residents who don't drive at risk.

"You're not going to walk two miles in the hot Georgia sun to get to a crosswalk," he said. "You shouldn't get killed trying to walk home from the grocery store.

Portland, Ore. has long been recognized as the cycling capital of the world and Midwestern cities such as Louisville, Chicago and Champaign, Ill. have made great strides in recent years in promoting and encouraging bike riding via dedicated bike lanes and trails.

It takes collective leadership to make that happen, said Craig Williams, senior associate with Alta Planning and a former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Illinois Department of Transportation official.

Bicycling in Chicago has taken off in areas where protected bike lanes were recently created by using parked cars to separate bicyclists from lanes used by cars and trucks.

"They collectively, from the mayor's office to public works, the health community and a lot of others, said, ‘Look, we need to change the way that we've been doing business. We've been building roads for the last 50 years in a very car-centric nature.'" Williams said.

In addition to the keynote speeches, the conference included roundtable discussions on topics ranging from healthy eating by using more locally produced food and creating local green jobs to restoring native landscapes, conservation and sustainable energy.

Another roundtable discussion served as the first step toward developing a sustainability plan for Terre Haute. Residents' wish lists included such things as more downtown housing and businesses, increased access to the Wabash River and greater reliance on walking and bike riding over driving.

Greentown also provided an opportunity for area college and university students to present research on sustainability topics via poster and video competitions.

A student leadership group is promoting Indiana State's climate action plan, said Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology and director of the university's sustainability program.

"They're working on getting light switch covers to remind people to turn off lights," Speer said. "They're actually working with students to change student behavior and get students more engaged in sustainability - really taking responsibility for it on campus."

Organizers of GreenTown-Terre Haute believe the time is right for the ISU students' enthusiasm for sustainability to spread throughout the community.

"You have a public sector here and you have a private sector that wants to come together and create a healthy, sustainable community for future generations," said John Harris of a5, a Chicago marketing firm, and co-producer of GreenTown. "That means water, that means transportation, that means food, that means education, it means the built environment, the natural environment and ultimately it really means green jobs - jobs for a new economy so you have stable and, hopefully, growing employment for Terre Haute and the Wabash Valley."

Sister Jean Knoerle, president of Our Green Valley Alliance, said, "Something is happening in Terre Haute. It is becoming a city which is much more aware of itself and how things that it does make an impact in the state and on the people in the community. When we founded the alliance that was one of the things we wanted to do. We wanted to be part of this new understanding within the city."

Knoerle, a Terre Haute area resident since 1945, is a former president of St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Terre Haute was the first Indiana community to host a GreenTown conference. Valparaiso will be the second, with a conference scheduled for September 27-28, 2012 in that northwestern Indiana city.


Photo: - Bob Dixson, mayor of Greensburg, Kan., told attendees at GreenTown-Terre Haute that a 2007 tornado provided an opportunity to address systematic problems the community already faced and townspeople chose to become a "green" community and work toward environmental sustainability. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Dick Jackson, professor of public health at UCLA and former director of the Centers for Disease Conrol, discussed the impact transportation planning can have on public health during the GreenTown-Terre Haute conference. (ISU/Rachel Keyes) 

Contacts: Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology and director of sustainability, Indiana State University, 812-237-2257 or; John Harris, principal, a5 group inc and producer, GreenTown, 312-7062529 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or