Sustainable City Strategies
Brett Ryder

“What could be more important than an architect’s commitment to sustainability when the health of our own planetary home hangs in the balance,” says AIA CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA, in the introduction to the Year One Progress Report on the AIA’s 2014 Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan.

As the 2010 U.S. Census outlines, more than 80 percent of Americans make their home in or near cities, making growth and sustainability related—and urgent—issues for everyone. Written by Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, resident fellow on sustainability at the Institute, the report examines the top trends for each of the SLOS’s four key priorities: energy, materials, design and health, and resilience. Nowhere are these trends more visible than in cities and, to that end, the report finds that efforts in both energy-use reduction and resilience planning have been concentrated primarily on the city scale thus far.

“Cities are where attention needs to be paid, and is being paid, because of the impact they have,” Lazarus says. The United Nations estimates that 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by the year 2050 and, according to the AIA’s report, renovating existing buildings remains the primary focus in achieving significant energy efficiency. With that kind of population density and the abundance of potentially modifiable structures, it’s no surprise that cities are home to so many sustainable endeavors.

“There are almost a million buildings in New York City,” says Gina Bocra, AIA, chief sustainability officer at the New York City Department of Buildings, “and 23,000 of them are 50,000 square feet or greater. Thanks to our benchmarking law, we now know which among the largest are subject to additional requirements and improvement evaluations.” There is also the matter of efficiency, and not just in the case of energy usage. With partisan gridlock leading to the one of the least productive U.S. Congresses in recent history, there’s been a general consensus that it’s much more effective to push locally for sustainability.

One only needs to look at the various benchmarking and transparency policies in Boston, New Orleans, New York City, and Seattle. New York City, in particular, is at the forefront of urban sustainability, with its own energy code—which is more rigorous than the statewide code—that necessitates applications for compliance, enforcement of the code during construction, and inspections afterwards. New York City’s current code, enacted in 2009, came about when its Green Codes Task Force identified several loopholes in the state’s existing code, according to Bocra.

“Many still want to make the code even more stringent,” Bocra adds, “because it gives us the ability to deal with what makes New York so unique: very big buildings.” Smaller cities such as Seattle are heading up their own undertakings, too. The 2030 Districts program first established there, is a byproduct of the 2030 Challenge that brings together property owners in an urban neighborhood to benchmark and develop strategies for urban sustainability. The program has spread to other districts across the country, as well, including Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Stamford, Conn.

“So far, most of the efforts have been undertaken by progressive, forward-thinking people,” says Margaret Montgomery, FAIA, firmwide sustainability leader for NBBJ, “but as we move forward—thanks to business realities and new owners with certain criteria—others are catching up.” This also shows in resilience trends, where recent catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy have drawn worldwide interest while emphasizing the need for holistic homegrown resolutions. Programs such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design have allocated federal dollars to regional projects that provide hands-on real-world strategies in key areas.

And, the AIA’s own Design and Resiliency Team (DART) program was created last year to support smaller cities with timely resiliency issues. It’s pilot project for downtown Bath, Maine, began a needed public debate about the Kennebec River’s potential to rise nearly two feet in a generation’s time.

“The answers should not be the same for everybody,” Lazarus says, “so let’s look for synergy and opportunity. Let’s find common needs, and then the work the AIA is doing will have particular resonance.”

Learn more about the Sustainability Scan and the Progress Report at


Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, 2015 AIA President