Some very interesting things are happening in the world of sustainability measurement, or our ability to gauge how well we are doing in moving neighborhoods, cities and regions toward a healthier future. It’s a new and rapidly evolving field, and in some ways an elusive one: as I’ve written before, there are some concepts critical to our well-being that don’t lend themselves to objectivity, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. As a lover of art, music, romance and matters of the spirit, I don’t particularly want to live in a world that can be entirely reduced to numbers.
But there are some things that are important to our well-being and to our environmental health that we can measure, and it is fascinating to follow the systems some leaders are coming up with, such as the “happiness index” pioneered by the government of Bhutan. Closer to home, I have been impressed by efforts I have recently gotten to know in Illinois and New Jersey. I’ll get to them in a minute; but, first, a little background.
LEED-ND and neighborhood measurement
As longtime readers know, NRDC was deeply involved for the better part of a decade in the construction of a sustainability tool called LEED for Neighborhood Development. (Our partners in the endeavor were the US Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism.) The idea was to come up with a set of measurements that can be used to identity and certify smart, green land development, in order to encourage more of it and help us separate the praiseworthy from the pretenders. Our hope was to do for multi-building, neighborhood-scale projects and for smart growth what the LEED systems had already done for individual green buildings.
LEED-ND measures things like proximity to transit and existing infrastructure, walkability, mix of buildings and neighborhood amenities, and the likely performance of environmental management systems. Applicants that pass certain prerequisites may then earn credit points toward a certification by the US Green Building Council; as with other LEED systems, the more points, the higher the rating.
Although our system had the misfortune to hit the street at the same time that the Great Recession slowed real estate development to a crawl, I think there is little doubt that we created something useful and influential, if inevitably a bit imperfect.
Over a hundred projects have been certified under the pilot program and the fully launched system, with at least that many more in the pipeline for eventual approval. Some are truly outstanding examples of just the sort of development that brings environmental, social and economic benefits. LEED-ND is better at measuring some things (for instance, transit richness) than others (inclusiveness), but it’s been a good start and will be improved over time.
Although those of us on the initial team discussed whether our principles could be useful at the scale of whole communities, the measurements break down beyond a certain project size. We did not want to compromise the usefulness or precision of LEED-ND in evaluating increments of private development as they occur by calibrating it more broadly for towns, cities, and regions. We did hope that local governments would find it useful for things like zoning and project approval, and perhaps also for neighborhood plans, but that was as far as we thought we could go.
Full Story: The future of measuring community sustainability
Source: The Atlantic Cities, June 21, 2012