COMMENTARY: Building without Carbon

Planning a Low-Carbon Community Starts from the Ground Up

Terramor Village in Southern California is a planned sustainable community that offers a glimpse into the green future.© Photos EDAW, Inc.

The single most important factor in developing a low-carbon project is the early integration of sustainable strategies into the planning process. By starting early, "horizontal" infrastructure and site planning components can be better integrated with "vertical" building improvements, allowing the builder and master developer to realize offsetting costs and savings. Also, demand reduction programs for energy and water can be better integrated at both smaller and larger scales.

Integrated Design Process

Integrated design is a key factor in achieving a reduced carbon footprint. Integrated design has two dimensions. The first involves the design process itself, which requires an increased level of collaboration between multiple disciplines and stakeholders, especially during the initial stages of planning. Rather than working in isolation from each other, various engineering disciplines, ecologists, architects and planners interact together to develop new strategies, systems and products that better support a low-carbon outcome.

The second dimension is about interrelationships: how natural systems, infrastructure and building design affect each other so that high levels of performance in one system can be leveraged to reduce the costs or improve the performance of others. This is called "whole systems thinking" where high-performance development components are integrated into the whole, allowing components to generate both environmental benefits and financial savings.

Pick a Low-Carbon Site

Low-carbon communities incorporate natural elements but are also located close to emerging job and service areas.

To achieve a truly low-carbon development, a change in thinking about site location is required. Historically, site selection for large-scale projects has tended to be "opportunistic." Developers seek out parcels when they become available for purchase at a reasonable price with acceptable risks. After the land is identified and evaluated through due diligence, a vision, development program, and plans are created to fit within the site"s context, unique characteristics, and market setting.

Although this traditional approach does not prevent the use of energy-saving development concepts, it may limit the depth and degree of greenhouse gas reduction compared to a more carbon-friendly site approach.

Rather than buying a good piece of land and then trying to build a low-carbon project, developers should search for land with certain inherent low-carbon characteristics. Obvious examples are redevelopment and infill sites because these are usually closer to job and service centers, locations that require shorter everyday vehicle trips.

If a developer wants a large-scale project to have a reduced carbon footprint, the site selected should have some or all of the following attributes:

" Close to major existing or emerging job and service centers.
" Contiguous to existing or emerging regional transit corridors.
" Located to achieve a jobs/ housing balance within the project.
" Located to create job/housing linkage with specific major regional employers.
" Served by local utility companies that buy back project-generated renewable energy.
" Within a governmental jurisdiction that provides incentives for low-carbon community development.

Urban Form = Transportation

After location, the primary determinant of a project"s carbon efficiency is its physical form and the mix of its internal components. The compactness of the development footprint, balance of land uses, density, and internal patterns of connectivity have a profound influence on energy use, driven to a degree by vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Organizing large projects around a hierarchy of activity, employment and density cores allows all aspects of daily living, working and shopping to be met with fewer vehicle trips. Cores can be developed at various levels of complexity and at neighborhood, district, village and community scales. Core configurations can have a dramatic impact on energy and resource conservation by supporting the basic needs of a neighborhood or community; facilitating social, political, and spiritual interaction; and, through the concentration of population, speeding the development of regional transit.

The concept of employment/housing linkage is also a key tool in reducing a project"s carbon footprint. Matching the number of jobs created in a community with the number of homes only goes so far in reducing off-site commuter trips. If most residents living in a community don"t actually work there because of the type of job they have, the benefits of a balanced community are reduced. In a 2002 study, the California Energy Commission found that state-wide mobile emissions constituted about 40 percent of total emissions. In a recent "bedroom community" our firm evaluated in Northern California, that percentage rose to over 90 percent.


So how does all of this relate to the current economic outlook and dire condition of the housing market? Keep in mind that:

" Climate change legislation will not be held off until the market improves.
" Whatever new regulations are phased in will create an equal playing field so impacts on pricing and land value will equalize across the industry over time.
" Those developers best prepared will incur the least economic impact when the market returns.
" Many technologies and practices are already in testing and are being marketed by major builders, so costs are coming down, expertise is developing and the early research and development stigma of sustainable development is dissipating.

Low-carbon—and low-water—community development are going to be a part of our future whether we believe in global warming or not. Working together, the public and privates sectors need to be developing methodologies that take the pain and guesswork out of sustainable development and begin to integrate key low-carbon concepts and practices into day-to-day operations and project planning.


STEVE KELLENBERG is a principal of EDAW, Inc., and has more than 25 years of experience in large-scale master planned community and new town planning projects. Kellenberg leads EDAW’s Green Communities initiative.