Tag Archives: sustainable

The nation’s capital of sustainable design

Major cities, like Washington, D.C., make up less than 2% of the world’s landmass, but they contribute 77% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

JANUARY 16, 2018 |

Cities are the laboratories of innovation that power the world. They also hold the key to avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change. Major cities, like Washington, D.C., make up less than 2% of the world’s landmass, but they contribute 77% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Based on the dense concentration of wealth, infrastructure, and people located in urban areas, it makes sense that the sustainable transformation of the world’s cities has become a focus of the climate change movement.

The District of Columbia is a model of sustainability leadership thanks to the passage of the Green Building Act of 2006 and the D.C. Green Construction Code. As a result of those measures, the D.C. metro area currently leads the nation in per capita square footage of LEED space and features a total of more than 156 million square feet of LEED certified space. An impressive 10% of that space has achieved LEED Platinum certification, including PNC Place and the Gensler-designed General Services Administration’s (GSA) swing space (which will become the home of the Peace Corps in 2020). As if that weren’t enough, D.C. has also topped the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR cities list for three years running. Given such a track record, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Green Building Council also named our nation’s capital as the world’s first LEED Platinum city, in 2017.

Municipalities across the country are now beginning to follow the District’s lead. In fact, jurisdictions in D.C.’s own backyard have taken some aggressive steps on the sustainability front. Arlington County, VA, located adjacent to Washington, was just named the U.S. Green Building Council’s first Platinum level community for its green building efforts. And in nearby Tysons Corner, Va., Tysons Tower is one of many buildings to seek LEED certification in part because D.C.’s sustainability efforts have both raised the bar for green construction across the region and made potential tenants more aware of the benefits of a sustainable work environment.

Interior of D.C.’s LEED Platinum PNC Place. Image © Prakash Patel.

Much of D.C.’s success has to do not just with encouraging green design and construction practices but also with implementing urban planning measures that make the city more eco-friendly. For example, D.C. has made a commitment to growing its tree canopy, introduced a bikeshare program and more than 100 miles of bike lanes and trails, and ranks high in walkability according to both Smart Growth America and Walk Score.

For a number of cities across the U.S., there are opportunities to improve on such fronts. That’s why Gensler has recommended each of the above, along with a number of other green planning and design strategies for cities, in our Impact by Design report. Impact by Design is intended to inform targeted conversations across a range of scales—from the level of the city or district, down to individual buildings, and finally to interiors. In addition to recommending increased tree canopy coverage and improved bike and pedestrian accessibility, Impact by Design also argues for the creation of eco-districts that employ various methodologies to create resource-efficient and resilient neighborhoods. And it recommends the development of net metering and smart metering districts that capture real-time energy use to more efficiently manage and energy needs.

Though much of Impact by Design is geared toward informing ways to improve the performance of the built environment, part of it is also geared toward understanding our firm’s own impact in cities like Washington, D.C., and the other locales that we call home. What the report uncovered is that across our entire firm, our projects in 2016 (the most recent year for which we have complete data) were designed to offset 11 million metric tons of CO2 annually. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of removing 2.34 million passenger vehicles from our roads—and the 26.5 billion miles they drive—for one year.

While our firm is proud to do its part to combat climate change, we understand that scaling up the level of impact will require a long-term commitment to conversations and partnerships with cities. After all, climate change is a long-term problem. Yet sustainable design, planning, and construction practices have the kind of multi-generational impact that’s needed to mitigate the worst outcomes associated with a warming planet. Each building we erect will be in continuous use for at least 20 to 50 years, if not longer. By making those buildings green, we can not only provide people with healthy places to spend their time but also help shrink the energy and water needs of entire communities.

Thankfully, more and more people view sustainable cities like our nation’s capital as ideal places to live and work. The planet agrees with them.

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4 strategies for equitable, sustainable cities

This article first appeared on Ensia.

The New York City High Line is a section of the New York Central Railroad, an elevated freight rail line, located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It was under threat of demolition until 1999, when the community-based organization Friends of the Highline began a campaign to preserve it.

Today the Highline is an iconic urban green space that has inspired cities around the world to incorporate the built as well as the natural environment in their economic development plans, allowing them to combat blight and foster urban renewal while at the same time being environmentally friendly. Indeed, the High Line, the Atlanta BeltLine, the 606 in Chicago and many other projects have documented economic improvement in the surrounding area.

However, there’s another side to the story.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who will state openly that combining economic development with sustainability is bad. But we need to ask: What is “good” — and for whom? In too many of these cases, supposedly sustainable urban economic development projects have led to gentrification. Instead of improving the neighborhood for the people already living in the area, the project improved the neighborhood for people moving into the area.

Environmental gentrification is broadly defined as the process whereby efforts to improve urban sustainability drive up property values and displace low-income residents.

In the case of the High Line, a gritty neighborhood with locally owned businesses was replaced with shiny, reflective high-rises and boutiques, and property values soared 103 percent in the vicinity. In Atlanta, property values rose 50 to 60 percent within a half-mile of the BeltLine from 2012 to 2015, compared with 30 percent elsewhere in the city. And for Chicago’s 606, property values have grown more than 45 percent since the project broke ground. In all cases, local residents were displaced because demand for housing outpaced supply, resulting in increases in rent and other expenses that exceed what they could afford.

Fortunately, we can use strategies to ensure that urban areas affected by blight and economic downturn can implement environmental projects without resulting in environmental gentrification.

First and foremost, developers should engage community members to include their needs and wants. In the case of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Brooklyn, New York, a community-based organization called the Newtown Creek Alliance ensured the historically Polish neighborhood retained its character and culture.

Second, social justice needs to be explicit. The impetus to conduct environmental projects has not corresponded with an impetus for socioeconomic justice in the same areas. The same effort given to capital financing and marketing strategies should also be given for inclusion. Contractors and the like should set up offices within the neighborhood to make themselves accessible to the community. Furthermore, participation should not be limited to paint color or other binary decisions. Local people should be included in decisions beyond design aesthetics.

Third, in implementing projects we need to distinguish between economic development and economic growth. Economic development is a policy intervention to raise the economic and social well-being of people, whereas economic growth is market productivity and rise in GDP. As Harvard economist Amartya Sen says, economic growth is one aspect of the process of economic development. Projects need to align with economic and social needs of the area — for example, to favor childcare and supermarkets over gallery space and artisanal coffee shops. Planners and developers should understand and incorporate the needs of those who live there and that of investors, not just those who visit because the project makes somebody’s trendy top 10 list.

Finally, developers need to keep front and center two questions: “What is the intended result?” and “For whom?” In the case of Newtown Creek Nature Walk, the project was for the neighborhood, not for tourism or the cover of a landscape architecture magazine.

Environmental gentrification is a new twist on an old problem. When designing and implementing green development projects, we must consider carefully who will be affected and how, and make sure those who live there benefit the most.

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Jessica Ocasio understands the frustrations of affordable housing options for young adults. A native of Puerto Rico, she saw the scarcity of student housing as an undergraduate student.

Now, Ocasio is equipping herself with a Master of Fine Arts in Interior Architecture in hopes of easing the housing burden for young adults. Her research explores how microdwellings may offer a creative solution.


Sustainable small home has designs on retirement

Josh Wynne built a small house on his rural property on Florida’s Gulf Coast for his father, Mike Wynne, to age in place, making it stylish as well as functional and sustainable. He incorporated many features to accommodate Mike, who has health issues that limit his mobility. The small size makes it easier to get around in and means less cleaning and maintenance, Wynne says.


Continue reading Sustainable small home has designs on retirement

Ecokit’s modular prefab cabins are sustainable and arrive flat packed

U.S. cities aren’t the only ones with an affordable housing crisis. Take Australia, whose major metros are routinely some of the most unaffordable in the world and where a growing number of young people are renting and living longer with parents.

Continue reading Ecokit’s modular prefab cabins are sustainable and arrive flat packed