Can Sprawl be Green?
In my post of May 6th, “Traditional Neighborhood Development and LEED Go Hand in Hand,” I made the point that smart growth and new urbanism are helping give a ‘boost’ to green building practices. While conducting research for that article, however, I did find several assertions to the contrary. So, for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, I will here take a look at some of those assertions.
It seems evident that small houses, situated in walkable neighborhoods, are greener than large homes occupying automobile-dependent sites. The new LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) rating system draws heavily from principles of new urbanism and smart growth. New urbanism includes sustainability as one of its tenets (see Green Communities, Part 1: New Urbanism), and many of the primary elements of smart growth (as listed on their website) have become synonymous with green:
- Preserve Open Space, Farmland, Natural Beauty and Critical Environmental Areas
- Provide a Variety of Transportation Choices
- Strengthen and Direct Development Towards Existing Communities
- Take Advantage of Compact Building Design
But is density, in fact, a prerequisite for green development?
Wayne A. Lemmon, a planner and real estate economist, argued in his article, “Can Sprawl be Good,” that (among other things), “Concentrating development in areas already served by public facilities makes good sense, but only up to the point where available capacity is fully utilized.”
The National Association of Home Builders takes particular exception to the assumptions that underpin LEED. Their online article, “New LEED Certification for Development Found Wanting,” examines LEED-ND, and proposes that it may actually be inhibiting the progress of green development.
NAHB land use planner Edward Tombari explains:
Based on NAHB’s experience with smart growth and new urbanism design principles, a majority of the projects being built by developers today that incorporate Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) principles might be able to achieve some lower-level LEED recognition. However, while the number of communities using TND principles is rising, the vast majority do not because TND favors higher density and most new development occurs in suburban and exurban greenfield locations. While this excludes much new development from being eligible to meet the criteria being established by LEED-ND, NAHB believes new development affords many opportunities for implementing green development principles.
Even though the notion of returning to ‘Main Street America’ seems to have captured the popular imagination, there is no sign that the production of large, detached, single-family homes will actually be coming to a halt anytime soon. (Barbara Faga’s article on Planetizen, “Two Things People Hate: Density and Sprawl,” spurred a lively debate on this topic a few weeks ago.)
So, if urban sprawl is on a roll that cannot yet be stopped, can a neighborhood rating system that prioritizes density accomplish significant change? Many industry professionals believe that the LEED programs in place so far have managed to make a broad impact upon construction practices precisely because they have not set the bar impossibly high. Now the NAHB and the International Code Council are working on their own consensus-based National Green Building Standard, and this standard will be applicable to a wide range of developments, including conventional, suburban ones. (To view progress on the draft Standard, visit the NAHB Research Center site.) If consumers find the National Green Building Standard to be more adaptable than LEED, then perhaps LEED will have met its match in the American marketplace.
Photo Credit: NAHB