Certified Sustainable Neighborhoods: The Next Green Thing

First there were green buildings. Are green communities next?

A sign of the times: Sustainability standards are popping up to encourage communities, neighborhoods and business districts to perform better when it comes to energy and water use, waste disposal and more.

The payoffs could be enormous. For starters, the energy savings from blocks of green buildings would eclipse those from one building alone. Shared investments could lead to highly efficient infrastructure features such as gray-water recycling. Green transportation decisions could lower an area’s carbon footprint and increase quality of life. And a sustainable certification would no doubt bring bragging rights and branding benefits.

Creating such certifications comes with challenges. For one thing, it’s not always easy to define a community. Neighborhoods, sections of cities, business districts, entire towns and, in one case, an airport have all qualified under current programs.

Another complication is the number of stakeholders. When it comes to building standards like LEED and BREEAM, owners make the call on whether to register and what level to go for; architects typically lead the project team. But who has a say in sustainability decisions at the community level? And who’s responsible for implementing them? Developers? Property owners? Planners? City officials? Utilities? Different frameworks are oriented toward different stakeholders.

Here’s a quick look at five community sustainability frameworks that have strong organizations behind them.

EcoDistricts is an independent nonprofit founded to create and manage a protocol and certification program for neighborhoods and districts. No districts have yet been certified, but the 12 that have registered are as small as 13 blocks and as large as the 8 square miles that comprise the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. Most are mixed-use districts within major cities, but residential neighborhoods and industrial areas are also on the list. The standard is devised to consider a range of sustainability goals that cover waste, water and energy as well as more human considerations such as equity and wellness.

2030 Districts was incubated within Architecture 2030, an organization that aims to update building standards to help fight climate change. Early this year, 2030 Districts was spun off into its own nonprofit. More limited than EcoDistricts, it’s tailored to helping commercial buildings band together to reduce energy use, reduce water use and improve transportation options. It’s not a certification program, but it does offer goals for districts and a path to achieve them.

LEED for Neighborhood Development is oriented toward residential neighborhoods. LEED-ND was jointly developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism, and it’s now run by USGBC under the popular LEED umbrella. Like other LEED frameworks, LEED-ND is based on a points system. It emphasizes smart growth initiatives as well as green buildings.

The STAR Community Rating System may be the most established of the community frameworks in the United States. Like LEED-ND, it was developed by USGBC, along with two other national organizations. Unlike LEED-ND, STAR is run by an independent organization (although integration with USGBC remains close). STAR encompasses entire municipalities, so it’s typically approved by a city council, then run by a planning department or development agency. Rather than receiving a final certification, STAR communities attain three, four or five star ratings and can work their way up over time. To date, 59 cities, two counties and two townships have three to five stars, with many more local governments registered.

The Living Community Challenge (LCC) was developed by the organization that runs the Living Building. It may be the most ambitious of the community frameworks. For example, LCC communities must be “net positive” on energy and water to attain certification. But it’s also not quite as far along as other standards. So far, two private liberal arts colleges, Williams College in Massachusetts and Antioch College in Ohio, are pursuing LCC status — Williams for its entire campus and Antioch for a multigenerational, multi-use community it’s developing adjacent to its campus.

 

Ken Edelstein is editor of the Kendeda Living Building Chronicle, which covers green design and construction in the Southeast.

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