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Rating System Asks: Where You At?

New standards reward developers who build in the right places

October 20, 2005 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


A new system will soon begin rating development proposals by how they help communities become more walkable, transit-friendly, and affordable.

Several Smart Growth organizations that teamed up last year to compose new standards for developing what they consider to be great neighborhoods are looking for a few more good ideas.

The team recently published its first draft of the standards, which it calls Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND). The standards provide a system for rating a proposed development’s environmental impact and Smart Growth characteristics, including walkability, access to public transportation, and zoning that allows residential, business, and retail activity within the same area.

Now the group, which calls itself the LEED-ND Core Committee, wants to hear from citizens from all walks of life about what works, and what does not, in their communities.

The group said it would particularly value comments from people with real-life experience in development, construction, public transportation, and affordable housing as it works towards its ultimate goal: Providing a clear, objective, and nationally recognized set of standards for developing neighborhoods that conserve resources and enhance quality of life.

Kaid Benfield, who directs the Smart Growth Initiative for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the organizations in the group, thinks the rating system could prompt developers to gain an advantage by building and then marketing their projects as both smarter and greener.

“My hope is that when we’re done it will stand out as a real incentive and reward for developers who want to do the right thing,” said Mr. Benfield. “Right now it’s harder to build Smart Growth than it is to build sprawl. What we want to do is help level the playing field by creating some incentives and rewards for building in a smart way.”

Green Roots
The new rating system has its roots in the very successful LEED standards for green buildings, which already evaluate the environmental impact of individual buildings by rating their energy efficiency, indoor air quality, water conservation, non-toxic material use, and, to some degree, their location. The U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington-based coalition, launched LEED in 2000. Since then over 300 LEED-certified projects have been built across the country and in several other nations; currently, developers of more than 2,000 other projects that are still in the design or construction stages are also pursuing LEED certification.

Proponents of green buildings say that the original LEED standards’ clarity, objectivity, and flexibility have been a boon to their movement. The rating system reassures clients that they’re getting a building that’s better for the environment and for the health of the people who live or work there; it also tells developers and contractors exactly what is expected of them. A building doesn’t have to be perfect to get certified—it just has to meet a set of basic prerequisites and earn a minimum number of points. A building may be rated certified, silver, gold, or platinum depending on how many points it earns.

Smart Growth and New Urbanism experts hope that LEED-ND will do the same for their closely related movements; that is why the NRDC and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) are collaborating with the Green Building Council to develop the new rating system.

Yet, while LEED-ND has its roots in the green building movement, it also represents a significant departure from its predecessor.

Outside Considerations
LEED concentrates on individual construction practices for new and existing buildings and homes, while LEED-ND has a decidedly more external focus. It awards fully 25 percent of the possible points a project can earn based on location, regardless of how green the buildings themselves are. The U.S. Green Building Council, NRDC, and CNU jointly determined that location is crucial because it determines whether, and how far, people have to drive to get there.

The distinction is based on the common-sense realization that, if people live within walking distance of a coffee shop, a bakery, a convenience store, parks, and even their jobs, they drive less because they can meet more of their daily needs within the neighborhood. And if that neighborhood is connected to other neighborhoods, downtown, and transit, so that people can leave their neighborhoods without getting in their cars, all the better, according to LEED-ND.

Proponents point out that, because transportation accounted for 28 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2004, it makes sense to pay attention to how a development affects transportation patterns. That is why reducing automobile dependence by building walkable neighborhoods and locating close to public transportation earns so many points for LEED-ND seekers.

The proposed rating system also strongly encourages “infill development” by awarding nearly 10% of the available points—enough to make the difference between a silver and a gold rating—for building in a previously developed area, a brownfield, or an area adjacent to existing development. Such compact development not only preserves farmland, natural habitats, and open space, it also saves taxpayer and private dollars by avoiding the need to extend sewer lines, water pipes, electricity, and other services to remote developments.

Guy Bazzani, whose Grand Rapids-based firm, Bazzani Associates, specializes in infill development, green building, and historic preservation, said that this is an important step.

“The real green building,” Mr. Bazzani emphasized, “is preserving and enhancing what you already have before starting new projects—it’s the lowest impact and the highest value.”

Seeking a Successful Mix
The potential reach of the proposed LEED-ND rating system is great because, proponents say, it goes beyond purely environmental concerns and takes on a social issue that is rapidly becoming more pressing: Affordable housing. The State of the Nation’s Housing, a 2005 report by the Joint Center for Housing Research at Harvard University, points out that fully one-third of American families, including many that are middle class families and own homes, are stretching—and sometimes breaking—their budgets to keep a roof over their heads. Building a variety of smaller homes, townhouses, and rental apartments can help with this problem, and LEED-ND offers a big incentive to do so: Providing diverse and affordable housing is worth 7 or 8 percent of the available points.

Housing activists often point out that providing a variety of housing options in a single area doesn’t just help people financially; it helps them and their neighbors socially as well. Including small houses, duplexes, and apartments in a neighborhood, they say, means that people can stay in an area throughout their lives and change dwellings without moving very far as they graduate from college, raise families, and eventually retire. That can contribute greatly to neighborhood stability and preserve and strengthen intergenerational ties. Affordable housing advocates also say that diverse housing stock can also help integrate communities by class, race, and age, leading to a higher population density that comes from building both small and large homes. And, they add, that makes the neighborhood more able to support everything from boutiques to bus systems.

Some architects, planners, and new urbanists are praising the proposed new rating system’s emphasis on blending housing styles and costs.

“It’s certainly better planning,” said Terry Sanford, a land management consultant with Nederveld Associates in Hudson, Mich. “It’s hard to achieve, it’s hard to regulate, but mixed income, mixed-use development should be our ideal, and if a developer looks and says those are the points that can bump me to this level, I think it’s great.”

Smart Growth advocates assert that, social issues aside, diverse housing supports LEED’s original, green values: Smaller homes on smaller lots means that more open space for parks, greenbelts, farmland, nature preserves, or other community resources. Greater density also makes public transit more viable, which conserves gas and energy, cuts pollution and allows people to avoid time-consuming, stressful commutes.

While the committee working on the LEED-ND draft is a gathering of design professional with long experience in planning and building communities, Mr. Benfield, the committee’s vice-chairman, said his group does not claim to have the last word on the new standards. That is why they established the comment period, which ends on October 27, and plan to revise the standards based on what they hear.

“We’re looking forward to what people have to say,” he said. “We think we can still make improvements in it, and people have good ideas.’ Then he added: “We’re looking forward to getting it out there and using it.”

Carolyn Kelly, the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor, interned at the Congress of New Urbanism last year. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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