Building the Cities of the Future with Green Districts
Better design can make sense aesthetically, environmentally—and economically.
May 2015 | by Dr. Robert Atchison
At the current pace of urbanization, the world’s cities will add 65 million inhabitants a year between now and 2025. The resulting demand for infrastructure will mean that each year, India alone will need to add as much floor space as exists in all of Chicago, and China more than twice that. The way the world builds now will determine urban sustainability—in emissions, waste production, and water use—for decades.
In this article, we examine what could become the building blocks for the sustainable cities of the future: “green districts.” The term is new and still imprecise. Our definition of a green district is a densely populated and geographically cohesive area that is located within a city and employs technologies and design elements to reduce resource use and pollution.
In general, green districts deploy design principles that lead to dense, transit-oriented, mixed-use developments; they also consider using renewable energy sources. EcoDistricts, a Portland, Oregon– based nonprofit that specializes in helping governments and others to develop sustainable cities, notes that green districts are interesting because they are “small enough to innovate quickly, and big enough to have a meaningful impact.”
Interest is growing. The US Green Building Council has started a program, based on its successful Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for individual buildings, to evaluate the concept of sustainable neighborhoods. Known as LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), it is the first system of its kind; according to the council, the idea is to integrate the principles of smart growth, new urbanism, and green building. So far, more than 300 projects have earned the LEED-ND rating. Estidama, a program in the Middle East, launched a similar rating system in 2010.
Several organizations are supporting the development and promotion of green districts worldwide. In June 2014, the Clinton Global Initiative and EcoDistricts began the Target Cities program. The idea is to revitalize neighborhoods in eight North American cities (Atlanta; Austin; Boston; Cambridge, MA; Denver; Los Angeles; Ottawa; and Washington, DC) and in the process to create models from which other communities can learn.
Green Districts are Environmentally Beneficial
Compared with standard building and construction practices, and depending on the region, the total impact of the technologies considered in our model are substantial: 20 to 40 percent lower energy consumption; 60 to 65 percent less freshwater consumption and wastewater production; 25 percent less solid waste going to the landfill. Private-vehicle kilometers traveled were 50 to 80 percent less.
The savings associated with green districts result from how the different technologies work together. While buildings represent the single most important element in energy and water savings, for example, the benefits are not just about what happens within the four walls. Other factors include where these buildings are located and how people move between them.
Green districts have the greatest potential to produce economic savings in areas with high resource demands and costs. For example, technologies for reducing water use have a much faster payback period in the desert nations of the Middle East than in regions with more water. Similarly, a temperate city will likely have a significantly longer payback period for district-heating technologies than one in a cold climate. Logically, if local districts are resource intensive or resources are costly, the district has a greater potential to produce savings than if resources are cheap or already are consumed efficiently.
The Way Ahead
Given these advantages, why haven’t green districts already become the norm? The case for them is strong, but real life can get in the way. One issue is that developers pay the bulk of the extra costs for green districts up front, but they are often unable to charge more when they sell, because owners see only the higher sticker price and not the long-term benefits of lower spending on water, energy, and sanitation. If developers cannot recoup their costs, they are not going to bother.
The simplest way to overcome this difficulty is for the developer and the operator to be the same—for example, in new districts built by universities, government complexes, and medical centers. These may therefore be the most logical places to start the movement, because they are well positioned to test the value of green-district technologies and design features.
However, if green districts are to scale up, new business models are required. One possibility is for developers to own and operate the districts they build until they recover the additional costs, after which, they sell. This is a change from the traditional business model of developers selling properties as quickly as possible, often even before they are complete. Another option is for owner-operators to step into the gap to take advantage of this opportunity. This is a role cities might consider assuming, given that many utilities are municipally owned, and this is where a lot of the operating savings are.