Why NRDC Helped Develop LEED Ratings for Neighborhoods

Evaluating eco-friendliness one building at a time just isn't good enough.

When people think about eco-friendly construction projects, they tend to get stuck on details like solar panels and recycled floorboards. Though those considerations are important, their impact amounts to peanuts compared with making a decision about where, exactly, you’re pouring the foundation for that condo building of yours. Are there shops and sidewalks nearby, or will residents have to drive to get a carton of milk? Are utilities already in place, or will land need to be dug up and pipes and wires trucked in? Will the building occupy an empty urban lot, or will forests have to be bulldozed and wildlife pushed out?

The exact same building, erected in two different locations, can have a very different environmental footprint. But for years, the U.S. Green Building Council’s ratings system for Leadership in Energy and Environmental and Design, or LEED, didn’t take that into consideration. So developments could earn the highest possible Platinum LEED status despite their unsustainable locations; meanwhile, communities that were truly doing things right—embodying the principles of smart growth rather than suburban sprawl—could go unrecognized.

The system needed to be overhauled so that entire neighborhoods could be certified, not just buildings. That’s why NRDC teamed up with the Congress for the New Urbanism and the U.S. Green Building Council to launch LEED for Neighborhood Development, or LEED-ND, in 2010.

As experts considered which factors would be required to deem a neighborhood development green and livable, NRDC was adamant that only projects in smart locations—vacant city lots, old industrial buildings, or suburban sites adjacent to existing construction—be considered. Water and sewage infrastructure should be in place or already planned. Sprawl projects should not pass go.

New developments should mimic historical downtowns, with walkable streets and an inviting mix of trees and retail storefronts—all of which foster a sense of community. Along with being just basic good city planning, LEED-ND emphasizes sustainability: It respects both the human ecosystem, as described by urban activist Jane Jacobs, and the surrounding ecosystem of wetlands, biodiversity, and animal habitats.

“Neighborhoods are complex systems,” says Jessica Millman, who served on the LEED-ND’s launch committee and is now an NRDC consultant. “Some say LEED for Neighborhood Development is complicated. Well, yes, because neighborhoods are complicated.”

As of 2015, there were 401 certified LEED-ND projects worldwide completed or under construction. They include a major redevelopment of San Francisco’s Shipyard district and a mixed-use center at the Twinbrook Station in Rockville, Maryland. In Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood, decaying railyards have been transformed into a hip loft district with artisanal coffee shops and a yoga studio. In North Philadelphia, NRDC helped plan Paseo Verde, a transit-oriented complex with affordable apartments, green roofs, and garden plots. That particular project won the first LEED-ND Platinum rating in the country.

The movement has been influential beyond these developments as well. Municipal red tape has often made it easier and less expensive to erect brand-new houses on the edge of town than to repurpose an abandoned city factory. LEED-ND helps reverse this trend.

“We needed to make smart growth development, which is the hardest to do in the United States, the path of least resistance,” Millman says. LEED-ND has helped advocates show that seemingly expensive and complicated projects—in old buildings or on brownfield sites, for example—deserve to be approved and expedited because of the environmental payoffs they will deliver.

“Before LEED-ND, it was challenging to help the community understand the benefits of a project,” Millman says. Now neighbors have a list of environmental measures they can use to evaluate it—such as whether trees will be planted or bike lanes created. Community groups are using these metrics to fight unwanted sprawl, and developers are brandishing the potential for certification to garner support for their plans.

Municipalities have even used the new neighborhood LEED criteria to develop codes, ordinances, and incentives of their own. Sarasota, Florida, gives fast-track permitting to developments pursuing certification. Syracuse, New York, used it to dictate the planning of an arts district. Boston requires that multibuilding projects prove they are certifiable before giving approval. And in Indianapolis, NRDC’s outreach in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood led the city to update its zoning code to reflect LEED-ND. In short, it has raised the bar for urban planners everywhere.

But NRDC hasn’t stopped there. The organization’s Green Neighborhoods program, which grew out of its LEED-ND advocacy efforts, goes beyond the official sustainability metrics to address two additional factors: economic inequality and climate change. Now, when working with developing communities, NRDC advisers weigh the social equity of a project—ensuring that everyone has equal access to jobs, housing, and health services—as well as how quickly a community could rebound from a natural disaster.

“The Green Neighborhoods program really puts a face on sustainability,” says Catherine Cox Blair, who manages the initiative. “It is about people and places.” With NRDC’s help, residents aren’t just greening their communities; they’re also building better places to live.

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