New LEED Programs Expand Reach to Communities and Cities

USGBC’s certification programs encourage innovation in sustainability on a much broader scale than ever before.

Winter 2018   PDF   Written by Calvin Hennick

For more than two decades, building owners have been proudly displaying their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) plaques as proof of their sustainability efforts. Just over a decade ago, LEED for Neighborhood Development launched, guiding green building planners to think on the scale of entire neighborhoods, or even multiple neighborhoods.

It’s time to think bigger.

December 2016 saw the kickoff of the pilot programs for LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities, initiatives to help municipalities and other communities enhance quality of life for their residents, improve their sustainability performance, and verify their leadership. Only a few months later, cities and communities began earning their certifications. Today, the new certification programs are poised to spur the same sort of innovation that LEED has been driving for years—but on a whole new level.

“We want to bring as many cities on board as possible,” says Vatsal Bhatt, director for cities and communities at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “Cities have been sustainability leaders all these years in various different ways, whether we’re using the language of healthy cities, or equitable cities, or smart cities, or sustainable cities. We hope that these new certification programs will become an engine that brings these communities together to push the envelope and do more and more over time.”

Scot Horst, chief executive officer of Arc Skoru Inc., creators of the Arc online performance platform, says the new initiatives are not merely a natural extension of existing certification programs but also a way to generate conversation and encourage progress by capitalizing on the competitive spirit of civic leaders. Arc, created by Green Building Certification Inc. (GBCI), provides users with the ability to submit and manage their sustainability data, which is necessary to participate and certify in the LEED for Cities and Communities programs.

The value we see in having this very simple certification score is in helping people to see whether a place is improving or not,” Horst says. “But we think the real value is going to come in making those numbers more standardized over time, and of higher quality.”

A Holistic View

Roger Platt, senior vice president for strategic partnerships and growth at USGBC, says that the birth of LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities is partly a reflection of the growing role that sustainability officers have already come to play in city halls across the U.S. and around the globe.

“A very substantial portion of the initial directors of sustainability offices, for the first cities that had those, were experts in green building,” Platt notes. “They often pushed to make buildings LEED certified, and there was a way the sustainability director role in cities grew up along with LEED certification. But if you fast-forward 15 years, we’re finding that that role of sustainability director has been far more professionalized, and these people have very ambitious goals. They’re looking at greening their entire city and not just their city buildings.”

LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities are performance-based—as opposed to credits-based—certification programs, meaning that cities and communities earn points for achieving a level of performance on certain metrics, rather than engaging in a particular set of sustainable practices. Users submit their data to GBCI through the Arc platform for a set of sustainability metrics around energy and water use, waste, and transportation (see inset, “Know the Score”). The programs also track and score metrics in “human experience” categories such as education, health, safety, equitability, and prosperity, helping to paint a more holistic picture of cities, rather than focusing solely on factors directly related to environmental sustainability.

know the score

Horst says that the performance-based model gives cities and communities more flexibility in their sustainability approaches. Rather than pursuing a standardized list of green projects—some of which may not be suited to their demographics, climate, or geography—users can do what’s going to work in their own communities. This approach, Horst says, also curbs any potential temptation to “game” the system or “chase” LEED points, by ensuring that certification levels accurately reflect reality.

“People love to be told what they need to do to get a designation,” Horst says. “This is much more about getting a designation based on what’s already happening, and then using the data to show what works best.”

Urban Pioneers

Last August, less than nine months after the program launched, Washington, D.C., was named the world’s first LEED Platinum city. Already, around 25 cities have registered with the LEED for Cities program and another two dozen are in discussions about registering.

“Us getting LEED Platinum, and being the first in the world, was a huge recognition that we’re extremely proud of,” says Archana Vemulapalli, who recently completed a two-year stint as chief technology officer for Washington, D.C. “We knew we were doing the right things, but we wanted to show other cities what we’re doing and how seriously we take it, and also to set an example for other cities that wanted to follow suit. Getting confirmation that we were on the right track was really reinforcing for us.”

Across the Potomac River, Arlington County, Virginia, has also earned LEED for Communities Platinum certification. “The LEED Platinum certification acknowledges to others that Arlington has an ongoing commitment to sustainability and resilience,” says Joan Kelsch, green building programs manager at Arlington’s Department of Environmental Sciences. “Many businesses want to move to communities that have a commitment to sustainability. USGBC is a well-respected organization, and LEED is something that people understand. The certification is proof that we’re meeting those standards. You could spend five pages explaining why Arlington is a sustainable community, or you can show them the LEED Platinum certification. That third-party evaluation is very valuable.”

Mark Hartman is the chief sustainability officer for Phoenix, Arizona.

Mark Hartman is the chief sustainability officer for Phoenix, Arizona.

Phoenix received LEED for Cities Platinum certification in November. Mark Hartman, chief sustainability officer for the city, is hopeful that different cities can learn from each other’s successes. Phoenix, for example, recycles 85 percent of its water and uses less water per capita than many northern cities, and Hartman says the fact that the city “has been thinking about water for 100 years” presents an opportunity to share best practices with other communities that may be just beginning to think seriously about water conservation.

“It’s good getting some recognition,” Hartman says. “But the biggest thing is that we all need to work together to make these things happen. Rather than saying, ‘We’re better than you,’ the message is, ‘This is easy, and you can do it, too.’ It used to be that cities would very much keep everything a secret. Now it’s about what we can do together to make an impact.”

Savona, Italy, is the first European municipality to participate in the LEED for Cities program, and received precertification in October. “We enthusiastically took the chance to participate in the LEED for Cities project because we believe that sustainability is a crucial challenge for the future of communities,” says Mayor Ilaria Caprioglio. “By collecting and analyzing data, we can measure the sustainability level of Savona from every point of view and intervene accordingly, in order to improve performance in each sector. It is our desire to give the new generations an increasingly green, smart, and environmentally friendly city.”

One consequence of the data-based approach to certification, says Platt, is that surprises sometimes pop up when the numbers are crunched. Cities that might typically be neglected in conversations about sustainability can nevertheless be certified at the highest level, depending on what their numbers show. Now, with their data public, these communities aren’t only a part of the conversation. They’re in a position to lead it.

“Some may be surprised by cities that receive Platinum,” Platt says. “LEED for Cities is really going to take us where the data takes us. What it tells us is that these cities have done a tremendous job, both in terms of their environmental footprint and tracking progress toward their goals.”

As participants in a pilot program, the first communities to participate in LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities had to learn about the process as they went along. For example, officials in Phoenix found it difficult to get data from third parties like private waste haulers who worked with the city. And officials in Arlington had never heard of a “Gini coefficient”—a metric designed to represent economic inequality. “Also, it was a bit of a challenge coming up with all the data, but once we got a team together and assigned tasks, it wasn’t difficult,” says Kelsch. “We did not realize at the beginning that we could submit roadmap information like planning documents. Knowing this helped us increase our score to the Platinum level.”

Cities will have to report their data on an ongoing basis to show that they continue to be sustainability leaders among local governments. “We’re hoping that, by creating more competition, these [early] cities will have to work as hard as any city to continue to get those kinds of scores in the future,” Platt says.

Joan Kelsch is the green building programs manager at Arlington, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences. Photo: Jeff Mauritzen

Joan Kelsch is the green building programs manager at Arlington, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences. Photo: Jeff Mauritzen

“We can’t rest on our laurels and say, ‘We’re LEED Platinum today, so we’re good,’” says Vemulapalli. “We have to consistently measure up to that level.”

Why Cities and Communities?

In the U.S., it’s often said that the states are the laboratories of democracy. But when it comes to sustainability initiatives, innovation often happens at the municipal level.

To be sure, leaders in a number of states are fighting for policies that promote sustainability, resiliency, and a higher quality of life, but state governments often have complex political environments, with scattered constituents who have disparate concerns. By contrast, a city government with a determined administration can make enormous progress in a comparatively short amount of time. Moreover, individual cities, towns, and counties are perhaps positioned more than any other level of government to most directly feel the near-term effects of climate change. When storms flood streets, or when polluted air triggers asthma attacks that keep kids out of school, or when a warming planet leads to worsening urban heat islands, city leaders and residents are the ones who feel the impact.

“There is an ethical responsibility that institutions share with citizens,” says Caprioglio. “Sustainability generates well-being, improves quality of life, and contributes to the growth of the territory, with ever-increasing opportunities for development, investments, and the creation of new jobs. The goal is to deliver a better future to our children.”

 Ilaria Caprioglio is the mayor of Savona, Italy. Photo courtesy of the City of Savona

Ilaria Caprioglio is the mayor of Savona, Italy. Photo courtesy of the City of Savona

Jay Wilson, green building program analyst for Washington, D.C.’s, Department of Energy & Environment, likewise emphasizes the role of sustainability in improving life for city residents. “LEED for Cities is an exciting tool that we hope is going to help us engage with residents,” he says. “It’s about greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, but really, it’s about the people who live here, and making D.C. the healthiest, greenest, most livable city that we can. LEED for Cities is just one tool to help us get there, but it’s a robust tool, and the buzz around this is going to help us move more quickly than if we had to create these tools on our own.”

The opportunity to effect change at a citywide scale, says Platt, will be especially important in countries with developing economies, where the built environment is growing rapidly. “In the last four or five years, an increasingly substantial amount of the engagement that we’re involved with—in our efforts to green both individual buildings, as well as neighborhoods and cities—has come from emerging economies, especially in Asia,” he says. “They were advising us that we needed to think bigger than individual buildings. India and China are in the midst of creating cities at remarkable velocities. The idea that it’s going to be one building at a time is not as compelling in that part of the world.”

The programs have generated external excitement, as well. Bank of America Charitable Foundation recently announced a grant program designed to recognize the sustainability and green building achievements of U.S. cities pursuing LEED for Cities certification, which will go toward educational resources, technical support, and financial assistance to aid in their pursuit of LEED for Cities certification. Six cities have already been selected: Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, and San Jose.

“As a financial services company, we work every day to help accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy by deploying capital towards sustainable investments,” says Alex Liftman, global environmental executive at Bank of America. “We believe this program also has the power to facilitate this transition, and to effect broad and lasting environmental change, which aligns with our company’s focus on sustainable growth and environmental business.”

Jay Wilson, the green building program analyst for the Department of Energy & Environment, stands outside Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. America’s first public high school for African Americans, Dunbar bridges the past to the present as the highest rated LEED Platinum school project in the country. Photo: Jeff Mauritzen

Jay Wilson, the green building program analyst for the Department of Energy & Environment, stands outside Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. America’s first public high school for African Americans, Dunbar bridges the past to the present as the highest rated LEED Platinum school project in the country. Photo: Jeff Mauritzen

“LEED for Cities encourages and drives large-scale solutions by setting citywide goals which help mobilize all sectors connected to the built environment,” Liftman adds. “With urbanization increasing across the globe, cities need to be especially focused on growing sustainably, while incorporating resilience and potential climate change impacts into plans for the future. LEED for Cities provides a roadmap to do exactly that.”

Collaboration and Competition

During the pilot program, USGBC officials are trying to learn as much as possible from the data cities submit, and they’re hoping to arrive at some conclusions about which sorts of initiatives produce the best results. These findings, in turn, will theoretically spur the same sort of market transformation that LEED for buildings has brought to the architecture, construction, and materials industries.

“We’re in the business of trying to make sense out of data,” says Horst. “We haven’t really had a system in the past that included things like equity and prosperity, so we’re learning.”

Horst is especially interested in what can be learned from cities with common underlying circumstances but differing sustainability performance levels. “Two cities might be the same size with similar types of populations, but one has invested in a type of infrastructure that allows mass transit,” he says. “What’s the difference in terms of greenhouse gases? What’s the difference in the health and well-being of people? Instead of telling people they should be investing in mass transit, we want them to see what the difference is between two places in a variety of ways. We think that’s probably the best education.”

Horst and other stakeholders hope that the new certification programs result in common benchmarking and standards, so that cities will not only be tracking their sustainability data but will also be able to put that information in context and easily compare themselves with other municipalities.

“We’re trying to create that point of reference for a discussion about what’s actually working,” says Platt. “We think there’s a close relationship between tracking progress and actually making progress. These [pilot] cities are good models for evidence-based learning. Every year that they’re making progress, they’re also gathering data that helps them make adjustments to make even more progress.”

Wilson says that when Washington, D.C., passed an environmental benchmarking ordinance, the phrase “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” became a mantra for the city. “LEED for Cities is similar,” he says. “This gives cities a way to compare themselves against each other, and then pass policies to help improve things.”

Kelsch admits that a spirit of healthy competition helped spur Arlington County to pursue LEED for Cities certification on the heels of its neighbor to the east. “Competition is a great way to motivate people,” she says. “We thought, if D.C. can do this, I bet we can do this, too. There’s a little bit of ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ but we also inspire each other and cooperate regionally on a lot of issues.”

Kelsch says she hopes that, in addition to encouraging information sharing between communities, the LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities programs will spur cooperation between different departments within the same community. “We have a lot of different components in our environmental and economic prosperity work,” she says. “We do green building, we manage open space. But we don’t look at them as a whole. We look at them individually.”

“This is an opportunity for us to look at everything as a package, and be able to show the community and ourselves that this is having a larger impact,” Kelsch adds. “I hope it motivates folks to see that this work shouldn’t be isolated. We’re all in this together.”

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