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WC Retro: Sustainable Neighborhood Design

By Jamais Cascio, posted on November 23, 2005.

Back in August, while discussing the recent draft of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Home standards, we noted that the US Green Building Council was working on a LEED for neighborhoods, LEED-ND. This is a wonderful idea -- the application of green building concepts to communities.

More recently the ZEDStandards checklist, put out by the designers behind the UK's breakthrough BedZED project. The ZEDStandards spell out what a sustainable community design should include, covering everything from access to local food to proximity to transportation.

Finally, USGBC has released its first draft of LEED-ND, giving us an opportunity to compare different approaches to building environmentally sound and energy efficient neighborhoods.

Let's see how they stack up:

First off, it's very important to note that this is not the final version of the LEED-ND standard. The guidelines will go through a few more rounds of examination and debate, and a final draft won't be available until 2007 or so. Why critique them, then? Because this gives us a look at what the USGBC team had foremost in their minds as what a sustainable neighborhood should include -- and since the USGBC carries quite a bit of weight in the sustainable architecture community, it's a reasonable proxy for what the current US zeitgeist is for green urban communities.

The most obvious difference between the two is that the ZEDStandards list has separate requirements for different scales of community, from rural housing to highrise complexes; LEED-ND is a one-size-fits-all approach. This may seem to be a point in favor of ZED, but when you look closely at the ZED requirements, most of the items that don't apply to all forms are arguably fairly peripheral, such as greenhouses and on-site eco-travel services. The core requirements are universal.

Less obvious, but more important, is the underlying philosophy of what gets measured. The criteria that ZEDStandards encompasses could broadly be described as "services," such as local food access, education, car clubs, and on-site composting. That is to say, ZED is interested in what you do in your neighborhood. LEED-ND's standards, conversely, are more interested in how you do it -- LEED-ND seems primarily focused on "infrastructure." Key checklist items include infill location, wetlands preservation, overall building density, heat island reduction -- even "pedestrian experience." It would not be difficult to design a community that would excel under one checklist and fail the other one miserably.

They aren't opposites by any means, however. They would make reasonable companion checklists, as they do overlap on a number of basic items, such as energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy generation. The ZED list is broader, covering subjects (such as food sourcing and transit options) that LEED-ND doesn't touch; LEED-ND is more granular, in turn, with more details on the physical structure of neighborhoods and types of recycling. LEED-ND is also far more concerned about initial location and construction decisions than ZED -- perhaps a legacy of the different national origins. There are far more empty spaces in the US than in the UK, so holding developers to a high standard about site choices takes on greater environmental import.

I would imagine the difference in how each design standard would feel once implemented would come down to one's own philosophy of sustainability. Worldchangers who care strongly about local foods, bicycle access and community environmental education would likely feel more at home under the ZEDStandards. Worldchangers who are more focused on energy efficiency and the functional structure of neighborhoods would likely gravitate to LEED-ND.

Which green neighborhood standard appeals to you? What are they both missing? Tell us in the comments.

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Up till now, eco-friendly citizens have been on their own to ensure easy access to groceries, schools and entertainment when building or selecting a home. It's one thing to build a sustainable condo, such as this one in Vancouver,, it is another to demand that the entire supporting community be green as well.

Of all the requirements for a sustainable neighborhood, we are most hoping that a grocery store will open within walking distance to our neighborhood.

Posted by: Ryan Johnston on 5 Jul 06



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