LEED Cities shun a one-size-fits all approach to sustainability

LEED Cities shun a one-size-fits all approach to sustainability


Winter 2019 | Written by Calvin Hennick

Cities aren’t built with blueprints. While two different buildings may be the exact same size, or incorporate identical construction materials, the same isn’t true of municipalities, which grow organically over time. As a result, cities face wildly different challenges from one another when it comes to sustainability—depending on their size, location, climate, existing infrastructure, and other factors.

“Each city has such a unique way to address their challenges,” says Vatsal Bhatt, director for cities and communities at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “Rather than us telling the cities what they’re supposed to do, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Cities takes an approach of talking to cities about their progress, understanding where they are, and giving them tools to measure, track, and improve their performance.”

A city in the southwest might reduce energy consumption by installing solar panels, for instance, while wind might be a better fit for a city in the Great Plains. Whereas an urban center can cut down on the number of miles its residents drive by expanding transit options, a smaller city might turn to solutions like carpool programs and new infrastructure to support cyclists and pedestrians. LEED for Cities strongly supports locally practical solutions, and rather than prescribing which specific strategy or policy to deploy to become more sustainable, the program asks cities to gather data and documentation around 14 citywide variables (see “Crunching the Numbers”), then scores them and lets them see how they compare to their peers around the country.

“We are giving that common language and vocabulary to cities,” says Bhatt. “That’s an aspect that no one else in the world is offering.”

From its inception in late 2016, LEED for Cities was designed to be flexible, recognizing cities for their unique strengths while also providing them with an objective look at areas for improvement. (This echoes LEED certification for buildings; while two LEED Gold skyscrapers have similar environmental impacts, the building teams may use a very different mix of credits and points to achieve that status.) So far, 86 cities and communities have been certified (including a number that were initially recognized by the STAR Community Rating System, which was combined with the LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities programs last fall). And each of the 86 has its own story to tell about what they’ve accomplished around sustainability—and how LEED for Cities certification will continue to push their efforts forward.

Here are five of them.

Hoboken, New Jersey

In late 2017, Hoboken officials finalized a sustainability master plan that called for a way to establish goals based on benchmarks and track data over time. Around that same time, Jennifer Gonzalez, the city’s chief sustainability officer, began talking to USGBC New Jersey about the LEED for Cities certification program, which provides exactly that.

Gonzalez says she was attracted to the rating system not only because it would help the city measure its progress toward sustainability goals, but also because she felt that the city could apply LEED for Cities to its own unique achievements and challenges.

“We wanted to have benchmarking that was consistent, and not based on Hoboken’s scale, but based on a nationally accepted framework,” she says. “The reason LEED appealed to me so much is because they weren’t asking us to take a series of formulaic actions that don’t apply to us. They basically said, ‘How does biodiversity apply to you?’ and ‘What does resilience mean to your community?’ I value that a lot.”

“LEED for Cities is truly meant for cities, and USGBC knows that not every city is the same,” Gonzalez adds. “It’s a lot more flexible than some other systems.” Hoboken officially achieved LEED Gold earlier this year.

The process, Gonzalez says, forced city officials to track down data that might otherwise have been overlooked. She says that officials weren’t surprised by poor air quality metrics (the city sits next to the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and officials have been working with a regional health commission to improve air quality), or by the fact that residential and commercial energy use were the largest contributors to Hoboken’s greenhouse gas emissions. But, she says, the reporting process revealed some discrepancies between the city’s and county’s statistics regarding solid waste, and also showed that vehicle traffic accounts for a surprisingly high level of emissions, even in this one-square-mile city.

“We gathered data on schools, utilities, hospitals—mostly from public documents, or data the city has been keeping, but not managing very well,” Gonzalez says. “It was taking all this data we had, and then putting it into one place, which was a very good exercise. It required us to work really closely with departments across the city government.”

Despite its location just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Hoboken has a population of only around 55,000. That size, Gonzalez says, allows the city to test solutions on a workable scale. For instance, the city has built “resiliency parks” designed to hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of storm water, and received a $230 million grant to create a levee to protect against flooding.

“We talk frequently about how the city is the perfect size to test things out,” Gonzalez says. “We call Hoboken an urban laboratory for climate adaptation. With such a close-knit community, we’re able to engage with our residents on these issues. There’s a benefit to our size in that respect.”

Hurricane Sandy flooded much of Hoboken, disrupting the transit hub for more than 50,000 people. The Hudson River Project will manage storm water from flooding and surge along the Hudson River. It explores using hard infrastructure and soft landscape—including permeable paving, rain gardens, and rainwater storage—for coastal defense.

Climate Smart San José is a plan to reduce air pollution, save water, and create a stronger and healthier community. Switching public vehicle fleets to alternative fuels and creating clean technology jobs are just two ways the city will achieve its sustainability goals.

Kerrie Romanow is San Jose’s chief sustainability officer.

San Jose, California

Setting San Jose next to Hoboken illustrates the flexibility of LEED for Cities.

With a population of more than 1 million, San Jose is around 20 times larger than Hoboken. At 180 square miles, it covers nearly 15,000 percent more land area. San Jose sits in California, 3,000 miles from New Jersey. In many ways, the two cities are opposites.

And yet, says San Jose Chief Sustainability Officer Kerrie Romanow, LEED for Cities doesn’t “favor” any particular type of community, and is instead a good fit for both.

“That’s one of the things I like about it,” Romanow says. “I’m a big advocate of playing to your strengths, and I felt like the system really lets you leverage your strengths. Hoboken is not going to have the same amount of solar energy potential as we do, but they’re going to have much better mobility options. I liked that it’s not a competition. It’s about doing the best with the options you have, and we’re all able to do that.”

With 300 days of sunshine each year, San Jose is a national leader in solar installations. Romanow says the city has also expanded bike lanes, implemented a bike share program, and enacted water conservation efforts that resulted in a 30 percent per capita reduction in water usage during a recent drought.

Still, says Romanow, going through the certification process helped city stakeholders see areas for improvement. For example, Romanow was surprised by how many different utility accounts the city has, and officials are now working to make sure they can consistently track consumption across all the various accounts.

The city achieved LEED Platinum last fall, and Romanow says she sees the designation as an opportunity not only to build recognition outside of San Jose but also to build political capital within the city.

“If you were to ask people across the country, ‘Is San Jose an environmental leader?’, I don’t know that many people would say ‘yes,’” Romanow says. “They wouldn’t know how far we’ve come. We’re more head-down, do-the-work, versus advertising the successes we’ve had.”

“If we hadn’t embarked on the LEED program, we would still be wondering if we’re doing all the right things,” she adds. “This reinforces that we’re on the right track. Politically, that’s really helpful. We have a lot of work to do, like every city. But this helps keep us focused and make sure we only move forward, and not backward. Without a tracking system, it’s easy to kid yourself. If you’re not measuring things, you never know.”

From residential recycling to business-material reclamation efforts and an environmentally advanced police station, Franklin is a leader in sustainable initiatives.

Franklin, Tennessee

For officials in Franklin, Tennessee, seeking LEED for Cities certification was partly about planting a “stake in the ground”—announcing the city’s green emphasis to the world, while also giving officials a tool to better measure progress.

“We thought there would be value in getting involved and using the Arc platform,” says Andrew Orr, Franklin’s principal planner. “We really liked being able to use the online forum and compare and contrast our data with that of other communities. Obviously, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Having benchmarks and being able to share those is an important thing for the community.”

“The city had wanted to stake a claim as the greenest city in the Southeast,” says Mike Leonard, a member of the Franklin Sustainability Commission and a sustainability consultant in Nashville. “LEED for Cities seemed like the ideal platform to say, ‘In the spirit of transparency, let’s all put our information out there.’ It’s a stake in the ground to say, ‘Here’s where we are.’”

Franklin closely tracks its solid waste metrics and has a robust curbside recycling program, along with a composting program and drop-off recycling for electronics and materials like paint and antifreeze. For some metrics, such as water usage, the city has to use countywide data until it can create a way to accurately track consumption in the city. Franklin has also undertaken significant bicycle infrastructure improvements and conducted street lighting retrofits in recent years, and Orr and Leonard say the city scored well in “human experience” categories like education, equitability, prosperity, and health.

The city achieved LEED Silver last fall. Leonard says city officials are determined not to treat the certification as an “end goal,” but rather will leverage the process to spur further improvements.

“Once we have a little more time to distill, I hope we take a step back and really think about what specific actions we can take to use this data and platform to justify policies and strategies that drive changes in these metrics,” he says. “It helped paint a true picture of where we were and what we had to work on, and it got a conversation going.”

Orr calls the city’s certification a “snapshot in time,” and says he hopes it will spark collaboration with other communities. “There’s a fair amount of peer exchange in this work,” he says. “Other cities will call, or I’ll call them, and we can share ideas and explore what’s working well or how we did something. You can inspire action in other communities, or other communities can inspire us to action. Hopefully, LEED for Cities is something that will do that. We think it’s great.”

Rochester, Minnesota

Rochester, home to the flagship hospital of the Mayo Clinic, wants to be “America’s City for Health.”

To city officials, that means making Rochester as sustainable as possible.

“We’re using a broad definition of what creates a healthy city,” says Kevin Bright, sustainability director both for the city and for the Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency, which is leading an 20-year effort to recruit $5 billion in investment and create 30,000 new jobs in the city. “As a result of that initiative, and all the change we’re expecting, we wanted to track these key metrics over time to understand how our city is changing, particularly from an environmental and equity perspective.”

Bright says he saw value in being able to compare Rochester’s progress to that of other cities. Rochester has undertaken several high-profile energy conservation projects in recent years, and also has a decades-old, 100-mile network of bike trails that were designed to double as floodable land—an early example of resilience-focused thinking from long before it was in vogue. However, Rochester residents drive a lot and use a large amount of water per capita, both areas where smaller cities typically find themselves at a bit of a disadvantage compared to some larger metropolitan areas. (Most people in New York City, for instance, don’t water lawns or drive to work.) But, Bright says, LEED for Cities paints an accurate picture of what the city needs to work on.

“I could see how a smaller city like Rochester could be put off by the rating system, because it’s honest,” Bright says with a light laugh. “I could be offended by it. But it gives us clear objectives to work on moving forward. I see it as helpful, in particular because of its honesty.”

“Your size does affect the efficiencies you’re able to attain,” Bright adds. “But alternatively, we can be a lot more nimble than bigger cities, and respond to things a lot more quickly and effectively. There are pros and cons.”

The city achieved LEED Gold in November 2018, making it the first Minnesota municipality awarded that distinction.

Bright says that LEED for Cities will give Rochester officials a way to better track their goals. The city, he says, hopes to increase density downtown and implement a park-and-ride program and other transit options, with the goal of reducing the rate of single-occupancy vehicles from above 70 percent to below 50 percent.

“Ultimately, we want to make our community healthier and stronger, and this platform provides a lot of metrics that we can work towards,” Bright says. “I see it as a way to help drive change and measure improvement. I like our chances.”

The reconstruction of the intersection at Plum and Walnut Streets at the Lancaster Brewing company features rain gardens and a porous patio to keep stormwater out of the city’s over burdened sewer system.

Designated as a market town in 1730, the City of Lancaster is home to Lancaster Central Market, the oldest, continuously running public farmers’ market in the country.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Douglas Smith, senior planner for Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is wary of taking too much credit for the city’s LEED Gold certification, which was announced last summer.

The city has tackled a number of sustainability-focused projects in recent years, including the installation of a WiFi water metering system to detect leaks, zoning changes that encourage multifamily housing and bicycle parking, a walkability study, and the purchase of renewable energy credits. But some elements, such as a dense historic city core and a farmers’ market that dates to the early 1700s, have been in place for far longer than current city officials.

Smith says he sees LEED for Cities not as a way to trumpet Lancaster’s past achievements, but as a launching pad for the city’s future initiatives.
“While it gives us a good starting place, we’re hesitant to take too much credit for what we’ve achieved,” Smith says. “But the certification lets us know where we stand among other communities, and where we need to make improvements. The thinking was that this would allow us to house a lot of the data that we’re already tracking and be able to share it externally.”

“People might think, ‘You’ve achieved this status, you don’t have anything else to do,’” says Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace. “That’s not the case. The Gold certification is really to celebrate the starting point of the journey. It’s providing a baseline, and it’s a way for us to set targets. I want to go for the biggest bang for our buck. If you want to reduce [emissions], you need to know where you’re starting from, and you need to know what the major contributors are.”

Smith says that, although Lancaster still has work to do, there’s a “sense of pride” in a city with a population of under 60,000 people being among the first to achieve LEED for Cities certification. “Partly, it’s because we have such limited staff resources,” he says. “Accommodating these sorts of projects is always in addition to our daily workload. It has to be integrated into our daily jobs. We look to other smaller cities as progressive models, and it’s nice to think of ourselves as vying for a position among these other progressive cities.”

Going forward, Lancaster officials want to use the LEED for Cities data tracking as a way to spur efforts to lower the number of vehicle miles traveled, improve water efficiency, and add to the city’s tree canopy. “The thought of moving the needle on some of these things is pretty daunting,” Smith says. “But I don’t think it’s insurmountable, and it’s what needs to be done. We applied because we wanted to know where we stood with other cities, and it provided us a framework to track some of our work. Over time, I think we’ll see measurable changes.” 

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