In discussions of climate change and the need to reduce the built environment's greenhouse gas emissions, it's becoming clear that individual efforts are not enough. Only by changing the approach to planning and building communities will any substantial impact result. Fortunately sustainable communities are a hot topic in the urban planning and development industry, thanks to the profileration of national and local smart growth initiatives, an increase in government attention and investment, and strengthening industry research and support.

Key pieces of legislation have outlined a multitude of government plans and programs to help businesses and homeowners reduce energy usage and have directed funding to ensure they get off the ground. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Planning (HUD) launched the interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities in June 2009, which coordinates the agencies' national housing and transportation goals while protecting the environment, promoting equitable development, and helping address climate change. Under the partnership, the agencies are working to integrate housing, transportation, water infrastructure, and land-use planning and investment, and also are working to remove policies that encourage sprawl and impede sustainable community development. Among its many goals, the partnership will redefine housing affordability to take into account the burden of transportation costs for people who live far from work opportunities and transportation options, which currently are not recognized.

In March, the EPA released "Residential Construction Trends in America's Metropolitan Regions 2010," a report conducted as part of its Smart Growth program. To track a perceived shift toward urban redevelopment, the report analyzed residential building permits in the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the United States from 1990–2008 and found that urban neighborhoods in more than half of the surveyed areas have experienced significant increases in new residential building permits in that time. Particularly dramatic increases occurred during the past five years despite the housing downturn. To download and read the complete report, click here.

Housing and sustainable development experts, along with transportation leaders, are helping to inform the legislation process by getting in front of lawmakers and sharing their insights. On March 10, the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development held a hearing on "Sustainability in Practice," during which William McDonough, FAIA, founding principal of William McDonough and Partners, offered testimony about "Cradle to Cradle" concepts and his work with the Make It Right Foundation (MIR) in New Orleans. McDonough highlighted many of the problems inherent in the current unsustainable approach to development and called for a new design paradigm for the nation. Tom Darden, MIR's executive director, also spoke about sustainability and how MIR is making affordable green housing a reality in post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Aviation and metropolitan transportation representatives also spoke. Download a PDF of McDonough's testimony here, and Darden's testimony here.

Independent organizations within the real estate industry also are addressing and advocating for sustainable community development, locally and on a national scale. One of the newest is the privately operated, nationally oriented Partnership for Sustainable Communities (PSC), founded in 2009 by Andre Shashaty, founder and former editor of residential architect ’s sister magazines Affordable Housing Finance and Apartment Finance Today, the president of Alexander & Edwards Publishing, and founder of the Campaign for Affordable Housing. The nonprofit PSC was launched just weeks before the federal partnership mentioned above, and while both organizations are pursuing many of the same goals, there is no official collaboration between the two and their selection of the same name is purely coincidental. Although they are not related, part of the PSC's work is in supporting federal sustainable community development efforts.

Based on the idea that housing affordability is a key aspect of sustainability and needs to be considered more often in discussions of sustainable communities, the PSC advocates for land-use reform and aims to help city planners and developers advocate for affordable housing and overcome community opposition to such projects. The organization recently released the report "Beyond Green Building: How to Get Deals Done in the New Era of Sustainable Community Planning and Development." The report includes articles on:

  • Making sense of the many green building certifications and standards operating in the real estate market;
  • Where to find financing for energy-efficient retrofits;
  • Overcoming community opposition to affordable housing;
  • Financing mixed-use developments;
  • Federal programs that promote sustainable development; and
  • Results of a survey of developers on their land use concerns.

To download the complete 30-page report, visit