A LEEDing Community

By Steve Wright

New rating systems for green neighborhoods is inaugurated


In a short decade, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has become the standard for measuring the sustainability of a building.

With everyday people fighting soaring energy costs and striving to spend their dollars efficiently in a bad economy, LEED has gone from an obscure movement to a clear concept in the vocabulary of mom and pop consumers.

But a number of leading urbanists began to realize that if applying LEED standards to a building is good, developing a system of LEED standards for every aspect of neighborhood development would be great.

And that is exactly what a herculean effort by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council has achieved.

Born of a balloting process among planning and sustainability experts, the LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System (LEED-ND) integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism and green building into the first national system for neighborhood design.

An exhaustive 100-plus page document creates a checklist for every conceivable element to promote sustainable neighborhood design. Points are given for: connectivity to existing development, water and land conservation, developing with a strong grid of streets, building near transit, creating affordable housing, using infill sites, facilitating a mix of uses, integrating universal design to accommodate people with disabilities, and dozens of other measures of compact, efficient neighborhood design that promotes healthy walkability while reducing automobile dependency.

“The LEED building program was limited in that abuilding could get a platinum (the highest standard of building sustainability), gold or silver certification, but be in a location where the employees or residents would be driving unnecessarily long drives to get to work, shopping or home,” said John Norquist, CNU president and CEO.

Norquist said that very example happened in the Chicago area when a major bank headquarters moved to a new location in a highly-efficient building that earned a high LEED rating, but was isolated far from public transit.

“The old headquarters was on a transit line, but the new one was built so far away that everybody who worked there had to drive. People who used to take transit had to buy a car,” he said. “The energy spent on commuting to the new building blew out the energy savings in the LEED-certified building.”

“The Bank of America Tower on Sixth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd streets in Manhattan is a perfect example of a building that was built to meet LEED platinum building standards, but would also meet LEED neighborhood standards because it is an infill site with something like a half dozen major transit lines reached by elevators right underneath it,” Norquist said of the 54-story skyscraper on Bryant Park. “Not every place is like Manhattan, so the [LEED-ND] system is calibrated to deal with smaller communities and smaller projects.

While filled with complex calculations for everything from number of streets per block (small streets and lots of them earn high points) to ways of conserving topsoil and wetlands on-site, Norquist stresses that LEED-ND’s bottom line is market-friendly.

“CNU is composed mostly of architects, planners and real estate investors and it played an important role in connecting the rating system to market realities,” he said of the mom and pop benefits of LEED-ND. “There is a whole cascade of benefits that come with compact development: transportation options, walkability, improved real estate value — it makes the economy more efficient.”

Chicago-based architect Doug Farr, one of the fathers of LEED building certification and author of Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature , said LEED-ND has created first-ever certification standards for entire communities and master planned developments.

He explained that LEED-ND projects earn points by addressing principles of smart growth applied to the development of virgin lands, sensitive lands and infill developments. It also incorporates CNU’s charter that urges the creation of walkable communities and coherent urban places with: a mix of uses, choices in types of housing and options for how one gets around, with walking being the most reliable mode of transportation— plus biking and public transit.

“There is a strong argument that this is about choice and giving people rich communities and their ability to find their place in them, not dictating solutions,” he said.

Farr said LEED-ND’s sprawl-busting standards can make life much more economical in tough times.

“In exurbia, we find that there is often one car provided per adult, sometimes resulting in three or four cars per household. The benefit of living in a LEED-ND community is that the family can downsize their number of cars — AAA estimates an $8,000 cost per year per auto, including insurance, gas, etc. — and avail themselves of some walking to meet needs, along with bike and transit options plus car share options,” he said. “Car share is cars placed in public locations, available for rental by mile or hour. So a family that needs a car once a week for a regular activity or outing can reserve a shared car for a couple hours, say, every Thursday evening. In an economic downturn, such options are looking increasingly attractive.”

Farr said a decade of working with LEED building standards has shown that a premium green building might cost 3 percent more than one built with conventional materials, but the structure may see up to a 16 percent increase in appraised value, plus it will be cheaper to operate.

“We want to apply those same principles of cost/benefit to an entire neighborhood,” Farr said of LEED-ND. “The benefits to the home owner are profound; the benefits to society are huge. For generations, we have subsidized the wrong stuff. LEED-ND may help in a national debate to redirect scarce resources to long-term, lasting value.”

Justin Horner, transportation policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said LEED-ND works for small villages as well as big cities.

“A major misconception about smart growth is that it will transform our neighborhoods into Manhattan. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We need density to create markets for local businesses and to make transit feasible, but most people would be surprised at how modest that density threshold is. What LEED-ND does is give us a concrete image of what smart growth actually is — and we think people will like what they see.”

Horner points out that in a relatively short period of time, LEED accreditation became a respected national standard for sustainable building development. He said LEED-ND will take LEED’s market cache and apply it to entire neighborhoods, so consumers can “separate real sustainable development from the pretenders.”

“LEED-ND is the first systematic attempt to really define what smart growth is. The system’s measures and metrics not only provide guidance on how to minimize the environmental impacts of development, they also reflect the latest in cutting-edge urban design,” he explained. “These are the places where people will want to live.

“Historically, environmentalists have been great at saying ‘no’ to development, but we can no longer ignore the environmental consequences of where we live and how we live,” Horner continued. “LEED-ND opens the door for environmentalists to say ‘yes.’”

Sophie Lambert, director of LEED for Neighborhood Development with the USGBC, agrees that LEED-ND can help address many of the concerns people have with new development.

“Community groups who sometimes oppose new development due to concerns about traffic and the like could see the environmental, health and social benefits of a LEED-ND project,” she said.

In addition, LEED-ND is the first national rating system for green neighborhood development in smart growth locations with compact, walkable form and energy- and water-efficient buildings and infrastructure.

Getting the community involved has proven successful for a pilot LEED-ND project in northern California.

“Working through the LEED-ND process helped to educate both the community and development team about the benefits of sustainable site design,” said Darin Dinsmore, professional planner and sustainability consultant about the Truckee Railyard Master Plan.

The railyard redevelopment area is located at the eastern end of the city’s historic downtown and will serve as an extension by strengthening the downtown core and local businesses. Plans include a mix of recreational facilities, commercial shops, restaurants, lodging and civic uses, plus a variety of residential unit types, including live/work and multifamily residential units incorporated in a mixed-use development. The redevelopment will incorporate affordable and work force housing for locals such as artisans, entrepreneurs and tradesmen.

The town of Truckee’s leadership and involvement has been key to the process, which also includes a collective of partners and the general public. Analysis of historic land use and block patterns, the creation of distinct character areas, a regulating plan and placemaking drawings for the extended downtown, form-based code and building types study have all been used in the redevelopment process. Together, they facilitate the logical and orderly expansion of the downtown on this former 75-acre lumber mill site and railyard.

With Americans dealing with soaring health care costs and illnesses directly related to obesity, LEED-ND also aims to create healthy communities through smart development patterns.

“Research has shown that living in a mixed-use environment within walking distance of shops and services results in increased walking and biking, which improve human cardiovascular and respiratory health and reduce the risk of hypertension and obesity,” according to the USGBC’s Web site detailing the benefits of the new LEED-ND rating system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) convened a panel to study the benefits of LEED-ND and found the green neighborhood rating system can:

  • Reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease and hypertension by making physical activities a part of people’s daily lives by designing walkable, bikeable communities with open spaces and parks close to work and home.
  • Reduce the risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases, reduce air pollution and injuries from vehicle crashes by building compact communities where people can move about via walking, biking and public transit — rather than being dependent on the automobile.
  • Improve mental health by reducing the amount of time spent commuting to work and increasing the amount of free time that can be spent with family and exercising in open spaces built into the development.
  • Encourage healthier diets by making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible because the rating system rewards points to developments that create space for community gardens and other means of local food production.

“People should not look at it as some kind of radical environmental movement. LEED-ND is very consistent with real estate trends,” CNU’s Norquist said. “Studies have shown greater price collapses in the housing market that is far remote from job sites. In many areas, the far-flung sprawl is doing worse than the old city center neighborhoods. Areas with convenience to shopping, jobs and activities are performing better in the market.”

Norquist noted that gasoline is no longer cheap and governments can no longer afford to pay for superhighways and the entire infrastructure needed to support sprawl.

“If grade-separated highways were the answer to economic vitality, Detroit would be the richest city in the world,” Norquist observed.

Just as hundreds of municipalities have required LEED standards for building and created incentives for LEED construction, Norquist expects regulatory agencies to eventually adopt LEED-ND standards for zoning and development permits.

“We cannot sustain the sprawl created by zoning requirements for huge setbacks, big streets, minimum lot sizes, minimum parking requirements, separation of uses,” Norquist said. “A lot of the current regulatory structure promotes sprawl. LEED-ND really tries to work with developers and real estate investors to create value. People like to live in a green environment. It is more and more important to people — both in a public relations sense and in the reality of the market.”


Steve Wright frequently writes about smart growth and sustainable communities. He and his wife live in a restored historic home in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana. Contact him at: stevewright64@yahoo.com

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