Posted by: Dave Lewis | November 22, 2008

Design, Planning, Buildings and Climate Change

This past week, I had the opportunity to participate in two professional conferences where topics of climate and sustainability were at the forefront, and I decided short recaps of each might interest the HCC community.

Urban Planning and Climate Change @ Lincoln House

On Monday Nov. 17, I was fortunate to receive an invitation to attend a working group of the Big City Planners, an annual meeting of approximately 20 planning directors from 30 of the biggest cities in the U.S. The meeting is co-hosted by the American Planning Association, Harvard’s GSD, and held at the Lincoln InstituteĀ of Land Policy. The topic of the morning session was Cities, Planning, and Climate Change, a forum for the planning directors to share strategies and challenges in adapting to and mitigating climate change in their jurisdictions.

Much of the discussion focused on western cities: San Diego, which unveiled a new sustainability-infused master plan in 2008 with climate-aware provisions pursuant to new AB 32 rules from the State of California; Portland, which according to director Gil Kelly is the only U.S. city to hold its CO2 emissions at or below 1990 level; and Las Vegas, which is struggling to cope with explosive growth in an arid, climate-sensitive environment.

The tenor of the conversation dispelled any doubt in my mind that planners recognize their role in the climate change crisis; almost any way you cut the numbers, large metropolitan regions, with their high aggregate building energy footprints and with all of their VMTs, are both the leading cause of and the best solution to climate change.

Many cities have jumped onto the sustainability wave, adopting the low-hanging fruit/housecleaning measures to become more sustainable. These strategies include moves such as installing and even handing away CFLs, running city vehicles on bio-fuels, and mandating LEED-certified construction for all city buildings (check out the L. Lo Baugh [gated] article published here).

However exciting these municipal first steps are, CFL solutions miss the big-picture problem of climate change. City planning, with its broad geographic scope and its long temporal scales is well-suited to addressing future climate concerns. It may not be well-equipped with retrofitting the existing stock of buildings and infrastructure. It will take enormous front end investments, creative land use strategies, and an emergence of substantial political will to redirect the status quo. One planner at the table noted that without federal and state directives, local politics will kill almost any plan-based climate change mitigation efforts, especially if the decision comes down to the preferences of the McMansion-dwelling, SUV-driving, swing-voting suburban residents.

USGBC Green Build 2008

The second conference I attended this week was the three-day blow-out that was the U.S. Green Building Council’s (“USGBC”) Green Build 2008. Held at the Boston Convention and Expo Center from Wednesday Nov. 19 through Friday Nov. 21, the conference featured ~1400 exhibitors of the latest green building products and design firms, dozens of professional education sessions, and some of the biggest names in the environmental movement, including Harvard’s own Leith Sharp and E.O. Wilson, the always-inspiring Van Jones and Majora Carter, and green economy visionary Kathleen McGinty.

Fortunate enough to attend all three days (yeah I ditched three days of class), I sat through a riveting discussion of greening commercial leases, listened to Cherokee‘s Chris Wedding describe his firm’s latest sustainability efforts, and participated in tours of the Mueller Airport redevelopment in Austin (virtually), and Maverick Landing an innovative HOPE VI development in East Boston (actually).

Talking with attendees – some of whom had been involved with green building 30 years ago, and some of whom, like me, are just getting started professionally – the overwhelming consensus view remarked how far we’ve come in just the last 3 to 5 years…and how far we still have to go to make green buildings a scalable, viable solution to climate change. Relatively small improvements in energy, water, and materials efficiency applied across the millions and millions of square feet of existing building stock could make all of the difference. Ideally whatever economic stimulus package emerges in the next few months will recognize the opportunity to simultaneously resurrect the economy, revitalize our urban infrastructure, and chart a new course towards climate sustainability

Next post: I’ll be attending the Conservation Capital in the Americas conference in Valdivia, Chile Jan. 16-20, 2009, and I will post a recap while there or shortly afterwards.



  1. Very interesting, thanks for posting. I’ve only just skimmed the surface on planning and design issues, but I entirely agree about the centrality of these experts to the climate crtisis, as well as the other environmental challenges we face.

    A question: for all its success, I’ve heard some pushback against the LEED system ( and — essentially, primarily for the environmental building techniques it emphasizes through its credit system and fears about its (ab)use as a greenwashing tool. Was this addressed at either of the conferences you attended? I’d be curious, particularly as one of these conferences was a USGBC event.

  2. Spring,

    There is a ton of downright antipathy towards LEED from all sides: environmentalists, developers, designers, regulators, etc. The criticisms of the grist and slate articles are pretty fair (if a little over-inflated and sensationalized as those journals tend to be): LEED’s weighting schema is arguably arbitrary, its inclusion of rated practices are potentially as or more confining than prescriptive building codes, it largely ignores major issues such as location, context, affordability, etc, etc. I quibble with the (environmentalists’) criticism that it is prohibitively expensive: that’s the same argument industries make about TRI. Reporting – correcting an information asymmetry – is costly, but ultimately good for everyone involved. Production developers and even public sector developers will see a learning curve premium the first couple of times, but the costs will decline over time. Non-profits can decide if they want the plaque on the wall. Early adopter designers and engineers will be in high demand; laggards will lose (how is that not a great incentive?). Environmentalists should not be advancing the reporting cost argument against LEED buildings any more than they should for TRI. Realistically greenwashing is pervasive and inevitable, but isnt it better that green is a selling point than a marginalized ideology? The jury is largely still out as to whether a LEED building is necessarily superior to a conventional building in terms of environmental performance, but I would argue that few if any are inferior.

    My bottom line – and plenty disagree with me – is that intent of LEED is right on and the program is adaptable enough to confront emerging challenges. With any luck in ten years, it will be obsolete because the common sense strategies it espouses will either be code or SOP. I dont think there is much counter evidence to the claim, however, that LEED is taking green building from fringe to mainstream.

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