Losing the Forest to Save a Few Trees: The Problems Behind Green Sprawl

Losing the Forest to Save a Few Trees: The Problems Behind Green Sprawl

Several traditional big box retailers, such as Best Buy, have recently announced their intention of building green stores. A number of banks, such as PNC Bank, have also announced the development of green bank branches. In all likelihood, if these buildings achieve a sufficient number of LEED points, they will be certified "green" and may receive significant tax incentives for their efforts.

Most Best Buys and bank branches, however, are located in strip malls with seas of impervious parking lots that are accessible only by car. This phenomenon - where green buildings are located in unsustainable contexts - can be called "green sprawl."

Green sprawl presents several problems: it justifies the continued development on the periphery, perpetuates reliance on overburdened infrastructures and misses the opportunity to build in a sustainable manner.

There are at least two changes that could strongly discourage green sprawl. Private green building standards, such as LEED, should require that buildings are located on sustainable sites in order to receive certification. Government incentives for green building should be tied to an assessment of the site's sustainability and the project's impact on the infrastructure.

Best Buy -- Green Sprawl in Action

Under the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) rating system -- the current preeminent green building standard -- only two out of a possible 69 points are given for developing on Brownfield (SS Credit 3) sites and in a dense context (SS Credit 2). Developing in a dense context means developing where there is existing infrastructure and connectivity with existing community resources, such as housing, schools, public transportation and commercial uses.

According to Brenda Mathison, Best Buy's director of environmental affairs, the Best Buy prototype will have some combination of energy-efficient lighting, rainwater recycling, recycled or otherwise eco-friendly building materials, a high-efficiency HVAC system and some type of daylighting system. Needless to say, none of these features will affect the sites of Best Buy stores, which will likely continue being located in big box fields on the urban periphery.

The Problems Behind Green Sprawl

Allowing a building to be certified "green" but built in an unsustainable context provides justification for continued sprawling development. Sprawling development has many adverse consequences, including air and water pollution, open space destruction, degradation of towns and cities, and increased need for infrastructure.

As a result, many municipalities have attempted to slow development. Developers seeking new projects face long delays and uphill battles against communities. If developers can sell their buildings as green, it may allow for new development where traditional development would have failed.

Green sprawl will create an increased or continued reliance on overburdened infrastructure. As the recent Minnesota bridge disaster exemplified, the infrastructure in the U.S is in a sorry state of disrepair. The existing infrastructure is not being sufficiently maintained yet thousands of miles of new roads, sewers and water lines are installed annually to satisfy our hunger for development on the urban periphery. Green buildings located on unsustainable sites far from existing infrastructure will only contribute to this crisis.

Finally, the lost opportunity factor should not be overlooked. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, construction spending in June is estimated at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1,175.4 billion. Each dollar invested in a building located in an unsustainable context is a dollar that could have been used to develop a building on a Brownfield site or near public transit.

Containing Green Sprawl

Private green building standards, like LEED, should require that the buildings be located on sustainable sites for certification. Government incentives for green building should be tied to an assessment of the sustainability of the project's site and the project's impact on the existing infrastructure.

The USGBC's recently launched pilot program, LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), attempts to incorporate context into green building. In essence, LEED-ND, which was developed in association with the Congress for New Urbanism and the Natural Resource Defense Council, seeks to marry smart growth principals with green building.

However, LEED-ND is, as it states, for neighborhoods and not individual buildings. LEED-ND does not really solve the problem of giving green certification to individual buildings in unsustainable contexts. Rather, LEED-NC and the other individual building standard systems should make site sustainability a prerequisite for certification.

Government incentives for green building, which are often tied to the LEED-NC rating system, similarly should require that projects be located on sustainable sites to qualify. For example, there could be a requirement that, in order to qualify for a green building tax incentive, the project must be located within a quarter mile of public transportation infrastructure with pedestrian access.

Isn't Somewhat Green Better Than Not Green At All?

One argument that I have encountered against requiring buildings be located on sustainable sites in order to receive certification or government incentives is that such requirements will discourage green building. Here is where the green building community -— or the community at large -— must identify its ultimate goal.

If the ultimate goal is to reduce energy and water usage at the level of individual buildings, than it does not matter what the context looks like. Install waterless urinals and a low albedo roof and call it green.

But context matters if the goal is to transform the built environment in order to have a dramatic impact on the environment. We should not sacrifice the forest to save a few trees.

Shari Shapiro, J.D., LEED AP, is an associate with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP in Philadelphia. She heads the company's green building initiative and maintains a blog at http://www.greenbuildinglawblog.com.