New Urbanism Goes Green
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
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
"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
High Cove's approach to sustainable design is multi-faceted, and includes
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
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,"
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
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.'"