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LEED Neighborhood Development Wants You to Build More More More
Can you construct your way to a green neighborhood? Photo by Dean Terry.

Can you construct your way to a green neighborhood? Photo by Dean Terry.

For the real nerds among you, go read Kaid Benfield’s 3-part series about the changes in the LEED Neighborhood Development criteria from their pilot program here, here, and here. It’s deep in the weeds—how do you define buildable land for density purposes? How far from the next development can a new one be? SLLp1! GIBc3!—but it’s very much worth reading. Benfield is appropriately honest about the compromises made in setting these definitions and delightfully scornful of the rest of LEED’s complete ignorance of planning and land use issues.

I have one specific complaint that Benfield doesn’t raise, though, and it’s right there in the name: Neighborhood Development. As far as I can tell, you can only be a LEED-ND neighborhood if you are a new neighborhood.

Now there’s nothing wrong with growth. There is plenty of need for up-zoning low-density areas and for infill in both emptied out urban cores and underdeveloped suburbs that could become less auto-dependent. What’s more, it will be really important to be able to give good projects in each of those areas recognition. There’s no question that there are benefits to developers and to tenants to get that LEED certification and it’s good that we incentivize good building practices.

But as currently structured, this incentivizes good building not only relative to bad building, but also relative to no building. Imagine a hypothetical area where streetcar suburbs or transit-oriented hubs are next to bad exurbs. A developer takes a hunk of land right at the line between them and develops a LEED-ND certified subdivision. This subdivision is slightly less green than the existing transit hub, which cannot be LEED certified. Now a young family, environmentally conscious but not really paying attention, is deciding to move to the area. They will be shifted towards the new subdivision. Or imagine that the county this hypothetical is taking place in wants to help go green and so gives tax breaks or zoning waivers to LEED-certified neighborhoods. One of these areas gets it; one does not. And so on.

Benfield points to the explanation for why LEED is structured like this: “NRDC’s two partners in the undertaking, CNU and USGBC, are both primarily private-sector organizations with members standing to benefit from LEED-ND certification.” There’s no way for CNU or USGBC’s members (Benfield isn’t quite right – both CNU and USGBC are actually 501(c)(3) non-profits, but with members and ties to the private sector) to make a dime on pointing out which neighborhoods that have existed for 100 years are particularly green.

It’s the planning equivalent of green consumerism, or as I prefer to call it, eco-narcissism.

It would be wonderful, though, if there were an organization that would take the LEED-ND criteria and then apply it across the entire scope of a region. That way you could know that Twinbrook Station in Rockville is LEED-ND gold, but some apartment building in Dupont Circle is LEED-ND platinum. That would be a great way of reappropriating the strength of the LEED brand for more progressive aims.

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  • LEED ND for existing neighborhoods can play a significant role in revitalizing our neighborhoods. There is however very little interest in developing LEED ND criteria for existing neighborhoods. Virtually all the efforts I see point towards new buildings or new construction in neighborhoods. I am dissapointed in APA in not taking the lead in providing more guidance to the folks at LEED by integrating neighborhood planning to LEED ND certification. Virtually 90% of America is about existing neighborhoods. Imagine the impact of a LEED ND program for certifying existing neighborhoods. It can generate substantial energy related employment to fix homes and create more awareness all over the country. One option is to provide a rating for Existing Neighborhoods just like a rating system currently in place for LEED buildings.

  • Noah Kazis

    Kaid, thank you for the great original posts as well as the thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree more with basically every single thing you wrote. But it seems I wasn’t clear enough. I don’t mean new neighborhood but rather new construction. In the Melrose Commons project, could the blocks around the new construction be LEED-ND certified or just those that were rebuilt?

  • Thanks for the link and the comments. I hope it helps that those of us deep into LEED-ND are definitely looking into certifying existing neighborhoods in a future iteration. There are complicated issues regarding boundaries, legal control, and who gets certified.

    But it’s still not correct that a LEED-ND project must inherently be a new neighborhood. In fact, my most fervent hope is that we have written the criteria so as to encourage and reward the placing of development within our existing communities – such as the wonderful Melrose Commons project in the Bronx, mentioned above – rather than in the kind of sprawl you somewhat cycnically depict in Dean Terry’s photo. Given that, over the next 25 years, the US is forecast to absorb 78 million new people, over 50 million new households, and over 80 billion square feet of new nonresidential development, we think it’s pretty important to try to influence where that development goes and in what shape.

    LEED-ND is far from perfect, but it is another tool in the sustainability box, and an important one. We will continue to need others.

  • Actually, there is at least one LEED ND pilot that is NOT a new development. It’s Magnusson Architecture & Planning and Nos Quedamos’ Melrose North pilot. It actually wrapped the pilot around a piece of the Melrose North Urban Renewal Area (, in which MAP/Nos Quedamos and many other community-based & affordable housing developers have built green buildings. MAP will be presenting their urban in-fill LEED ND pilot at Greenbuild 09: “LEED ND in Existing Urban & Suburban Contexts: Public and Private Benefits” (

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  • JD

    Wow. This is really an unfortunate post. I’m sorry to say it just reads as ignorant. I really don’t want to get into it, but 501(c)3 (no, there aren’t parentheses around the ‘3’) is an IRS-designated status for non-stock, not-for-profit corporations that have taken a tax-exempt election in their incorporating state and received federal tax exempt status. Again, maybe this isn’t that important, but Benfield is right and you are wrong in correcting his statement that they “are both primarily private-sector organizations”. In fact, that’s what they are. There is no ‘sector’ other than public and private. Clearly, there are philosophical debates about the difference between NGOs or social advocacy organizations, but not-for-profits don’t represent a sector to be differentiated from the private sector. They are private businesses. Period.

    Most importantly, while I fundamentally and absolutely agree with your principal argument, I fear all you’re doing is giving fodder to my dear friends, the ruralists and conservationists that feel the suburbs strike a close balance to integrating nature and development and that 1 unit per 3 acres is preferable to 3 units per acre and so forth. It is arguments like this that rail against the TOOLS we need to convince people that dense new development is good that undermine our hope to both preserve and revitalize existing neighborhoods and build new, integrated, diverse, affordable, healthy and safe new neighborhoods when we have to.