Small towns are suffering. A powerful Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year said that rural America, much of which is seeing a drop in population, is the new “inner city,” due to declining economic health and accelerating issues of disinvestment, drug dependency, and job loss.
Many other studies and stories have painted a similarly bleak picture, and much post-election analysis has revolved around finding ways to help these communities and their residents thrive. For an increasing number of small towns and rural communities, part of this answer lies in sustainability and going green.
While sustainable design isn’t a panacea for the challenges rural America faces, many places are finding that there is economic value in renewable power and resilient design. The growing presence of solar and wind power in rural communities has created opportunities and income (green power currently employs roughly five times more Americans than the coal industry) and helped municipalities save both money and resources.
These towns and cities, each with fewer than 75,000 residents, demonstrate that at a time when state and federal governments slowly grind through gridlock and partisanship, responsive local leadership can still be decisive. While there are certainly plenty of long-term environmental benefits to be gained from these actions, the local leaders and communities profiled below are going green based on pragmatism, self-interest, and economic development.
Whether it’s saving money with renewables or turning former mining sites into tourist magnets, these municipalities remain committed to improving their local economies. No community has all the answers, or has become an eco-utopia and solved all of its problems, but each has shown the potential of green development, modeling ideas and initiatives that can, hopefully, trickle up to higher levels of government.
Greensburg, Kansas: Rebuilding with conservation at its core
This farming community’s rebirth as one of the country’s most sustainable small towns was an example of making the most out of a crisis. In 2007, a powerful tornado slammed into Greensburg, killing 13 people and flattening 95 percent of the town’s buildings.
In the tornado’s aftermath, with the town declared a disaster zone, half the population moved away. When residents began planning how to rebuild, they decided to come back better and more sustainable than before, instead of simply replacing what once stood.
The scope of the rebuilding effort, which follows the progressive Greensburg Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan, remains impressive, and pretty much unmatched, a decade later.
Nearly the entire town, including every house, business, and municipal building, runs on wind power after being connected to a nearby wind farm in 2009 (wind power has doubled over the last five years in the United States, especially in states, like Kansas, that offer incentives). Greensburg was also the first U.S. city to go 100 percent LED for its street lighting, invested in LEED-certified public buildings, and installed ground-source heat pumps to warm buildings during the winter. While the population remains less than half of pre-storm levels, and the overall rebuilding effort has had its share of challenges, the city has become known as a case study for resilient, green design.
One of the most important lessons to draw from Greensburg’s incredible transformation is that a community coming together can be incredibly powerful. By focusing on the values of conservation and sustainability—being the home of the world’s deepest hand-dug well used to be the town’s biggest claim to fame—the city created a roadmap for green rebuilding efforts. As one city administrator said during testimony in D.C. about the rebuilding effort, “Green starts in rural America.”
Georgetown, Texas: Why wind and solar work in oil country
A small-town Texas mayor isn’t anyone’s top pick to make a cameo in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel documentary. But Georgetown, Texas, mayor Dale Ross doesn’t abide by stereotypes.
As reported in The Guardian, Ross has steered his town, deep in oil country, toward a renewable-energy future, signing deals to power the city with nearby wind farms and solar installations to reach the goal of going 100 percent renewable (last year, wind and solar provided 90 percent of the town’s energy needs).
He’s not a starry-eyed idealist, either, merely a local official obsessed with dollars and sense. Ross told NPR the town made the switch because of “our love of green: green rectangles.” The town’s decision has done more than just lower power bills; by making a commitment to and creating a reputation for green power, Georgetown has attracted millions in new business opportunities.
Now, companies come to town knowing they can market their green bonafides as a selling point. Other towns, like nearby Denton, also see a big upside to Texas’s vast potential for wind and solar generation; the state currently produces more wind power than the next three states combined.
Juneau, Alaska: Making electric cars a reasonable choice in remote areas
Debates about the potential growth of electric vehicles often hinge on range anxiety: Potential owners get nervous about being stuck with an empty batteries far from a charging station.
That anxiety would appear to make the remote city of Juneau, Alaska, a terrible place for electric vehicle ownership. But due to quirks of climate and geography, the nation’s northernmost state capital envisions a future where the adoption of electric cars could be downright Californian.
Juneau provides the rare test case where being remote may actually be good for EVs. Surrounded by steep mountains and water, the isolated city is, for all intents and purposes, an island (all goods, including gasoline, arrive by boat or plane).
That means it has a relatively small local road network and high fuel costs. With the city’s recent installation of 10 electric charging stations—all powered by the local utility, which itself draws 99.5 percent of the region’s power from clean hydropower—it’s nearly impossible to get out of range of your next charge, since the longest drive is about 55 miles, end to end. Even the weather plays a part, since batteries perform better in the cold.
As the city pushes EV adoption, advocates want to go beyond private ownership. Numerous transport systems and vehicles are looking to go green, including the buses that take tourists to a nearby glacier, paratransit shuttles, and even some fishing boats.
Corning, New York: A classic case study on the importance of Main Street
Magnets for commerce and community, Main Streets carry an oversized importance in small towns, supporting walkability and local businesses. The centerpiece of Corning, New York, home of the famous glass company, stands out from the thousands of other similar streets in this country because of its influence.
In the early ’70s, Hurricane Agnes left the upstate New York town under four feet of water. Local nonprofit group the Market Street Restoration Agency helped rebuild and restore the main thoroughfare’s historic architecture and character, creating a model of preservation that caught the eye of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, inspiring the group’s own Main Street program.
How does a street help sustainability? Corning’s main street is a model for others, boasting pedestrian plazas, family-owned businesses (some dating from the 19th century), a new pedestrian bridge, as well as bike racks and parks. Other cities may boast bigger and better streetscaping and urban planning, but the Crystal City helped create a template for renewal that has benefited small towns and cities across the country.
Huron, California: A rural, and emission-free, Uber
In an isolated pocket of the Central Valley, one of the agricultural centers of California, many of the region’s mostly Hispanic workers get by without their own car. With such a sparse population, the area offers a challenge for mass transit and ride-sharing services, so many rely on raiteros, or private taxi drivers, for the occasional trip. Recently, a local nonprofit, Valley LEAP (Latino Environmental Advancement Policy Project), started a project to make this type of community-organized taxi service more sustainable.
Using a grant from the state and the Just Transit Challenge, Valley LEAP is setting up an electric vehicle shuttle service, installing charging stations and employing professional drivers and dispatchers to ferry farm workers to and from important appointments. Eventually, supporters want to use proceeds to build an EV repair shop in town. Nearby Cantua Creek is even getting a Tesla X to provide a similar service, using fares and funding to help install more vehicle charging infrastructure.
Oakridge, Oregon: Cycling as economic stimulus
For decades, this central Oregon town thrived thanks to the timber industry. But after its mill closed in 1989, Oakridge went through a transition painfully familiar to many other small towns: a loss of both economic vitality and identity. To help revive its fortunes, the city turned to another means of making money off of its incredible natural resources: mountain biking.
Since receiving a grant in 2004 to start building trails, the town has vastly expanded its network of cycling paths, and now boasts nearly 400 miles of trails. Now, Oakridge has become a destination for riders, with bikers pumping $5 million annually into the local economy. Biking is far from an even replacement for timber jobs, but it’s offering the town new life, bringing new visitors, and, like many places across the country, making resource stewardship, not extraction, central to the local economy.