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Retrofitting Neighborhoods: Creating Maximum Efficiency at the Neighborhood Scale

One rehabbed home is a start, but it’s like a single flower snaking out of the cracked concrete of an abandoned lot. When an entire neighborhood is running at maximum efficiency, then we’ve got progress.

LEED’s Neighborhood Development standard is helping developers create smart infill and new neighborhoods, but so far there aren’t nearly enough projects to bring existing neighborhoods up to the same standards. Several programs, however, are helping neighbors to implement basic upgrades together.

British Gas’ Green Streets competition pits small groups against each other to see which street can make the greatest reduction in its collective energy consumption. The first Green Streets challenge in 2008 included eight streets in eight cities. British Gas gave each house an energy audit and handed out £30,000 per street for improvements; it was up to the neighbors involved how to parcel out the money to maximize energy savings in each home. At the end of the competition the average was 25% in energy savings and a 23% reduction in CO2 emissions. The winning team in Leeds achieved a 35% reduction in energy use. British Gas awarded them £50,000, which the community donated to a local charity. The next Green Streets challenge, underway now, upped the ante: 14 communities are splitting £2 million to attempt more ambitious microgeneration projects. The winners will receive an additional £100,000 in funds towards a future energy project.

In Canada, six communities are splitting $4.2 million in funds from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in a similar competition. But unlike the British program, the EQuilibrium Communities Initiative is tackling more than energy efficiency—participants are looking at water use, land use, transportation, and affordable housing as they attempt to create a showcase sustainable neighborhood.

A little friendly competition is a sure way to get people interested in energy efficiency. It’s well documented by now that when people are able to compare their personal energy use to that of their neighbors they work harder to reduce their consumption.

But there are other reasons why homeowners opt in to a group retrofitting scheme. A Washington State nonprofit, SustainableWorks, has created several pilot projects in which signing up for a group retrofit is voluntary. Although federal subsidies reduce the cost of the initial energy audit, homeowners must still pay for it, and for any repairs they agree to make. Despite the decided lack of freebies or the thrill of competition, SustainableWorks has been able to get hundreds of houses in a neighborhood to sign up. Homeowners are attracted to two things: SustainableWorks is able to offer them discounts by pooling the retrofits (thereby getting better deals from contractors). In addition, the group uses these pilot neighborhoods to train journey-level technicians to conduct energy audits and make retrofits, thereby building green jobs.

Image of plant growing out of concrete courtesy of Flickr photographer kukkurovaca under the Creative Commons License.

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Thanks for the interesting article.

As an aside, I could be wrong; but, the image in this story appears to be Japanese Knotweed growing out of a hole in pavement. I'm not sure what the image is meant to suggest (green growing in the midst of a world of pavement, perhaps); but, one of the most-invasive plants in the world (if it's what it looks like) growing through the pavement is one of the last images I'd want to include in my story.

Posted by: JC on 24 May 10

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