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Green Building, Compact Communities

This article was written by Alex Steffen in March 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Here's a debate where none is needed: the argument about whether green building, compact communities, or transit-supportive design is a better approach to improving the world.

The latest piece to kick up some dust is a report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which, as reported by Reuters, says

"Green" construction could cut North America's climate-warming emissions faster and more cheaply than any other measure...

Elsewhere, people reaffirm that North Americans' best bet for carbon reduction is walking and taking transit, while others (often including myself) think density is the best lever, if we have to pick one with which to start.

Now, it's rarely much of an argument. There are green builders who are against growth management, and urban planners who hate transit and love cars, and transpogeeks who think architects are a useless form of decorator, but by and large, most advocates for each of these positions support the others, but just want to see their approach be taken on first.

But, of course, the whole argument is silly, and can be answered "all three, at once." All three strategies are mutually reinforcing (and equally difficult to implement without one another).

What we ought to be shooting for are compact communities, at sufficient densities to support lots of good transit options, composed entirely of high-quality, reasonably-sized green buildings, arranged around streets and public spaces that encourage walking and enjoying one's community, served by green infrastructure.

What I'd love to see is someone crunch the numbers not of a single approach -- increasing density for 7 units per acre to 9, or reducing energy use by 25%, or doubling trips taking by transit, or any of the other single-answer ideas that keep getting quantified -- but of a synergistic combined approach.

Because I'll bet money that when all these approaches are combined, the resulting economic and environmental benefits add up to far more than the sums of the parts seen through the studies done so far. It might well be that building bright green communities pays for itself while improving the quality of life of the people who live there... and saving the planet.

And if that's true, we're burning money as well as planet when we delay, go slow, and engage in false arguments about priorities.

(Creative Commons photo credit

Green? Dense? Walkable? is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Alex, the Sonoma Mountain Village project in California has gone a long way down the road you describe. The 1900-home project plans to fuse walkability ("5 minute living") with density, an ambitious sustainable transport program, 100% renewable energy generation, and sustainable food as well. The numbers we've crunched suggest an 83% reduction in overall direct emissions (almost 13 tons of CO2 per resident) by 2020.

Read the research report at

Posted by: Greg Searle on 3 Oct 08



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