Helping towns and cities get greener from the grassroots up

It's one thing for advocates and pundits like yours truly to advocate the greening of cities, towns and suburbs through environmentally responsible revitalization and land development. But it's quite another for local governments to develop and implement policy instruments that can make that goal easier, rather than harder, to achieve.

In many places, as I've written before, it's not even legal to build good green development under outdated land use laws. At best, fixing that involves specialized knowledge and the application of technical detail. And, make no mistake: In our country, it's up the locals.

Contrary to increasingly wild claims that a thoughtful, forward-looking approach to land use is controlled by a shadowy United Nations mandate, rules about development in the U.S. are made collectively by the residents of towns, counties and cities, acting through their local elected councils and the local agencies they have constructed to handle the details.

Conceptually, it's not that different than the way that traffic laws are made or public parks administered. And, just as is the case with every other local function today, municipal agencies working on land use are strapped for budget, staff, and expertise.

A lot of towns and cities now recognize that there is merit in going greener. They now want to encourage the kind of development that will help reduce pollution and consumption of resources while at the same time saving taxpayer money and providing beautiful, walkable, convenient neighborhoods that give people choices about how to live.

But this is new territory for many jurisdictions that wish to follow good, 21st-century green practices but whose basic authorities governing how to plan and build neighborhoods haven't changed for 50 years or more. A lucky few may be eligible for limited planning grant assistance, but most must rely on models, tools, templates, and good instincts to provide help.

West Sacramento, CA (by: beancounter/Pam, creative commons license)Over the past decade, two great, comprehensive planning assets have been developed for municipalities to draw from in updating their development rules: form-based zoning codes, particularly the "SmartCode" model originally developed by the architecture and planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, and LEED for Neighborhood Development, the green rating system constructed by the U.S. Green Building Council, NRDC, and the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The SmartCode and its progeny emphasize walkability and people-centered community-building. LEED-ND, as you might expect, emphasizes those aspects of neighborhood location and design that deliver environmental performance.