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.