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Thoughts on “Sustainable Urbanism” from Douglas Farr: LEED is Not Enough

A few weeks ago, speaking at the Municipal Art Society-Urban Center in Midtown, Douglas Farr provided a critique of the U.S. Green Building Council and its LEED system, suggesting that the organization focuses primarily on standalone buildings and holds a bias against urbanism, among other things. Farr, chair of the USGBC’s LEED-Neighborhood Development (ND) initiative, board member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and President of Farr Associates, gave a presentation entitled “Sustainable Urbanism as the New American Dream.” Although he acknowledged the EPA’s Smart Growth Principles (1996), the Congress for the New Urbanism, and green building as the pioneering reforms to combat climate change, Farr emphasized that LEED, standing alone, is not a sufficient solution to the problem.

He argued that the lack of cooperation among the various USGBC committees in LEED’s formation created a system hinged together as if by a staple gun. As a result, he claimed that LEED is a system “inattentive to context.” He cited West Brazos Junior High School in Texas, which is located on a drive-to location, yet still received a LEED Certified rating, going further to say that thirty to forty percent of LEED-certified schools are located in similar “drive to” areas, rather than in urban locations near public transportation. He furthered the case of bias against urbanism, quoting a LEED-CI pilot which stated that “the LEED Rating System does not distinguish between the size (or quantity) of mass transit systems in proximity to a project. . . . Awarding extra credit would create an added advantage for projects located in larger metropolitan areas.” In short, Farr drew a fine line that green building is part of the solution, but that the LEED label, at least in so far as it continues its focus on standalone buildings, is only a “halfway measure,” adding that “halfway measures are no longer acceptable.”

So rather than focus on standalone buildings, which he claims are at the heart of current LEED legislation, Farr moved the discussion to neighborhoods and “Sustainable Urbanism.” In an interesting graphic, Farr addressed the amount of time it took to reform “human tools” to sustainable levels. Generalizing, he said that it took about 5 years to reform the light bulb, 10 for the automobile, 25 for buildings, while it would take 100+ years for neighborhoods. Interestingly, he noted that we have addressed those technologies that are easier to reform without attacking those which will take significantly more time. Thus, Farr’s solution was to begin focusing on neighborhoods and Sustainable Urbanism as soon as possible. He referred to successful Sustainable Urbanism projects in Normal, Illinois and 46th and Hiawatha in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As solutions to the problems, Farr advocated his own 2030 Communities Campaign, LEED-ND, and the “commoditization of sustainable urbanism.”

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One Response to Thoughts on “Sustainable Urbanism” from Douglas Farr: LEED is Not Enough

  1. Anne Whitacre December 4, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    Some years ago, (and perhaps a LEED version ago) I calculated an exercise where there were two options: 1) use an existing old building and retrofit to meet LEED silver or 2) dismantle the old building, take all the materials across the street, reconstruct it and go for LEED silver. The dismantling exercise reached LEED silver much faster than just using the “same old” building again.
    We forget that part of the origins of the USGBC was to SELL PRODUCTS. Unlike a lot of professional organizations, the USGBC has always had manufacturers as members, and the organization really got going in the late 1990′s during a building slump as a way to differentiate various manufacturers and create a new market. That is why you see such completely ridiculous premises as “bamboo” flooring being touted as sustainable even though it can’t be refinished and has to be shipped 6000 miles. Or linoleum — which was nearly a dead market until a new marketing campaign as “green” made it suddenly fasionable and popular. (keep in mind, linoleum requires at least 20% more maintenance than vinyl; none of it is made in the US (go find out why) and so it has to be shipped 5000 miles. Even the local product rep thinks that the resurgence of linoleum is ridiculous, but his paycheck has done very well.
    There have always been people concerned about the Green Movement — I have a first edition of “The Greening of America” that came out in 1970, and I helped organize the first Earth Day while I was in high school, — but there are incredible inconsistencies in the LEED ratings systems that are often due to their constitutent manufacturers’ interests.

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