In light of the USGBC’s recent release of LEED for Neighborhood Development, EcoHome checks in with Perkins+Will urban designer and Georgia Tech School of Architecture professor David Green, who has helped to plan sustainable communities across the country for more than two decades.

In more than 20 years designing sustainable neighborhoods, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
The most important lesson I have learned is that everyone comes to the table with predetermined ideas about what green or sustainable means. Generally developers think of green from a marketing perspective, which drives their decision-making process; builders look to green for cost-saving measures; designers think of green as the newest trendy technological innovation, such as green roofs; local jurisdictions think of green as something that gets checked off on a list; and residents want green features if they maintain the status quo. This is a very general characterization, and things are changing, but this is the context in which many of the decisions are made on a project-by-project basis.

Changing some of these perceptions will be a very long and difficult process. Because of this, I don’t concentrate on specific debates about technology, but on instituting an open environment where these discussions can take place. The first question I ask on any project is, ‘What kind of city do you want?’  If the answer is a walkable, sustainable city then the focus is to design the community to be as transit-accessible as possible because the more people using public transportation, the more sustainable the project.    

What are the most important elements of a sustainable community?
I tell my students and clients that the single most important element of a sustainable urban system is a clearly defined public realm that is made up of connected streets and the smallest possible blocks that allow for easy development. If the blocks are too small, we know from experience that developers will simply ask to remove a street and combine two blocks. Shortcuts like this lead to a short-term, unsustainable system that requires substantial infrastructure modification as the world changes.

Unfortunately, thinking long-term is not an easy sell in our culture. I have learned over the years that much of the work done in the pursuit of making our world more sustainable actually moves us further from our goal. For example, we generally think of public transit as good for the environment, but many of our suburban stations are surrounded by parking lots, which actually produce more greenfield development and more carbon.

To combat a narrow-minded approach, we need to look at the entire system and set very basic goals; for example, the reduction of carbon output and minimizing infrastructure replacement as projects change. With these goals in mind we can determine the best way to begin. 

David Green
David Green

Why are some regulations that drive neighborhood design and development counterproductive to sustainability?
Unfortunately many of the legal and technical requirements in urban planning are products of a previous era when community goals were quite different than they are today. For example, the idea that cities should be designed to facilitate automobile travel is so entrenched in our thinking that it is virtually impossible to convince people that this is not only unnecessary but also detrimental to the ultimate goal of sustainable cities. Also challenging is the requirement for useable open space in many city ordinances. The idea has its origins in a very noble pursuit: making early 20th-century tenements in dense urban areas livable. But over the years this simple and seemingly benign regulation has changed urban frameworks to ones that are unwalkable and inflexible because it has led to buildings separated by open spaces that aren’t oriented to the street. This creates a spatial system that is highly uncomfortable for pedestrian activity, but the idea has gained such a deep-seated currency with planners, the general public, and designers, that to advocate for less open space is to generally lose all credibility. 

Most people, even architects, have never analyzed the impact these types of regulations have had on the built environment so they continue to gain credibility through use. These ideas have become so accepted in the minds of many people involved in designing cities, towns, and suburbs that it will probably be our grandchildren’s generation that first sees substantive change regarding these requirements.

Will the release of LEED for Neighborhood Development help in the pursuit of a more sustainable built environment?
Of course LEED-ND will help greatly. The USGBC has done an admirable job compiling huge amounts of information and formatting it in such a way as to make better buildings and better neighborhoods. At the most basic level, they have brought the conversation to the forefront of the public consciousness as well as embedded in the hearts and minds of almost every planner, urban designer, and architect the idea that we need to build more sustainably.

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor, Online for EcoHome.