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New Urbanism Goes Green
Sustainable Designs, Products and Practices Make New Urban Neighborhoods Even Better

During the past decade, proponents of new urbanism and lovers of the environment have had an uneasy relationship. Saddled with an "all or nothing" mentality, both sides have dished up and received their share of disparaging remarks-in spite of their similar ideologies.

New urbanists, the environmentalists claim, are interested only in creating a better suburb - a prospect anathema to their thinking. From the generalist-minded new urbanists' perspective, environmentalists and other green-thinking types are too concerned with a single component of place-making, consumed by thinking that is usually out in left field - sometimes literally, with their "environmentally sensitive" homes and buildings stranded far from the infrastructure of towns or villages.

Add to this a measure of confusion when it comes to defining terms (what is "green building," anyway?), and you have a pot of dissent that practically stirs itself. But a confluence of opinion between the two camps is under way, says Michael Lander, principal of The Lander Group in Minneapolis, Minn., a builder of environmentally conscious urbanism.

An infill project in Minneapolis, Minn., the Midtown Loft project gets a lot right in the green department. Photo: The Lander Group

"At CNU XII I noticed that CNU as an organization reached out to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), saying '[our two organizations] are aligned, but we're both missing the boat a bit. We need to learn from you and you need to learn from us.' " The CNU and USGBC partnership -- along with the Natural Resource Defense Council -- is beginning to bear fruit, most notably in the form of a set of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for neighborhood development (LEED-ND). Essentially a certification effort, the LEED-ND standards are intended to bridge the gap between the designing of environmentally sound buildings and the construction of sustainable neighborhoods and communities.

Details at press time are scarce, since the members of the LEED-ND Corresponding Committee are working with proprietary information for the time being. But according to a summary posted at cnu.org, "LEED-ND will create a label, as well as a set of guidelines for decision-making, which will serve as a concrete signal of, and incentive for, better location, design and construction of neighborhoods and buildings." This ratings-system effort should help to shore up the LEED standards, which are weak in the areas of building positions and their relationship to each other.

While the LEED-ND Corresponding Committee pursues its goal, numerous new urban efforts are under way through the United States. In Minneapolis, The Lander Group is nearing completion on its Midtown Lofts project, which includes a "green" unit.

From an urban design standpoint, the Midtown Lofts get it right. An infill project in a dense traditional neighborhood, the buildings meet the street properly and play well with their immediate neighbors, which are primarily single-family homes: While the corner building is four stories tall, it is joined to the rest of the houses on the block by a shorter building that allows the massing to step down to a complementary scale. A courtyard with a fountain is planned for the space between the two structures; beneath the courtyard lies a parking garage that is entered from a secondary street on the opposite side of the block.

The project as a whole addresses three "levels" of sustainable construction, says Lander. "First, there are the elements we included in the development. Then there is a collection of elements that appear only in the "green" unit. Then there's a list of elements that we researched and found we couldn't do. We tried to explain to visitors and prospective buyers why we couldn't do them -- sometimes they didn't meet a quality or aesthetic requirement, or they couldn't be locally sourced -- but other times we couldn't find a local vendor who would install a product to our specifications."

The green loft contains all of the development-wide features, such as carefully insulated walls; ENERGY STAR rated appliances and furnace; low VOC paints; and large, low-e windows. But it also contains a wide range of extra products that prove a marriage between sustainable building practices and good urbanism doesn't have to be filled with flying pots and pans:

• Carpet squares made of mostly recycled content, which creates less waste when replacing worn areas
• Formaldehyde-free kitchen cabinets
• Low-flow faucet and fixtures, and a dual-flush toilet
• Composite (plastic and wood) decking material

For Lander, good urbanism and sustainable design and building can easily walk hand in hand -- it's simply a matter of education and waiting for the system to catch up. "In new urbanism, retail developers or traffic engineers don't want to do it," he says. "Likewise, there's resistance in the trades for this green-building stuff. There's a parallel there. I fully expect sustainable design and building here in Minnesota to follow the same path new urbanism did: Ten years from now, everyone will be talking about it. We'll see that evolution here, just like in Colorado; it's being done and accepted. Just as new urbanism has advanced more rapidly in some parts of the country than others, the same is true with green building."

Lander looks forward to the day when green-building practitioners and new urbanists come together to create homes, neighborhoods and towns, and he's blunt when it comes to how the combination of the two philosophies has benefited his firm: "We consider ourselves considerably better builders than other green builders, because we bring that new urban component to our projects."

For John Anderson, a principal with New Urban Builders in Chico, Calif., urbanism trumps environmentalism. This is not to say he eschews "green" elements in his neighborhoods, only that they occupy a lower rung on his priority ladder. And when it comes to "morally superior" proponents of sustainable design, he has both barrels loaded -- especially after a day of negotiating with local fire department officials over street widths.

"Location, walkability, transportation choices, and proximity to work are higher-order things for me," he says. "Whether you build out of plywood or straw bales is really second-level. I don't want to be preached to by people who haven't seen the full game board. Sustainable? It's sustainable if your children aren't killed by the street they live on. If you want sustainability, that's a good place to start. It would be sustainable, too, if you didn't have to commute two hours to the place you work. These are sustainability issues."

New Urban Builders is in the planning stage for Meriam Park, a 250-acre TND across the street from their successful Doe Mill Neighborhood. Anderson says his firm will seek an LEED-ND designation for Meriam Park, will likely install photovoltaic (solar) receptors on structures yet to be determined, and will continue to push the envelope on green techniques that can be incorporated into this and other projects they pursue.

However, Anderson says, issues of walkability are higher on the list of priorities for buyers in his market. "When we build an energy-efficient house, it's really little more than an interesting footnote for the buyers. The issue moves more toward quality and the total cost of operation, rather than some sort of badge of honor about how lightly we're treading on Mother Earth."

"If this is about measuring and saving resources, if it's about having a lighter footprint, then you can have a pretty lousy house and be very green -- if you've built in a walkable neighborhood. But you don't get a 'green pass' for using recycled material in a 7,000-square-foot house at the end of a 10-mile road."

There is no easy answer, no catch-all approach, says Anderson. "The pattern of building -- whether it's houses, buildings, or whole cities -- is really complex. New urbanists are just trying to figure out how to do it as well as we did it in the 'teens and '20s. In the end, the broad reforms needed to build better places will be pursued on many fronts at the same time."

In the rolling Appalachian Mountains and heavily treed valleys in Mitchell County of western North Carolina, a similar philosophy is held by the founders of High Cove, a progressive new urban neighborhood currently in the planning and early design phase. While creating a design that introduces a pure urban neighborhood to the area, the founders are simultaneously taking extraordinary steps to respect the 100 acres of land upon which it will be built.

"The site plan is very organic, very close to the land on some challenging topography, and yet it is compact and creates an exciting urbanity in the mountains," says David Brain, an associate professor of sociology at the New College of Florida in Sarasota, Fla., and one of the town's founders.

High Cove's approach to sustainable design is multi-faceted, and includes the following:

• The project will use the U.S. Green Building Council green building code as a guideline; this code includes prescriptions for solar orientation, levels of insulation, and passive solar design elements.
• Native landscaping will be strongly encouraged; non-native vegetation will be required to be grown in pots; lawns will be discouraged.
• Site preparation will be closely monitored to minimize (preferably eliminate) erosion problems stemming from too much vegetation being removed ("We don't want to end up chasing our hillside down the valley," says Brain).
• Water conservation efforts include low-flow toilets and shower heads, and a scalable sewage system that treats effluent efficiently, then discharges it underground so it doesn't foul the groundwater; founders hope the system will draw power for its pump via photovoltaic cells.
• A stewardship program will preserve all the trees left standing after construction, although some timber will need to be harvested periodically, such as deadfalls that could become fire hazards.

"TNDs are inherently environmental," says Douglas Duany of Miami-based RBL Architecture, who along with partner George Rosello and architect/urban designer Andrew von Maur, is designing the High Cove urban plan. "The important thing is, if you actually design in an environmentally-conscious fashion -- as it's supposed to be done -- the results are pretty remarkable. Hit the land hyper-gently, then concentrate and locate the design elements properly."

On the subject of passive solar orientation -- i.e., siting buildings to take advantage of the sun's rays -- Duany is respectful but resolute. "One shouldn't build without passive orientation, but should never let it affect urbanism. In High Cove, the trees themselves are passive solar. You can have a bank of windows facing south because the trees are full of leaves in summer, and bare in winter. The trees will cool residents during summer and let the sun through to warm them in winter."

But passive orientation isn't an integral player in the design of the High Cove plan, says Duany. "What's critical here is water, forest and sewage -- how each of those are managed in a sustainable fashion."

Sustainability isn't synonymous with self-sufficiency, says Brain. "It's about integrating into the region, so you're part of the local economy, ecology and culture. And I think some of our actions -- some of our ecological considerations -- are already starting to have an impact on the 'competition,' if you will: We're starting to see the marketing for other projects borrowing the language that we've been using."

High Cove wrapped up a design review charrette in late March of this year. Engineering and soil work is under way. Duany and Rosello are finishing up their drawings and finalizing the architectural code based on the charrette results. The roads for High Cove have been roughed in; many of them will be narrow ("at 10 feet, absurdly narrow," says Duany) "yield roads" such as those found in England. Asked if he's experienced any resistance to the narrow roads from local fire officials, Duany laughs and says (cover your ears, John Anderson), "No, none at all. Even the fire officials love the narrow roads, for some reason. That's because David talked to them." Brain hopes to start building the first house by the end of this summer.

The people, that's who. And the last time I checked, both new urbanists and green building proponents build for people. While new urbanists are concerned with form, function and beauty, environmentalists can contribute to the cause by demonstrating how green-building techniques and products can actually improve one's quality of life -- if through no other means than shrinking a utility bill. The market is only just beginning to demand an environmentally sensitive approach to construction, says Michael Lander.

"In Minnesota, green building is on a continuum, moving in the direction of a more sustainable approach to building. I think we're a long way from truly sustainable, but we're trying. We're trying to improve with each new project, to step farther down that path of lower energy use, higher quality indoor air, lesser environ mental impacts during the creation and/or transportation of a product. We're looking at our projects and slowly getting a feeling that what we're doing is getting better."

That "better" place is what draws people in, says David Brain. "When we first conceived High Cove, we wanted to create the coolest place ever. We shared our vision with people and were amazed at how excited they got about the culture of the place. People started plunking money down before we even broke ground. They heard the story of a good place, and they said, 'I want to live there, too.'"