Work That Matters to Me: Building Trust, Greener Communities

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

David Doyle is a public servant’s public servant. I’ve known Dave for 24 years and if you have a “federal agency” question, Dave will either know the answer or the person to call to help you. He has mentored many of us at EPA about the intricacies of community work, and has truly “woven straw into gold” for many communities with the limited, complicated funding and layers of federal and state resources applicable to them. Dave turns over every stone and has left in his wake a sustainable legacy.

By David Doyle

A tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan. on May 4, 2007.

Aftermath of Greensburg tornado

It’s June 2007, and I’m sitting under a large red-and-white tent in Greensburg, Kan., feeling a little disoriented and anxious. I was told a week before that I had been assigned to work with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) on developing a long-term recovery plan for the community that was wiped out by a tornado a month earlier. Once I drove to Greensburg and located the FEMA trailer, their recovery staff directed me to a community meeting.

It must have been 100 degrees under that tent. With huge fans trying to cool the place and only adding to the noise and confusion, I suddenly heard the speaker on the platform say, “EPA’s here to help.” I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I would get from the audience in southwestern Kansas, but as I stood up and meekly waved, I got nothing but cheers and applause. I was relieved by that reaction, but I sat down wondering what I was going to do next.

Emergency response personnel make plans in the aftermath of the tornado that devastated Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007.

Greensburg community meeting 

What I had learned up to then in working with communities is that building trust is by far the most important thing to do. I also understood that being patient with people, listening to their concerns, and being honest and responsive to their needs are key things to keep in mind. Work I had done in Stella, a southwestern Missouri town with a population of 150, prepared me to some extent for what I was asked to do in Greensburg.

EPA had performed a “miracle” in Stella, as described by some of the residents, by demolishing an abandoned hospital that sat in the middle of their downtown, using our authority under the Superfund law. We then brought in architectural students from Kansas State University to design reuse plans for the site and later developed a master plan for the community. The local officials recognized my work, along with other EPA staff, by presenting us with award plaques hand-carved from local walnut trees during the annual Stella Days Fair.

In Greensburg, we decided to form a “Green Team” that came up with recommendations for turning it into the greenest community in the country. The team had representatives from the business community, school district, and a number of local citizens, along with representatives from several state and federal agencies. We met on a regular basis to bounce ideas off each other. Our recommendations were incorporated into FEMA’s Long-Term Community Recovery Plan, and all of them were eventually adopted by the city council and implemented.

The redeveloped Greensburg, Kan., now has more LEED Platinum buildings than any other community in America.

Redevelopment in Greensburg, the greenest community in America

The most important recommendation adopted was that all new municipal buildings over a certain size had to be built to meet Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum standards, the highest certification level for new buildings. As a result, Greensburg (population 800) now has more LEED Platinum buildings than any other community in the United States.

Since my time in Greensburg, I have provided assistance to many other communities here in the Heartland. These collaborative efforts resulted in a new medical clinic surrounded by new businesses in Ogden, Iowa; plans for a new sustainable downtown in Sutherland, Neb.; redevelopment of former gas stations in south St. Louis; new, complete streetscapes in Lincoln, Neb.; plans for a mixed-use neighborhood in Iowa City, Iowa; and improvements in other communities.

I still remember those hot, windy and dusty days in Greensburg when a local citizen named Jack would often come up to me with a big smile on his face, shake my hand, and say how much he appreciated EPA being there and helping out.

About the Introducer: Kathleen Fenton has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education grants, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: David Doyle serves as the Sustainable Communities Coordinator at EPA Region 7. David has a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Syracuse University, and a Master of Science in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas.

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