Sustainability is a popular word, and I think that’s mostly because it can mean so many different (but mostly positive) things: environmentally friendliness, durability, longevity, monetary balance. I would be willing to bet that at the 24th annual Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit this week, every single session touches on some element of sustainability. At least that’s the case with every session I’ve been to so far.
DMedina, via Morguefile
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But how can you identify elements of sustainability in your community? F. Kaid Benfield, author of People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think about Greener, Healthier Cities, told attendees today that even if a community invests in 100% net-zero buildings, that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. In fact, if getting to that place requires a lot of individuals to get in their cars and drive to a parking lot, the true carbon cost can be much higher than the regional average.
“We spend more energy going to and from the average office building than the building itself emits,” Benfield said. “The environmental footprint is not limited to what goes on inside the building.”
While walkability, transit, and bike paths can help minimize that carbon cost, Benfield noted that too much density can be a turn-off. And if residents and visitors aren’t comfortable in a space, it doesn’t really matter how sustainable it is. “Density does bring urban intensity,” he noted, adding that an area that can achieve something as minimal as nine households per acre can see the benefits of high density while still building at a very “human” scale: “We serve our cause well when we build the right kind of density, when we build density with sensitivity.”
Along those same lines, Benfield noted that the most important element to a sustainable area in a community is how much affection the community has for it. “It doesn’t do any good to have a building that is sustainable if we don’t work to sustain it,” he said. “Lovability is a mushy word; it is not easy to measure. But that does not make it unimportant.”
And how can you tell a place is loved? Benfield suggested the most sustainable, best-designed places in your town will have visible evidence of use from the oldest and youngest members of your community: “If kids and elders love a place, you have a place that will be loved, a place that is sustainable, a place that will be cared for over time.”