Table of Contents | Chapter 4
Partnerships for Design
Society's investments should aim to create places that people want and can sustain. The built environment is a critical factor in shaping the quality of life, accessibility, environmental burden, and unique character of a community, which contributes to a sense of place. The ways in which homes are designed and constructed, commercial buildings erected, roads and sewers laid, whole neighborhoods and communities planned and built, and open space allocated and preserved are all fundamental to creating a community that is sustainable.
The effect of the built environment is powerful. People can immediately sense when they enter a place whether it is well-designed. Although well-designed communities and buildings may differ in style, scale, or location, they are durable, integrated into their natural setting, and efficient in serving their purposes. Design and architecture also play an important role in facilitating or discouraging human interaction. Communities built with sidewalks, town squares, houses with front porches, parks, and other public meeting places encourage people to interact. Active street life is an excellent indicator of good urban or suburban design. Good planning and design can promote public safety, provide access for handicapped individuals, and create places where children can play safely from traffic.
The principles of sustainable design can be reflected in the physical infrastructure of a community. These principles include efficiency, durability, and respect for the human side of design - aesthetics, history, and culture. Sustainable building design and community planning make efficient use of existing infrastructure, energy, water, materials, and land. Not only does such use save money, it also safeguards public health and the environment and conserves natural resources. Building codes can shape how much energy, water, and materials a building consumes in its construction and operation. Zoning ordinances frequently influence decisions on the construction, design, and siting of buildings and developments, and therefore the degree of likely human interaction. The casual contacts that create a sense of community are accomplished on foot or bicycle not when people are racing around in their cars. Efficient land use protects vulnerable environmental areas that provide important benefits to society. For example, undeveloped coastal areas, watersheds, and floodplains absorb the forces unleashed by nature. In contrast, development in these areas exposes people and their investments to unnecessary risks and natural hazards. Preserved wetlands can filter water far more cheaply than expensive water treatment facilities.
Design, by definition, involves planning and making deliberate decisions. This occurs on different scales in the context of a community. The recommendations in this chapter are organized along these scales of design. The first scale relates to the design of buildings and other structures within the community. The second relates to the physical layout of streets, transit, residences, stores, and workplaces in the community. The third ties the community to others in the region.
Americans spend billions of dollars every year to heat, cool, and operate the buildings in which we spend the vast majority of our time; for example, in 1994 that amounted to $220 billion.4 Energy costs are a major business expenditure, a basic household expense for families, and a huge drain on the local economy. Studies show that in a typical community, 70 to 80 cents of every dollar spent on energy immediately leaves the local economy.5 The United States now imports more oil than it produces, making oil imports a significant contributor to the national trade deficit.6 Energy costs have direct equity impacts for low-income families who often live in the most inefficient, poorly-built homes and drive the most environmentally hazardous automobiles. Research has shown that high utility bills are cited as a primary reason for uprooting low-income families. Low income households spend almost three times the amount for utilities and fuel than the average American households.7 In the United States, the average household spends 18 percent of its family budget on automobile expenses - in comparison to Europeans, who incur only 7 percent.
But through the use of mixed-use community design and energy efficiency technologies - such as daylighting, occupancy sensors, compact fluorescent light bulbs, high-efficiency gas appliances, insulation, and low-flow toilets and showers - energy costs can be lowered significantly. Not only do these designs and technologies save energy and transportation costs and keep money in the local economy, studies have shown that they have multiple positive effects for the people who spend time in these neighborhoods, stores, hospitals, and offices. Daylighting, the use of natural light through windows and skylights, is but one example. In a recent study, researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute documented that sales were significantly higher in areas of a store that was daylit, and that employees were vying to work in those departments. Productivity increased in offices because absenteeism declined and efficient lighting improved the quality of work performed. Patients recovered more easily in hospital rooms that use natural light. These improvements go above and beyond the economic payback of efficiency retrofits. For example, after reducing its electricity use for lighting by up to 90 percent, the Boeing Company achieved a 53 percent return on its investment, and was also rewarded with reduced product defects in its facility near Seattle, Washington.8
Historic buildings give society an important sense of tradition and education about the past. Preservation of existing structures also offers a way to reuse and recycle materials and related infrastructure. By rehabilitating older buildings, communities can save energy and materials and establish a sense of historical continuity. Reuse of existing structures is the ultimate recycling. Through building rehabilitation, society captures the embodied energy of the bricks, mortar, and other materials. The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline is wasted for every eight bricks destroyed and replaced. In addition, construction and demolition debris accounts for 24 percent of America's landfill volume. This debris is not combustible. Buildings that are designed for reuse are particularly important because the adaptability of structures can often dictate whether they are demolished or retrofitted.
Localities have used zoning and other ordinances to foster historical connections. For example, the beauty of Boston's Back Bay with its many bay windows is the result of a zoning code that allowed one-third of each building to extend over the street. Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, number among the many historic areas that have protected their architectural heritage, enhanced property values, and created tourist attractions by using similar design measures and by making historic preservation a priority.
James Howard Kunstler writes that "physical surroundings worth caring about" are "dependent on connectedness, on continuities, on the relation of one thing to another...".9 Unfortunately, instead of fostering connection, community design in the United States often advances the opposite. In the words of architect Peter Calthorpe, the usual landscape of America communities is one "of absolute segregation...not just in terms of income, age or ethnicity, but simple functional uses."
The segregation of land uses is exacerbated by the fact that most American communities have been designed with only one transportation option in mind: the automobile. Limited transportation choices restrict the mobility of those who cannot afford a car, and of those who are too young or too old to drive. This lack of mobility also affects the lives of adults who spend significant time acting as the family "chaffeur." In addition to the economic costs already discussed, stress from congested roads affect people's lives every day. The average American automobile commuter will spend two and one-half years of his or her life stuck in traffic. The environmental costs of a transportation system dependent on single-passenger motor vehicles are also spiraling. Pollution from automobile emissions is a major factor contributing to poor air quality. But until communities are designed to allow for or even encourage other forms of transportation, cars will prevail as the option of choice.
Location efficiency is an important component of sustainable design that connects housing with commercial and recreational areas. Zoning ordinances that allow for mixed-use development, such as having a store, apartment building, and school on the same block, can permit people easy access to a range of facilities and the ability to walk to obtain goods and services. This can result in decreased reliance on automobiles, which reduces congestion and air pollution, and provides access to these goods and services for those who cannot drive. Mixed-use, more accessible, transit-oriented neighborhoods and communities with strong focal points have several advantages over their sprawled and single-use counterparts. They require less infrastructure, and use that infrastructure more efficiently which translates into lower costs for municipal services. They also conserve valuable open space and promote human-scale environment.
Mixed-use development also makes it easier to integrate affordable apartments and homes into neighborhoods instead of creating isolated tracts of subsidized housing for low-income families. By including a diversity of housing choices within close proximity, opportunities are created for low-income residents and elderly households that are increasingly living in multi-family dwellings. These efforts should go hand in hand with the enforcement of fair housing practices to prevent income, ethnic, and/or age discrimination.
Smart growth integrates the principles of sustainable design into development decisions that extend beyond the reach of one community's political jurisdiction. While some spatial expansion of communities may be necessary, it is the nature of that growth that makes the difference.
Sprawl is defined as low-density development that spreads out from the edges of cities and towns. It is poorly planned, and often situated without regard to the overall design of a community or a region. It often results in types of development - such as rambling, cookie-cutter subdivisions and strip malls - that perpetuate homogeneity, make inefficient use of land, and rely almost exclusively on automobiles for transportation. Abandonment and underutilization are the principles embodied in sprawl development. The United States has invested billions of dollars in the infrastructure of existing communities. Abandoning this infrastructure or allowing it to deteriorate and be wasted while spending additional money on new infrastructure for low-density sprawl is the exact antithesis of sustainability.
In addition to the fact that sprawl is inherently economically unsustainable, the environmental and social costs of sprawl are significant. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 4 million prime farmland acres were lost to development between 1982 and 1992.10 In California, the population has grown by 40 percent in the last two decades while vehicle miles traveled has doubled.11 Emissions from automobiles is a major source of the air pollution for which the state has become infamous. In addition, studies are increasingly uncovering the basic inequities of sprawl development. For example, a recent study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project shows that "on average, the nation's urbanized areas received 46% of fiscal year 1995 federal roadway dollars, while such areas represent 64% of the nation's population. Comparatively, rural areas which represent 28% of the population received 39% of FY 1995 roadway funds, and small towns and low-density suburbs which represent 9% of the population received 14% of roadway funds."12 While they are being "left behind," cities are also subsidizing the costs of new development in the suburbs. Sprawl leads to urban decline and also destroys natural habitats and threatens the character of rural life and farming communities. Visionary planner Frederick Law Olmsted described urban parks as "the lungs of a city."13 This also holds true for more rural regions. Forests, farmland, mountains, plains, deserts, and swamps give the nation vital breathing room.
Smart growth saves money by safeguarding society's investments. It promotes the reuse of existing neighborhoods and communities to capture the existing public infrastructure and private investment, and minimizes ongoing support costs. By implementing alternative patterns of growth, communities can accommodate their needs for development while preserving their environment, saving money, and reinvesting in existing neighborhoods. In New Jersey, a recent study concluded that if implemented, growth management policies could save state taxpayers approximately 1.4 billion dollars in capital infrastructure costs, including $699 million in road costs, $561 million in water and sewer costs, and $173 million in schools over a 20-year period.14
While communities are beginning to recognize the economic, environmental, and social costs of sprawl, this inefficient style of development continues unabated in many places. It is important to recognize that sprawl is caused and perpetuated by a combination of incentives established by government policies and individual decisions made in response to a complex array of factors. Sprawl development provides immediate and direct benefits to the people who move there, but the costs are longer-term and borne by society at large. Benefits of developing open space are experienced one house or one business at a time. The benefits are tangible and immediate. The costs are harder to measure. In the absence of accurate accounting measures, market forces perpetuate sprawl.
Private decisions can be greatly influenced by government policies that are not always readily apparent. For example, federal tax policies provide incentives for people to move outward from urban areas by providing an exemption from taxes on capital gains if they move into a more expensive house. Research shows that because most higher-priced homes are located further from center cities, so most homesellers have little choice but to move further out to avoid incurring a tax penalty.15
Given the importance of development decisions, it is essential that communities work cooperatively to understand and evaluate the potential long-term consequences of decisions made and to adapt them for the long-term well-being of the community in its many dimensions. New development should also be based upon the carrying capacity of a region, which is the environment's finite ability to support human activity and continually renew itself. State and federal governments should work collaboratively with communities to devise ways to measure the consequences of different types of development to help local governments make these decisions.
Some communities are working together to create regional strategies for transportation, land use, and economic growth. For example, in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area, communities are working together to plan for the explosive population growth that the area has experienced since the 1980s. By using coordinated decisionmaking and establishing an urban growth boundary, these communities are conserving open space and prime farmland to preserve the quality of life that has attracted so many people to Portland in the first place. Communities are also employing community impact analyses to educate themselves on proposed development during the planning phase when adjustments can be more easily made. For example, in Albany, New York, the Capital District Transportation Committee is developing full-cost accounting measures that include aesthetics and the costs of sprawl development to help them evaluate the impact of transportation and subsequent land use decisions.
While smarter growth will help address a number of problems caused by sprawl development, it is important to recognize that many of the communities that have been neglected and left behind for years will need renewed attention. The cycle of disinvestment in many cities has resulted in safety concerns, inadequate schools, and city services that are considered subpar by many. To stem the exodus of people from cities, these problems must be effectively addressed and the quality of life improved.
Policy Recommendation 5
Action 1. Builders, architects, and engineers should design new buildings and rehabilitate existing ones to be healthy, livable, resource-efficient, and adaptable to new uses. These buildings should feature energy efficiency, daylighting, non-toxic recycled and recyclable construction materials, and designs that promote human interaction. They should also recognize the importance of historic preservation -capturing the resource of the embodied energy of existing buildings - and promote zero-waste building practices.
Action 2. Builders and landscape architects should encourage building design that recognizes the integration between the built and natural environments through landscaping techniques such as the use of native plants, which can reduce the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and water; and shade trees which can reduce energy use.
Action 3. Federal, state, and local governments should work with builders, architects, developers, contractors, materials manufacturers, service providers, community groups, and others to streamline regulations that allow builders and architects to implement the above-outlined sustainable building and construction practices. They should publish or otherwise make available information about model building codes, zoning ordinances, and flexibility for better building permit approval processes for residential and commercial buildings - so that local decisionmakers can adapt them to reflect local conditions and values.
Action 4. Lenders, community groups, and historic preservation groups can work together to identify financing for retrofitting buildings to be energy-efficient and for rehabilitating historic buildings. Local governments can enact ordinances to preserve historic buildings, adapting them for new uses whenever possible, and removing incentives for demolishing them.
Action 5. Educational institutions at all levels, particularly technical and graduate schools, should provide interdisciplinary training to encourage engineers, architects, landscape artists, and other design professionals to integrate sustainable building and construction practices, as outlined above, into common use.
Policy Recommendation 6
Action 1. Local jurisdictions should structure or revise local zoning regulations and permit approval processes to encourage mixed-used, mixed-income development co-located with diverse transportation options in areas that are already developed and especially where transit infrastructure is already in place.
Action 2. Federal and state governments and the private sector should form teams to help local jurisdictions reduce sprawl, and design developments that are resource-efficient and livable.
Teams should include design and financing professionals, engineers, transportation specialists, land use experts, economic development and energy-efficiency experts, retailers, natural resource managers, and others.
Action 3. The federal government should change federal tax policy to provide the same tax treatment of employee parking benefits and employee benefits relating to the use of mass transit, walking, and bike riding. For example, employers currently receive a tax deduction for providing parking and most do not charge for employee parking. While a much smaller tax-free benefit (less than half the amount) is also available for transit, no such incentive exists for those who neither drive nor take transit.
Action 4. The federal government should give credit toward attainment of national Clean Air Act Amendment ambient air-quality standards to communities that lower traffic by adopting zoning, building code, and other changes that encourage more efficient land use patterns that reduce air pollution from motor vehicles.
Policy Recommendation 7
Action 1. The federal government should redirect federal policies that encourage low-density sprawl to foster investment in existing communities. For example, it should encourage shifts in transportation spending toward transit, highway maintenance and repair, and expansion of transit options rather than new highway or beltway construction. It should also change the capital gain provision in section 1034 of the Internal Revenue Service code to allow homesellers to defer tax liability even if they purchase a new home of lesser value. Currently the code allows deferred tax liability on capital gain realized during ownership only if homesellers purchase another home priced at least equal to the one sold.
Action 2. Federal agencies should work with states and communities to develop ways to evaluate the costs of infrastructure in greenfield or relatively undeveloped areas to examine subsidies and to correct market incentives in the financing of capital costs of infrastructure, such as sewers and utilities, for development of land bordering metropolitan areas. In addition, local governments and counties can work together to use community impact analyses and other information on the environmental carrying capacity of a region as the foundation for land use planning and development decisions.
Federal and state governments should also help local governments develop a metropolitan or regional planning instrument to evaluate alternative modes of development, accounting for the present value and costs of infrastructure, transportation inefficiency, land consumption, provision of social services, environmental quality, congestion, and fiscal impacts, as well as the impact on access to jobs, services, open space, and social and cultural amenities.
Action 3. All levels of government, policy experts, residents, and community organizations can work together to conduct analyses of how public resources for infrastructure are spent to benefit different communities - for example, comparing the center city, outer suburbs, and rural areas. These analyses can be used to reorient priorities, if necessary, and direct future expenditures.
Action 4. Local governments and counties can create community partnerships to develop regional open space networks and urban growth boundaries as part of a regional framework to discourage sprawl development that threatens a region's environmental carrying capacity. These partnerships can conserve open space through acquisition of land and/or development rights. For example, public water departments can budget to acquire land necessary to protect public water supplies. Private land trusts can expand their acquisition of wetlands or other valuable open space.