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Developing Sustainable Planned Communities
By Richard Franko, Jo Allen Gause, Jim Heid Jr., Steven Kellenberg, Jeff Kingsbury, Edward T. McMahon, Judi G. Scheitzer, Daniel K. Slone
Urban Land InstituteCopyright © 2007 ULI-the Urban Land Institute
All rights reserved.
Imagine entire communities conceived and constructed in harmony with nature. No degraded resources. No wasted energy. No toxic materials. Lots of green space. Such places would be beautiful, walkable, healthy, and designed to last.
And they are being built now. The past two decades have seen the emergence and increasing marketability of a new kind of development. Whether referred to as "green" or "environmentally sensitive," a sustainable community can produce a triple bottom line for residents, developers, and the planet: environmentally friendly, economically profitable, and socially sustainable developments.
Few would argue with such benefits. The challenge is in realizing them. It is easy to label a community sustainable; making it so requires a commitment to thinking differently about what development means. A sustainable community is a holistic entity. Like an ecosystem, sustainable development is about interrelationships. From conception through development and maintenance, a sustainable community balances environmental, social, and economic imperatives. It is about more than energy-efficient buildings. It is about reducing the impact of development on the natural environment and creating a mix of uses and housing types. It is about regionally interconnected public transportation, green spaces and stormwater management systems that reduce runoff. A community that fosters a healthy relationship between people and nature is sustainable.
A Greener Future
An early response to the 20th-century's spread of soulless subdivisions and their commercial-strip counterparts was the rise of large master-planned communities such as The Woodlands near Houston, Texas, and Irvine Ranch in Orange County, California. Realized in the 1970s, these projects and others like them have stood the test of time because of their focus on the physical elements of community design that enhance livability, facilitate social engagement, emphasize open space, and incorporate a mix of uses and housing types.
Sustainable communities share many of these same characteristics, but they place greater weight on environmental sensitivity. Such communities sit lightly on the land and incorporate many environmentally friendly products and strategies. Green building practices stress energy efficiency, water conservation, and native landscaping, and improve indoor air quality with nontoxic paints, carpets, and other materials.
However, sustainable communities do more than incorporate ecologically sensitive building technologies and materials. They integrate green principles into every aspect of a community's planning, design, construction, and maintenance. Choosing a sustainable site is also important. It is difficult to be truly green if a project is constructed on prime farmland, a historic site, or endangered-species habitat. Ideal locations for sustainable communities include brownfields, decommissioned military bases, vacant parcels, and infill sites. If a greenfield site is unavoidable, sustainable communities must minimize site infrastructure and grading, maximize sediment control, limit landscaping to new or restored native vegetation, and provide easy access to public transportation.
And the development community is taking these challenges seriously. Based on data collected in a joint 2003 survey, Residential Green Building SmartMarket Report, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and McGraw-Hill Construction have forecasted a surge in environmentally responsible efforts: "By 2010, the value of the residential green building marketplace is expected to boost its market share from $7.4 billion and 2 percent of housing starts last year to $19 billion to $38 billion and 5 to 10 percent of residential construction activity."
And with good reason. Buildings consume 37 percent of the nation's energy and 68 percent of electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Buildings also produce about 30 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. With global warming and other damaging effects on the environment on the rise and an increasingly savvy home-buying public demanding healthy, energy-efficient houses, the development community's future can only be one color: green.
Shades of Green
There are many "shades of green," ranging from full-spectrum green to one-dimensional strategies with few ecological or social benefits. "Green-washing," which occurs when a conventional project is dressed up with slick, nature-oriented marketing, is among the worst offenses. These developers and builders recognize that "green" has become fashionable, so they use their marketing budgets to try to reposition their projects.
A more genuine shade of green is the "conservation development," or what some people call a "low-impact development." These communities conserve a substantial amount of open land by clustering houses in walkable neighborhoods. They reduce the surface area paved with impervious materials and use a variety of techniques to reduce stormwater runoff and protect wildlife and natural settings.
In his 1969 book Design with Nature, landscape architect Ian McHarg advocated a careful analysis of the site to foster a greater sense of harmony between natural systems and the built environment. His ideas, along with those of Randall Arendt, a well-known land use planner, have influenced a generation of planned communities, ranging from Prairie Crossing, a conservation community outside Chicago, to The Woodlands, one of the largest and most successful master-planned communities in the country.
The developers of these communities recognized that neighborhoods that engage the natural world were good for both people and wildlife. In fact, many conservation-minded developers take pride in helping to restore the land, removing invasive species, improving water quality, and building trails.
Unlike conventional developments, where natural features are often replaced with automobile-oriented environments, turf grass, and undifferentiated housing stock, conservation developments have grown in popularity because homebuyers value natural open spaces, native plants, wildlife, and beautiful surroundings.
While they demonstrate outstanding site planning and careful approaches to natural systems, some of the early manifestations of conservation development could be labeled "grass green," because they mainly addressed horizontal land development issues, albeit in a thoughtful way. A more comprehensive approach addresses not just land development but also a wide array of issues involving the design, materials, and building methods for new homes, offices, and businesses. The home-building and real estate industries have established standards for houses and other structures based on sound environmental principles.
The nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, founded in 1993, for example, has created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a nationally recognized benchmark for high-performance sustainable building practices. These standards address everything from indoor air quality to energy efficiency and construction-waste management.
The NAHB has also developed green building guidelines for residential construction, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created the Energy Star program to help businesses and individuals protect the environment through superior energy efficiency. The EPA has certified some 300,000 homes that are at least 15 percent more energy efficient than the standards set by the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code.
Sustainability, however, is more than effective insulation, high-performance windows, or efficient heating and cooling systems. In the Ecology of Place, Timothy Beatley, one of the world's leading experts on the subject, notes that creating sustainable communities is not simply a matter of preserving a few wetlands, saving a few acres of open space, or establishing a few best management practices. It is a matter of considering ecological limits and environmental impacts throughout the entire development process, from the energy efficiency of buildings to the proximity of a regional transportation system. It is also about people. Truly sustainable communities take a holistic approach that benefits the residents, the natural environment, and the developer. It is full-spectrum green.
Sustainable communities are not just greener. They can be healthier and safer than conventional developments. Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." His point, of course, was that the physical character of our communities affects who we are and how we relate to one another and to our surroundings.
Sometimes the consequences of development patterns and resource usage are obvious. When neighborhood green space is lost to development, children lose a place to play and their parents lose a place to socialize. Long commutes, one result of sprawl, contribute to air pollution but also to the loss of free time. The more electricity we use, the higher our utility bills will be and the more greenhouse gases we will emit into the atmosphere.
However, many consequences of development choices are less obvious, particularly in the areas of physical and mental health. A growing body of research shows that how we design our communities and buildings has a profound effect on human health. One example is the relationship between walkable communities and childhood well-being. According to federal transportation studies, approximately half of all school children walked or rode a bicycle to or from school in 1969. Today, fewer than 15 percent walk to or from school, a statistic that speaks to the health care crisis facing our youngest citizens.
Another effect of sprawling development patterns is what author Richard Louv calls "nature-deficient disorder." In his book Last Child in the Woods, Louv argues that children need to have a stronger connection to the natural world, if they are to truly flourish as healthy citizens of the planet. He points out that our schools may teach students about threats to the Amazon rain forest, but conventional development patterns do little to encourage children's personal relationship with the natural terrain outside their own doors.
Sustainable communities link citizens to nature and to one another to create more healthy and vital neighborhoods. And they involve residents in community governance and environmental stewardship. Several of the projects profiled in this book, for example, have community stewardship organizations — nonprofit organizations dedicated to long-term conservation and education efforts.
The last several decades have seen the emergence of planning ideologies and strategies that emphasize somewhat different approaches to land use and community development. Traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development, conservation subdivisions, smart growth initiatives, and green development all have similar goals, but their approaches vary.
Traditional neighborhood development combines the character of old neighborhoods with new technologies and an emphasis on walkability. It restores the street to its proper role as an integral part of the public realm: a place shared by pedestrians and vehicles. It also emphasizes the value of regionally appropriate architecture and craftsmanship with modern floor plans that support contemporary lifestyles.
Conservation developments, which are typically found in rural and exurban settings, focus on cultural and natural resource protection and restoration. These master plans cluster houses to protect large blocks of green space and foster a more harmonious relationship between people and nature.
Transit-oriented development is designed to combat traffic congestion and protect the environment by placing high-density, mixed-use communities near regional subway stations, trolley lines, and light-rail systems.
Smart growth embraces many of the ideas promoted by the other types of development, but also identifies appropriate areas for new construction and renovation, typically within or near existing communities.
Green building design stresses resource efficiency in building design, materials, and construction. Its best practitioners emphasize a holistic approach rather than a checklist of technologies or features. It is also characterized by a heightened awareness of the relationship between building materials and human health.
Sustainable development is a convergence of all these ideologies. Regardless of the planning strategy, successful projects take a comprehensive approach, which means integrating green principles and practices into every aspect of a community's planning, design, construction, marketing, and maintenance.
Barriers to Sustainable Development
Sustainable communities reduce energy consumption. They make more efficient use of land, provide more transportation choices, reduce infrastructure costs, and respect a community's natural beauty, history, and ecosystems. However, despite these benefits, sustainable communities represent only a fraction of recent development in the United States. This is because applying sustainable principles is often more difficult than implementing conventional development practices.
The major impediments to sustainable communities include inflexible local regulations, outdated market perceptions, high development and entitlement costs, financing by formula, and high-density development without amenities.
Most local zoning, subdivision, and land use regulations make it easier and faster to build single-use developments. For example, local regulations frequently mandate a separation of housing, shopping, and offices, and provide little flexibility in lot size or street width. Public officials should make zoning and subdivision regulations more flexible to encourage conservation development, green building practices, mixed uses, pedestrian-friendly streets, and other sustainable concepts.
Yet such reforms would only be part of the solution. Because sustainable development is unfamiliar territory to some developers and builders, it is perceived as risky. Outdated assumptions often inform current market and demographic analyses, which prevent developers from building projects for significant groups of consumers with specific needs, tastes, and preferences. A 2003 article in Professional Builder magazine reported that more than 90 percent of homebuyers said they were willing to pay more for green building features, with 20 percent willing to pay an extra $10,000. Yet when asked the same question, builders believed that less than half of homebuyers would pay more for green features. This disconnection between consumer attitudes and builder perceptions causes some developer to shy away from sustainable development.
High development impact fees and land assembly costs, which can often increase lot and building expenditures, can also be a deterrent. A shortage of infill sites, for example, can make smart growth more expensive and complicated. To make infill projects financially viable, local and state governments should provide more incentives for the reuse of historic structures, brownfield redevelopment, downtown revitalization, and transit-oriented development.
A lack of comparables, the secondary financing market, and bank procedures can make it difficult to secure funds for sustainable development projects. In general, banks finance projects in a formulaic manner, so that only standard types of developments with predictable outcomes receive financing. In addition, excessive parking requirements that are often imposed by lenders add to the cost of a development and may conflict with the goals of both the developer and the community.
Many worthy projects, including infill and greenfield developments, can meet with community opposition. The public may perceive compact development as an undesirable neighborhood addition, but that may be because many high-density projects come without compensating features. Well-designed, higher-density projects with green space and community gathering places will sell better. For many people, the character of the neighborhood is far more important than the size of the lot.
The Benefits of Sustainable Development
The concepts of green building and sustainable development have been around for many years, but they have only recently gained traction in the marketplace. Guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the NAHB are making it easier to understand basic principles and standards of sustainability. What's more, federal, state, and local governments are offering incentives and tax credits to encourage sustainable practices and are passing legislation requiring energy-efficient and green building techniques. And, the mainstream media — Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and USA Today, among others — has jumped on the bandwagon with cover stories and articles about green building practices and sustainable lifestyles.
Excerpted from Developing Sustainable Planned Communities by Richard Franko, Jo Allen Gause, Jim Heid Jr., Steven Kellenberg, Jeff Kingsbury, Edward T. McMahon, Judi G. Scheitzer, Daniel K. Slone. Copyright © 2007 ULI-the Urban Land Institute. Excerpted by permission of Urban Land Institute.
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