Sustainable Neighborhoods – The Prospects of Smart Communities

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Smart Cities Insider interviewed Walker Wells, VP of Programs and Director of the Green Urbanism Program at Global Green. Global Green is the only technical assistance provider in the USA to have certified three developments through the pilot version of the rigorous LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) system. For the past years Global Green has been assisting 30 communities across the US with sustainable neighborhood planning under the Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities Program funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We asked Walker what the best practices of sustainable neighborhoods are and how cities shall look like in 10-20 years from now.

For those who dont know Global Green, what is the organization’s background? 

Walker Wells: Global Green is the U.S. affiliate of the Green Cross. The Green Cross was founded in 1993 by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union President and Nobel Peace Prize awardee, as an outcome of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Out of Rio came Agenda 21, that asked nations to create sustainability plans. Within the Agenda 21, there was also a local Agenda 21 that suggested that cities should look into creating sustainability plans.

A number of cities agreed to create sustainability plans. Simultaneously a number of organizations were founded based on the spirit of Rio, as for example ICLEI, International Center for Local Environment Initiatives, which did a lot of work on climate action planning and local Agenda 21 planning.

How the decision about Global Green headquarters location was made? 

Walker Wells: In the early stages of identifying the location of the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross there were suggestions that it should be in Washington DC because that’s where the other relevant groups are. We also thought maybe we should be more business focused and need to be in New York, or we should be more activist focused and be in San Francisco. Eventually, the decision was made that this environmental organization should be in a very difficult place, a city that at least at that point in time was thought as the least environmentally conscious city in America, Los Angeles. Global Green has been located in Los Angeles since.

The idea was, if we can identify strategies that work in Los Angeles, then they can probably have much broader applicability elsewhere. Things that come out of Los Angeles can apply to all of the post World War 2 development in the United States. LA is a mega world city; ideas from Los Angeles might apply to cities like Rio, Beijing, Mumbai and not just be about the U.S. solution.

What does Global Green focus on? 

Walker Wells: At Global Green we are interested in environment and sustainability in urban context. This quickly got us to green buildings and affordable housing to address the economic component.

Over the past 10 years we have been looking at buildings within a neighborhood context. One building by itself is interesting, but it may not have the transformative effect, so we need to look at buildings, infrastructure, and open space together. We arrived at the Green Urbanism Program.

For the past years Global Green has been assisting 30 communities across the U.S. with sustainable neighborhood planning under the Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities Program funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Global Green Sustainable Neighborhoods - EPA Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities MAP 2015

©Global Green

What are the criteria for selecting communities to participate in Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities Program? 

Walker Wells: For the Building Blocks Program, EPA works with three different organizations – Smart Growth America, Project for Public Spaces and us, Global Green. The goal is to take best practices in urban sustainability to communities around the country. We each do slightly different things.

EPA’s requirement is that the cities are able to clearly communicate why these different sustainability workshops, audits and neighborhood assessments would be of value to them. Also, there has to be an interest in serving disadvantaged neighborhoods.

When Global Green goes through our selection process, we ask the following questions: What have you already done in relation to sustainability? Climate action plan? Complete streets policy? Then, tell us about the neighborhood. Why is this neighborhood important? Which neighborhoods will we be working in?

We require the so called “catalytic” project, that is, a project that will be a catalyst for a change. We feel there needs to be some type of change agent or momentum that is happening in the community. We don’t want to just go to the community, evaluate it, and present all these interesting plans, but there is nothing that would promote the implementation and realization of those plans.

In the past year, we got over 60 applications for six locations. It is a pretty good indication of the interest of cities in the work we are providing and interest among cities to fold sustainability into their general neighborhood planning process.

Our projects are focused on neighborhood sustainability and we use LEED ND criteria as our assessment framework.

sustainable neighborhoods - downtown_

What challenges did Global Green USA encounter when pitching sustainable neighborhoods to cities and communities? Which stakeholders were against it? 

Walker Wells: There is a challenge of implementation.

In some cities there is interest in what is effectively a free consulting help. Global Green has funding from EPA to provide the service. We go to a city for about three days, go through a series of steps to evaluate a neighborhood and identify opportunities to make the community more sustainable.

We then provide a report with recommendations that are most viable or most likely to be implemented. As Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities Program doesn’t provide any money for implementation, we can help communities to more clearly articulate the need or the opportunity, which can put them in a much better position when they are applying for funding, whether it is government funding or grants.

Certain communities are skeptical or opposed to sustainability largely because of the origin of the sustainability idea. The opposers say that the idea of sustainability came out of the UN convention in 1992. The UN is an international body, and so, they think we are bringing international standards and are imposing these on their local government, and are taking away their local control. They don’t want those international ideas to tell them how to live their lives.

I can understand this perspective. At Global Green USA, we have a clear idea what we think is more or less sustainable, and then LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) puts that in a framework. We do have a normative position and think that efficient use of land is better than inefficient use of land. We think we should protect wetlands, prime farmland and endangered species habitats. It is better to build at a density that can support some type of public transportation, so that not everyone is required to use a car. We think a walkable neighborhood is better because there is an opportunity for social interaction and this builds social cohesion, which means that people generally will have better mental state of mind and it also means that they know their neighbors and can help each other, if there is an emergency. Buildings should be energy and water efficient. There should be housing for all economic levels in a community, so that the lower income people don’t have to drive or take the bus to get to a more affluent community.

There are people who feel they should be able to live in a house they want to live in and drive a car everywhere. They don’t want to have lower income people live next to them in a nice neighborhood that they worked hard to afford. They don’t think the government should be telling them what kind of house to build and where to build it.

At Global Green USA we don’t have any rule or law making authority. All we can do is present the communities our recommendations and talk to them about the benefits of sustainable neighborhoods. There is nothing wrong with giving people a choice.

Usually, validating the perspective of opposers and saying, “Let’s give people options,” have been an effective way to bridge opposition to urban sustainability.

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