A Holistic View of Sustainability

New green certification programs give communities the flexibility to set their own goals and targets.
April 10, 2017
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

When it comes to energy and environmentally friendly buildings, no way of keeping score is more familiar than LEED, the venerable Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification and rating system. The nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) released its first version of LEED in 2000, which was "technology light," relying on paper-based reports to support certification.

LEED has come a long way since then, growing in sophistication as it has been joined by a host of other certification programs aimed at other measures of sustainability. Now USGBC, founded in 1993 and long known as the principle driving force for the country's green-building movement, is reaching out well beyond its traditional building-universe perimeter with two new pilot certification programs, LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities, hosted on a new technology platform known as Arc.

The new offerings are designed to help both cities and other types of places, such as towns, sub-sections of cities and regions, become more sustainable, resilient and livable. They join a growing family of nine affiliated rating systems that address everything from improving power system performance to creating environmentally friendly parking structures to achieving the goal of zero waste.

Arc, a joint project of USGBC and Green Business Certification Inc., is a for-profit web-based interface designed to connect users to all of these as well as to non-USGBC-affiliated rating systems. "Instead of us saying that you can only do LEED to get a LEED performance score, we are saying, 'Do all the great work you are already doing; work with any program that works for you,'" explained Scot Horst, USGBC's former chief product officer who is now CEO of the company that operates Arc, in a GreenBiz interview. "We only ask that you set goals, plan and commit to share your data so we can provide a performance score and tell you how the work you're doing is working relative to your own benchmark as well as local and global benchmarks."

This is a remarkable development for the sustainability movement, one that opens the door for cities to set their own goals and targets that can be shared and compared with those of other communities across the globe. Based on their experience, communities can choose (or not) to pursue LEED or other certification programs, picking those that are a better fit for their own goals. In the past, for example, LEED has been criticized for targeting only the top 25 percent of owners seeking to make their buildings greener than existing industry standards. Horst notes that the new approach recognizes "that leadership can occur at any point and anywhere."

 

LEED for Cities is, in a sense, an outgrowth of that grassroots leadership. "We had a lot of requests for applying LEED at the city scale," Gretchen Sweeney, USGBC's vice president for LEED implementation, explained in a recent interview. "We knew that cities need something in order to capture a variety of metrics and put them into a holistic score."

The new LEED programs encompass five categories: energy, water, waste, transportation and "human experience." Within each of these categories are 14 metrics that, when tallied, are translated into a score from 1 to 100 for each category. This enables competition and comparisons, helps cities and communities see their progress in a wider context, and gives them simple, yet thorough, metrics to communicate to their stakeholders.

There are those, of course, who question whether it's even possible to define and measure the factors underlying such seemingly amorphous concepts as livability and resilience. Cities are, after all, incredibly complex webs of interrelated systems operating in widely diverse environments. Can the dynamics of communities' water, energy, waste and transportation systems, their building standards, and even their human experience be reduced to specific metrics that can be used to guide future design and planning efforts?

If for no other reason than to address this question, it's encouraging to see that USGBC's digital transformation encompasses distinct participation options, one that follows the traditional LEED rating system and another that gives a community broad flexibility to measure what interests it most. Each will create a rich flow of information that will no doubt refine and improve our understanding of what it takes to make a city a great place to live. And perhaps most importantly, both will help public officials view, think and talk about the future of their communities as complex systems of deeply interdependent parts.