Wayan Vota/Creative Commons

Ideas about creating sustainable places where people actually want to live.

I’ll be speaking later this week to a new (to me) audience on the subject of sustainable communities, and I’ve been thinking about what I would like to say.  In particular, I’ve been honored by an invitation to appear at the California Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego, where my companions on the program will be Howard Blackson of the excellent town planning and marketing firm Placemakers – whose work I cite all the time– and Matthew Porrecca of BNIM Architecture, a sustainability practice best known for leading the green restoration of Greensburg Kansas, destroyed by a tornado in 2007.

I wrestled with preparation for this one, because ours is a fast-evolving field, and the right and true message for today is not the same as it was ten or even two years ago. I didn’t feel comfortable with just a re-run of old material. But, as I write this, I am settling on a plan.

I want to share some of the ways I have been coming to think about community sustainability, or what I like to call good "people habitat." And I hope that during the full session there will be a good exchange of ideas among Howard, Matthew, the audience, and myself. I reserve the right to change everything between now and Thursday morning, but I’m pretty sure my remarks will include the following:

Washington, D.C., courtesy of dewithas/Flickr
  • It’s not really about energy. Or any other single environmental issue. When it comes to community, people must come first. If our strategies don’t work for people, they won’t work for the planet. If our plans don’t nourish the human spirit, they aren’t worth pursuing.
  • A corollary is that we must think holistically.  We’re part of an ecosystem where everything affects everything else.  When we plan energy or water, we’re also planning health, education, and 20 other things, whether we intend it or not.  It’s best to have the whole shebang in mind from the start.
  • Holistic thinking changes the result. The classic example is that an issue-oriented focus on green building without regard to the context can lead to a very un-green outcome. Holistic thinking recognizes that a low-tech building in the right place can be greener than the award-winning, high-tech building in the wrong place.
  • We don’t need to do it all at once, not that we could. Feel good about progress that moves the baseline. Reducing driving by five percent nationally would save 162 million pounds of carbon emissions, more or less, every year. Increasing the average density of new land development by even 20 percent would save 440,000 acres of forests, farmland and habitat, an amount equal to the size of Kings Canyon National Park, every year. Maintain that for five years and we’ll save an amount of land equivalent in size to Yellowstone.
  • Half the built environment that will be on the ground in 25-30 years has not yet been built. That presents a tremendous opportunity for progress, and we need to get it right.
  • The last half of the 20th century established some pretty lousy patterns on just about all environmental indicators. Land consumption, driving and related emissions, waste generation and water consumption all outpaced population growth. We now have one of the world’s lowest rates of transit usage and also one of the world’s lowest rates of purposeful walking. Very few kids walk or bicycle to school anymore, and in some places it’s even illegal.
  • This is at least a contributing factor to a national crisis of obesity, whose rates have doubled in only 15 years. Diabetes, a killer disease, has risen in direct proportion to average weight gain.
  • Doing better means focusing on sustainability at two scales: regions (particularly metropolitan regions) and neighborhoods. Jurisdictional boundaries are irrelevant to the environment and the economy.
  • When considering development within a region, nothing matters more than picking the right locations.  For the environment, revitalization (through adaptive reuse where possible, followed by redevelopment) is almost always best, followed by infill.  Relatively central locations are twice as important to reducing driving rates and associated emissions as any other factor, because of shorter driving distances as much as mode shifts.  Revitalization also makes use of existing infrastructure and helps reduce fragmentation of the landscape.
  • For sustainability at the neighborhood scale, LEED for Neighborhood Development provides an excellent beginning frame, providing guideposts for the locations, designs, and environmental management systems that most improve environmental performance.
  • Walkable density is important, but it needn’t be high density.  Research demonstrates that there are continuing but diminishing environmental gains above 20-35 homes per acre.  Above that level, other factors may be more important in finding an optimum intensity of development.
  • We must provide a diversity of housing types and prices in order to serve all members of a community.
  • LEED-ND’s guidance is particularly instructive for such issues as walkability, transit service, and neighborhood-scale energy and water usage.  But there is room for improvement in the way the system credits existing neighborhoods, historic preservation, affordability, parks and green space, health, and community engagement.
  • There are some very encouraging signs that we are on a better path for sound development than we were 20 years ago.  Central cities are growing again and even outpacing suburban growth in the most recent reports; driving rates, driver’s licensing, and car registrations are all down as more people choose walkable neighborhoods; transit usage is up; green homes are commanding a resale premium; anddemographics favor urbanism.  Policymakers and businesspeople whose choices are consistent with these trends will be the ones whose communities and enterprises are most successful in the coming years.

Of course, my favorite part of any presentation is shining a spotlight on particular initiatives and developments that I think are leading the way to greater sustainability.  I’m not going to name them in this article, though; for that, you’ll have to come to the workshop.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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