Do You Live in an 'Eco Neighborhood'?

The Earth Advantage Institute seeks to recognize communities that go beyond green

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A home in Los Angeles's Eco Village. (Flickr user Elly Blue, licensed under Creative Commons)

Do you believe your neighborhood is particularly hospitable, equitable, and green? If so, you may want to consider entering it into a new program seeking to identify praiseworthy places according to a range of environmental, social, economic, and human factors.

In particular, Earth Advantage Institute, “a nonprofit green building resource that has certified more than 11,000 homes nationally,” according to a press release issued last week, is seeking applications for a pilot program it calls Eco Neighborhoods. The Institute, which is based in Portland, Oregon, believes that certifying the accomplishments of the places where we live or work can help us improve them. Earth Advantage seeks to distinguish Eco Neighborhoods from other rating services that evaluate new buildings or multi-building developments in two ways: First, it will focus only on neighborhoods that are at least five years old and can demonstrate a level of achievement. Second, it will include but “go beyond green” to encompass a broader set of social, economic, and cultural accomplishments.

While some neighborhoods and communities are conceived as intentionally sustainable (Vauban, Germany, or the Eco-Village in Los Angeles, for example), Earth Advantage is clearly interested in much more conventional places. Its definition of “neighborhood” appears generous and not limited to residential communities or, indeed, to types of places that most of us think of when we use the word. The press release says that applicants may include “but are not limited to” residential areas, condominiums, public housing projects, business districts, office and industrial parks, shopping centers, resorts, institutional campuses, and military housing areas. Between now and November 30, Earth Advantage is welcoming inquiries to determine if there is market interest in this kind of program.

Eco Neighborhoods appears in its infancy, with criteria for certification still to be determined. Nevertheless, the press release indicates interest in the following subjects:

Apartments in Vauban, Germany. Flickr user adeupa de Brest.

Natural Capital
• Land – open space protection; erosion prevention
• Air – boiler pollution emission retrofits; truck idling reductions
• Water – wetlands restoration; onsite stormwater treatment
• Climate – electric vehicle-sharing; heat island reduction

Built Capital
• Businesses – incubator start-up facility; mentoring program
• Transportation- pedestrian/bicycle facility investments; transit service expansion
• Energy – onsite renewable power generation; building efficiency retrofits
• Wastes - central composting stations; hazardous waste collection

Social Capital
• Governance – exemplary inclusion/participation in civic organizations
• Social services – tool-sharing program; emergency preparedness training
• Cultural institutions – social/commemorative events; historic/cultural exhibitions
• Equity – first-time homebuyer assistance; nutrition information access

Human Capital
• Health – low-allergen landscaping; seniors active living program
• Education – adult literacy program; youth internships
• Employment – job training program; local hiring preferences
• Recreation – youth athletic league; park improvements
   

Earth Advantage hopes to hear from neighborhood and homeowner associations, public housing tenant associations, business improvement districts, transportation management organizations, community development corporations, and owners or managers of resorts, shopping centers, office and industrial parks, institutional campuses, and military installation housing areas.

Well, they certainly are painting with a broad brush. Even though I was deeply engaged in constructing an evaluation and rating system designed to judge the environmental quality of new development, I’m not entirely sure that the world needs yet another set of rating and certification criteria. That said, I can definitely see some potential benefit from acknowledging, say, the efforts of residents of a public housing project to accomplish something together for the betterment of their community. (I have written about just such a group.)  Perhaps it will encourage others to do the same. A program might also be valuable in recognizing the environmental value that comes from historic neighborhoods with insufficient new development to be certified under other programs.

But the Institute will have a lot of refining to do in a pilot program. Office parks, shopping centers, and resorts?  To the extent that such places can plausibly be described as “eco” at all (office parks? really?), I think they might require vastly different criteria. Can one program address such a wide range?

In addition, what about the importance of location, which doesn’t show up in the press release’s various types of “capital”? The environmental performance of a neighborhood varies widely depending on where it is placed within a region and, for that matter, so does its economic performance. Will the program certify incrementally better sprawl that is still sprawl? Will the award of a certification empower NIMBYs who wish to prevent further change in a place, even if that change would benefit the environment or some important social value?

These challenges don’t necessarily mean that a program to examine existing – rather than new – neighborhoods, properly refined during and after a pilot run, couldn’t become valuable. But they do suggest that there are many pitfalls to avoid if they are to construct a fully functioning program. Presumably, that's what the pilot is for.  Let’s wish them luck.

The chances of success will increase if Earth Advantage has a robust range of applications to work with and learn from. Those who wish to express interest in the pilot program for Eco Neighborhoods should visit the organization’s Web site.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.