Green Building 101: Land Use, Protection and Re-use

March 9, 2011

The world is getting smaller, no it is not shrinking, but technology and population growth have insured that what we do have is being used up fast. Rural areas that were once vast are now disappearing at an alarming rate. Land is being used in the sprawl of cities, polluted areas are left uncared for, and sites that should be avoided, such as wetlands, flood plains and woodlands, are being used as modern urbanization developments.

Across the globe, these problems are occurring and solutions are being sought after, but the deterioration rate is setting a faster pace than that of its restoration. The landscapes around the world are beautiful, but it is not only that beauty we need to preserve, but the land itself that needs our immediate protection.

In world development it is important to use what we have already accumulated, the re-use of existing properties and the efficient use of land will insure a better future. For sustainable land use it is important to avoid:

  • Urban Sprawl
  • Zoning ordinances
  • Low density growth planning

Urban sprawl is the growth of cities outward instead of upward. This sprawl increases commute times, therefore increasing air pollution and the reliance on oil. Zoning ordinances can isolate land use which restricts the availability of renewal and reuse of existing areas thus demanding that new land be developed. Low density growth planning increases the amount of land that is needed to allow for automobile access and people per area. All of these factors can be limited or avoided if planning committees educate the public and incorporate land use regulations and capital improvement programs that will benefit everyone.

Most cities have elected officials to control land use and to authorize urban expansion and growth.  They need to be reminded that smart growth and adaptive reuse is more important than the sprawl that has previously been the norm in construction. In many cities these committees are aware and willing to try to make a change but they are not successful because of two common factors:

  • Outdated city codes
  • Conversion of rural open space

City codes can demand excessive amounts of parking spaces or allow the amount of cars that people will own to be a determining factor in space allowances.  In reality if public transportation or the ability to walk is considered, most people will choose these alternatives. Also, the conversion of rural open spaces, which includes prime agriculture land, woodlands, and wetlands to residential use, is not needed if cities allow for the re-use of existing structures, whether commercial or not, to be used for what they are needed for, housing alternatives. It is important to use land efficiently because it reinforces community vitality and protects natural resources. The Journal of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences reported,

“Rural land use planning is often undertaken principally for economic development with limited emphasis on resource protection.”

Many places are adapting new regulations and beginning to demand that they take better care of their surrounding land.  In Vermont, they’ve started a SmartGrowth government branch which includes:

  • The creation of diverse housing options
  • The protection of farm and forest land
  • Diverse transportation options, less dependency on automobiles
  • Greater social interaction with neighbors
  • Lower cost for public services resulting lower taxes
  • A higher quality of life

Smart Growth Vermont states,

“The key to successfully integrating smart growth projects into your community is careful attention to design and scale.  The development should be designed for pedestrians and fit the local context. If done correctly, smart growth projects will contribute to the evolution of towns and cities that has been ongoing in a manner that enhances the character and social fabric of the communities.”

They’ve incorporated ten principles to smart growth:

  1. Maintain compact village and urban centers separated by countryside
  2. Promote health and vitality in communities based on pedestrians
  3. Transportation options that are consistent with land use objectives
  4. Protect and preserve environmental quality, natural and historical elements
  5. Provide easy access to open spaces (i.e. parks, playgrounds, public greens, water bodies, forests and mountains)
  6. Encourage and strengthen agricultural and forest enterprises
  7. Provide housing that meets the needs of diverse social and income groups, especially in areas of rapid growth
  8. Support a diversity of businesses, in-city and in-country
  9. Balance growth with available utilities/services supported by public funds
  10. Include the public in growth decisions

The benefits of a smart growth vs. urban sprawl development are estimated that between the years 2000-2025, the US could save $12.6 billion in sewer and water infrastructure costs, $109.6 billion in road infrastructure costs, and $423 billion in property development costs. If environmental concerns are not enough to persuade, the amount of money that could be saved should be a definite eye-opener.

137 programs have been implemented in the Federal government of the US, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), since 1979, all with well intended efforts to preserve prime farm land. In addition, other local projects, besides Vermont, have been installed including GreenTrip in San Francisco who’s first certified city-area was implemented in 2010 and has projected outcomes of more transit, less CO2, and lower car ownership. If it works, they will continue to implement the new city ideas in other areas of growth where people are capable of transportations options.

“GreenTrip is an innovative new certification program that rewards residential in-fill projects that apply comprehensive strategies to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas.”

Currently, though, problems with land use continue to thrive, in Michigan, it is estimated that urbanized expansion areas have grown at a rate of 1.9 to 2.6 times the amount of the population, which is about 10 acres/hour of unnecessary land conversion. In New Zealand, which is similar everywhere, but there they are aware that they are facing three main issues:

  • Soil degradation
  • Water contamination
  • Biodiversity Loss

These problems need to be addressed immediately even though they are a slow process and not noticeable in day-to-day living, they are present and increasingly dangerous to future land use.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is brownfields and their lack of re-use. They are real property that their re-use is complicated by the potential presence of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants.  These can be cleaned, re-used and adapted without risks to the public, but often they are left which increases the percentage of non-useable land and mandates the growth around the area. Recently, in 2009, the Brownfields Recovery Act was implemented which will require time to be pro-active, but it is at least a start to using areas we have already contaminated and or destroyed the natural elements of. The US Environmental Protection Agency stated,

“Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties protects the environment, reduces blight, and takes development pressures off greenspaces and working lands.”

The best and quickest solution to sustainable land development and preservation is adaptive re-use. This is the process of re-using existing structures for purposes other than they were initially intended.

Norway - Silo Dorms

Examples of where adaptive re-use has already been implemented can be found all around the world. In Toronto, Canada, The Distillery District was entirely rebuilt from the old Gooderham and Worts Distillery, in Australia old silos have been turned into apartments, houses, and dormitories, and in New York the old Meatpacking District has become loft-living.

Adaptive re-use plus brownfield reclamation are key factors in land conservation and reducing unnecessary sprawl. These are good for the economy, communities, and the environment. More plans need to be implemented and the importance stressed that this is our one chance to re-do and un-do our environmental impact so that future generations can make their choices.  Grow up, not out, and clean up, don’t disregard.

Editor’s Note: Green Building Elements is launching a Green Building 101 Series which will be posted bi-weekly, on the 1st and 15th of every month. Take this challenge with us as we learn how to build sustainably from the ground up.


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Jennifer Shockley

Jennifer is originally from Colorado and has recently moved back from Michigan. She is finishing up her Master’s degree in Architecture. She is currently focusing on urban planning and sustainable design and hopes to gain employment at a design firm specializing in these areas. Jennifer also has writing experience serving as an editor for her school newspaper and college magazine. Jennifer has two cats named Prada and Dior-aptly named after her shoe obsession. You can follow Jennifer on twitter @jenshock81.
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