10 Essential Green Building and Sustainability Features For Modern Cities

Urban planning and sustainability has been a big area of interest to me, and therefore a big topic on this blog, too.

So, what I’ve done is to once again scour the interwebs, and mine my own imagination and thoughts about 10 essential features which I think every city should have going further into our 21st century.

There have been several cities all over the world which have made green building a priority.  This historically new agenda serves on a number of levels.  First, it serves the people who live in these cities, improving the quality of life there.  The link between sustainability and livability seem to be intertwined, which is a blog post in and of itself.  And second, it proves to the world that green technologies can be easily integrated into cities of every type of climate and layout.

So, taking cues from blog posts, suggestions on Twitter from our faithful Tweeps (with links to their profiles and blogs), and on stories about specific cities, here’s what I’ve come up with; 10 features that every modern city should have in our new century, and in the new paradigm of sustainability:

Solar panels on the roof of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia. Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum.

1. Alternative energy use. In places like Olso, Reykjavik,  and even here in Vancouver, energy grids substantially based on hydroelectric power, wind power, solar energy, and geo-thermal energy are key hallmarks of a dedication to sustainability.  Luckily, many American cities are taking the issue of renewable energy to heart, with places like Oakland CA sourcing 17% of its energy needs via renewable energy, with Sacramento, San Francisco, San José, Portland OR, and Boston following suit with 8.6%-12% of its energy grid based upon clean energy.

As the need to replace fossil fuels becomes more and more of a concern, the need to increase research and development in these areas becomes clear as does modeling it in real life urban infrastructure.  Read more about it on this post about alternative energy in US cities

2. Robust composting/recycling/materials reclamation programs.  A lot of green building and sustainable living is based around the formation of good habits, particularly in a consumer-based economy where a lot of waste is produced. As such, programs in place that support composting, recycling, and re-use of materials become a must-have in any city that claims to be green.

Thanks to Jen Arbo, author of Arbolog (@JenArbo on Twitter), who suggested this essential feature of a green city.

A lot of cities have programs in place for large-scale recycling.  You can read about the efforts to improve recycling efforts in the city of  Philadelphia on the Clean Air Council website.

Green Park in central London. Image courtesy of Ron Hann.

3. Greenspace/Parks/Public Gardens/Allotments. This was an overwhelmingly popular one with our Twitter-pals, and for good reason.  This aspect of green building and sustainability spans a number of areas, including natural  C02 absorption, locally grown and harvested food, and ecopsychological benefits.  When what we’re fighting to protect is a part of our lives, it is certainly easier to continue the fight.

Thanks to Tweeps  J. Mark White (@GardenWiseInc) , Randy Jenks (@RandNWellington), and Cristina DaSilva (@CristinaGardens) for their insights on the importance of greenery, gardens, and public spaces.

Green transit in Portland, OR. Image courtesy of ahockley.

4. Green Transportation – bike lanes, pedestrian areas, public transit.  What with all of the references to public transit on this blog, you had to see this one coming.  But the fact is, reducing car use also reduces the amount of greenhouse gas into the air that contributes to global climate change, and which we also have to breathe. And getting people on their bikes, and on their feet in pedestrian-only areas also contribute to healthy lifestyles, too.  For the health of our environment, and for our own health too, public transit that runs on clean energy is a must-have for any city claiming to be green.

Some of the best examples of this is in Europe, where the use of private cars into downtown areas is the exception. But, many North American cities, which were overhauled post-WW2 to accommodate private car traffic as a primary transportation method, are adopting green transit systems.  This includes a more extensive coverage of an urban area, making it more of a given, and less of an exception to the rule of driving into the downtown core.

5. Green building in new construction. This aspect of green cities is at its beginning stages, with many points of view on how practical it is in constant discussion between public policy, and private profit-making, with front-loaded costs being a sticking point for some.  But, as suggested by Toronto construction company Ellis Don (@EllisDon) on Twitter, deep connections between people, buildings, infrastructure is integral, essential to the green city.

As an example of  green building for new construction, Susan Welker (@LadyAia) of Harris-Welker Architects helpfully cited the recent water catchment systems that are required for construction in Hawaii.  You can read about how the shortfall of water on the Big Island is being addressed via water catchment systems in Hawaii.

Green roof on Chicago City Hall. Image courtesy of Touring Cyclist

6. Green Roofs and Walls.  The absorption of C02 and other pollutants in urban areas has been another hot topic in recent years.  A key strategy in this regard, and as implemented in cities like Toronto and Chicago, is green roofs.  Not to be confused with roof gardens which are for beautification (and another essential for a green city!), green roofs are designed specifically for water catchment, and for aforementioned pollution absorption. Similarly, green walls serve a similar purpose, making ‘green cities’ a pretty literal thing – and pleasantly so.

Check out GreenRoofs.com for more information about cities implementing green roofs and walls, and what the benefits are.

7. Green policy, prudent administration, and consistent enforcement.  When communities, and community leaders take sustainability issues seriously,  this is a sure sign that the term ‘green city’ applies.  Cities that implement regulations around sustainability and green building, that manage relations between public and private sectors, and enforce those policies by investing in frequent inspections, are the most admirable models of 21st Century urban planning and development, even if these efforts aren’t quite as sexy as rotating solar panels on every building (although, wouldn’t that be great!).

Read about green building laws at work in urban areas on the green building law blog by LEED accredited professional and writer Shari Shapiro (@sharishapiro ).

Neighborhood walks and bike rides to shops; an essential hallmark of a suburb in a green city.

8. Balanced residential/light commercial zoning  for suburban areas. In my observations, I’ve noticed that in many suburban areas, the idea of mixed zones usually translates into huge swaths of residential sprawl, peppered with the odd strip mall.  But, the idea of a truly integrated and green suburban development means allowing residents to be able to walk or bike to commercial areas from their homes, not unlike how those who live in more centrally located neighborhoods are able to do.  This requires a certain approach to zoning, and to how municipalities work with the development community to make neighborhoods more self-contained, requiring less private vehicle traffic, and less fossil fuel consumption.

For information about green neighborhoods, check out these letters to the editor  from Britain’s The Guardian about the business of greening neighborhoods, and the creation of eco-towns , which outlines the range of opinions on the subject of deliberately planned neighborhoods with sustainability in mind.

9. Municipal green building incentive programs.  The connection between profit and policy is undeniable, and cities that reward developers and property owners with tax credits and other incentives in exchange for energy efficient design and upgrades  are demonstrating why this is such an essential part of what it means to be a green city.   Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and Cincinnati are among the many cities in the U.S who have undertaken aggressive property tax exemptions and bonuses for green roofing, energy efficient features, and other green elements.  This feeds the development industries in these cities, as well as the rising inspections sectors.

For more detailed information about how green incentives are operating in American cities, check out this report on green incentives that really work.

10. Green accounting and budgeting.  Green accounting is a discipline that incorporates environmental costs into a planning project, acknowledging natural resources as assets that are to be protected as a part of return on investment. Conversely, the adverse effects on those resources, like carbon offsets for instance, are looked upon as losses.  This is partially an economic discipline, although it incorporates the important areas of corporate ethics as well, which has as much effect on quality of life in cities as a balanced budget.

Traditionally, this has not been incorporated into the gross national product.  You can learn a bit more about this area by visiting http://www.gwagner.com, and by researching what green accounting is and what green accountants do in the way of influencing businesses and municipalities on the cost of environmental impact.

So there are my 10 essential features for building and sustainability in ‘green’ cities.  I’m sure there must be others that I’ve missed.  So, if you have any to add, let me know about them in the comments section of this post.  Also, maybe you disagree with how essential one, or all, of my 10 are.  Tell me about that, too!

Further reading:

To read more about how cities in the US are following a path to sustainability, take a look at America’s 50 Greenest Cities from Popular Science magazine.

And for a classic read on the subject of urban planning in the US and Canada, you may want to check out The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs.



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