Building a Better Neighborhood: LEED-ND and the Future Community

Park Forest, one of Chicago’s southern suburbs, had a curious beginning. Established in 1949, the village wasn’t served by a commuter rail line, the kernel around which most other suburbs accrued. It was in fact the first post-war, planned community built around an automobile-oriented shopping mall. Ten years later, around 29,000 residents lived in ranch style homes on large lots, enjoying the independence that their cars gave them. This new vision of suburbia would change the development landscape in America for generations
to come.

But that landscape is in need of a facelift. As urban areas bleed residents and rural areas give way to suburbs, more people take up more and more land. The low population densities and reliance on automobiles of these areas consume more resources than we have to spare.

That is why the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), recently announced the launch of the LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) green neighborhoods rating system. The new program addresses communities and planned developments in a way that the other LEED certification programs formerly addressed single-building renovations and construction.

LEED-ND integrates the principles of smart growth, new urbanism and green building. The new system reduces urban sprawl, increases transportation choice while decreasing automobile dependence, encourages healthy living and protects threatened species.

The rating system encourages development within or near existing communities and/or public infrastructure in order to reduce the environmental impacts of sprawl. By promoting communities that are physically connected, LEED-ND conserves land and promotes transportation efficiency and walkability. A 2008 study entitled “The Economic Value of Walkability” found that households in automobile-dependent communities devote 50% more money—more than $8,500 annually—to transportation.

“[Sustainable urbanism] is the multiple, transit-served urbanism integrated with high performance green buildings and high perfor-mance infrastructure,” said Doug Farr, founder and principal of Farr Associates. “The operative word here is ‘integrated.’ Not nearby, not down the street from, not in the vicinity of, but integrated with.”

Numerous studies have found a correlation between transit-oriented development and both individual and economic health. The connectivity to neighboring communities with existing transportation and thoroughfares or local retail and services, greatly benefits the citizens, businesses and local economy of the surrounding regions.

“Sustainable communities are prosperous communities for the occupants and businesses which inhabit them,” said Rick Fedrizzi, President and CEO of the USGBC. “LEED-ND projects are strategically located in or surrounding metropolitan areas—often times revitalizing brownfields, infills or other underutilized spaces— opening new revenue streams, creating job opportunities and helping to drive the local, state and national economies.”

LEED-ND strives to create healthy neighborhoods in which people from a wide range of economic levels and age groups can live and work together. Green neighborhoods provide access to transportation, jobs, resources, education and promote healthier lifestyles. LEED-ND projects include, or are sited to have good access to, residences, schools, businesses, shopping, dining and entertainment.

“For the first time in a sustainability standard, there are criteria pertaining to affordability, in this case with housing,” said Farr. “Sustainability from time to time is perceived to be excessively about polar bears and less about the day to day life of people. This reverses that trend.”

“Half of the buildings we will have in 25 years are not yet on the ground,” said Kaid Benfield, Director of the Smart Growth Program, Natural Resources Defense Council.

NRDC helped to establish LEED-ND by soliciting the help of Smart Growth America, a national coalition of organizations working for better communities, and recruiting smart growth experts to participate on the committee of volunteers that authored the rating system. The principles of smart growth focus on the importance of considering location, transportation alternatives, equity, and community form when developing land use plans.

The CNU brought a number of leading planners and architects from the New Urbanist movement to help shape the new rating system. New Urbanism promotes compact neighborhood form, a wide range of urban housing types from multi-unit buildings to single-family homes, a vibrant mix of uses within close proximity of each other, humane public spaces and well-connected streets and blocks serving users ranging from pedestrians and cyclists to transit riders and drivers.

“This may come as some surprise to some people, but the minimums required to support sustainable order essentially are illegal across most of the country,” said Farr. “For instance, maximum densities where they should have minimums.”
The consensus-based process that drives the development of the LEED rating systems ensures and encourages the very best in building, design and development practices.

The scope of LEED-ND projects can range from small projects to whole communities and encompasses a broader set of stakeholders in the process. This is the seventh LEED rating system released by USGBC and is the first comprehensive benchmark for green neighborhood design. Projects certifying under LEED-ND must achieve points in three major environmental categories: Smart Location & Linkage, Neighborhood Pattern & Design, and Green Infrastructure & Buildings across a 110-point scale.

Three projects in the Chicago region participated in the LEED-ND pilot phase and all are now LEED-ND certified. The Prairie Crossing community in Grayslake has been experimenting with the idea of a sustainable neighborhood for several years.

Homes at Prairie Crossing have been constructed with techniques that reduce energy consumption by about half in comparison to new homes in the area. Community-wide recycling and composting programs are in effect. Prairie Crossing is designed to encourage walking and biking as alternatives to short trips by automobile. A wind turbine provides power to the local farm, which in turn supplies food to its neighbors.

The 63-acre Station Village subdivision was the only portion of Prairie Crossing to take part in the pilot program and it pushed the boundaries of what the rest of the development had previously accomplished. The condominiums at Station Square have attained Energy Star’s highest rating for energy efficiency and include affordable housing. Higher building densities than the more verdant portions of Prairie Crossing also helped it to achieve the LEED-ND certification.

Whistler Crossing represents a rebirth for south suburban Riverdale. The 500-unit housing and retail development provides spacious rental units within a restoration of historic homes.

Two new, mixed-use buildings will feature apartments above commercial space on the ground floor. Additional development phases will include both rental and homeownership opportunities, with residential units as varied as single family detached homes, townhomes, quads, three flats, and mixed-use buildings.

At over 1,100 acres, the Southworks development, located on and surrounding the former U.S. Steel plant on the Chicago’s south side, is by far the largest project that took part in the pilot phase of LEED-ND.

Chicago-based developer McCaffery Interests Inc. and property owner U.S. Steel Corp. have been jointly planning a sustainable development on the vacant steel mill site since 2005. Funding from a recently approved tax increment financing district will go towards the project’s 76-acre initial phase at the mouth of the Calumet River. The first phase calls for nearly a thousand residential units and as much as a million square feet of commercial space. Subsequent phases will roll out as financing and demand allow.

If completed as planned, the site would comprise over 13,000 residential units, 17.5 million square feet of commercial space and a 1,500-slip marina. The massive property is comparable in size to the Loop and completion of all phases would likely take decades and billions of dollars.

South Works has an ideal location along the shores of Lake Michigan, but other issues have created not just fallow real estate, but a virtual no-man’s land. Acres of slag left over from the site’s smelting days have made much of the land infertile. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources shipped tons of sediment from Peoria dredged from the Illinois River to act as topsoil.

Many of the plans for improvement of the brownfield are still in their infancy. Some of the proposed green features are a central, walkable business district, wind power generation, integrated public transportation and the return of the streetcar.

The shopping district, Park Forest Plaza, around which Park Forest grew in the 1950s was largely vacant by the 1980s. Recognizing what the mall’s demise would mean for their local economy, the village acquired the land in 1995 and set about creating a “Main Street” downtown. The large, spread out anchor stores were leveled and a more condense, walkable commercial district was installed in its place. Four years later, Park Forest received the Burnham Award for Excellence in Planning by the Metropolitan Planning Council for their redevelopment of the land.

“Sustainable urbanism is such a good idea, and is so profitable,” said Farr, “that when people overcome the bad ways we do things now, it will become the norm within a generation.”

-Danielle Wagner

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