Seattle Leads by Example with Green Buildings

Most of us are familiar with the popular Earth Day catch phrase, “Make Earth Day Every Day.”  While we might not always live up to this ideal, I try to keep this quote from Denis Hayes, founder of the Earth Day Network and president of Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation, in mind when I need a little extra motivation to be a better environmentalist: “Listen up, you couch potatoes: each recycled beer can saves enough electricity to run a television for three hours.” If there ever was inspiration to imbibe, that’s it.

NLC celebrated Earth Day and Earth Month this year by hosting a four-part “Spotlight on Sustainability” webinar series that profiled the sustainability programs of large and small cities across the country. The series started in the coastal community of Miami Beach, Fla., then hit the Midwest with a stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. The third presentation came from the southwest via Flagstaff, Ariz. Finally, the series was capped by a timely presentation from Seattle, Wash. on their green building program.

Seattle has a robust Green Building program that facilitates green building policies and programs in both municipal operations and the private market.  The city is a national leader in the development of standard practices for green buildings, and has chosen to lead by example by ensuring that, to the extent possible, new construction and retrofits/redevelopment of public buildings are green.

Over the last decade, almost 30 of Seattle’s public buildings have been certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver or gold. These LEED gold buildings are 15% beyond code in energy reduction, 30% beyond code in water reduction and have a 90% waste diversion rate.

Seattle doesn’t just talk the green talk, they walk the green walk and in doing so have shown the private market that the benefits of green buildings, such as increasing a project’s market value, lowering operating costs over the life of a building and providing businesses with a healthier and more productive work environment, outweigh the initial higher costs that these buildings can entail.

In addition to being a leader in green building, Seattle has numerous city-led sustainability initiatives, ranging from green infrastructure, energy efficiency, urban agriculture and urban forest restoration. The city is also home to countless groups and organizations focused on sustainability and environmental protection, the Bullitt Foundation being a prime example.

We’re excited to be holding our annual conference, the Congress of Cities, in Seattle this November.  The Congress of Cities brings together over 2,000 local leaders from cities across the U.S. Model sustainability practices from Seattle as well as other cities will be a key component of the program. Join us in the Emerald City from November 13-16 for learning and networking opportunities highlighting successful city programs and initiatives from communities across the country!

Insights on Being Business Friendly

At the 2012 NLC Congress of Cities conference in Boston, Danielle Casey, Assistant City Manager for the City of Maricopa, AZ presented on ways to make cities more business friendly. The room was packed to the brim and the panel discussion lively.

What were some of the key points that arose from the session?

  • Transparency is critical and staff accountability should be expected.
  • No city official is likely to brag about being unfriendly to businesses – everyone is doing the best they can.  To really find out, Maricopa asks customers what their experiences have been, examines best practices, and implements them. Leadership is key to driving this strategy.
  • To identify issues and opportunities for improvements, Maricopa conducted a Development Services Review (audit) under the direction of the City Manager.
  • Online permitting and customer service is becoming expected; do not underestimate the ability of technology to improve customer service. See Maricopa’s online customer service survey here.

According to Casey, to be successful in economic development, communities should adopt a holistic approach in strategizing for infrastructure development, and business attraction, retention, and expansion.

Choosing the right staff members is also of utmost importance. Staff members should be eager to find ways they can make something happen rather than state why something isn’t possible. If it requires Council approval to change a process to achieve a result that is a council priority (for example, making it fast and easy to get a business license approved), it’s the staff’s obligation to bring solutions before the Council for consideration.

Since Maricopa was such a high growth community, economic development became the City Council’s top priority to best accommodate the rush of economic activity. Thus, the staff worked to deliver a comprehensive program that allowed them to “move the needle” in an environment where large company relocations are scarce. Council participation in events like trade shows and local business visits also proved highly beneficial.

For more information on Maricopa’s economic development efforts, be sure to visit the city’s economic development web page.

Supporting Food Systems, Supporting Communities

“The best way to preserve farmland is to make farmers successful on that land.”

This call to action from participants attending the Supporting Local Food Systems Roundtable at NLC’s Congress of Cities (CoC), speaks to just one of the many factors driving the National League of Cities’ (NLC) commitment to addressing sustainable food issues in America’s cities and towns by providing local government leaders with effective tools and resources.

This past Congress of Cities in Boston was my first, and potentially my only, as NLC staff. I am a National Urban Fellow, Class of 2013, who was chosen to spend my nine-month fellowship working with all three centers of NLC: Federal Relations, Research & Innovation and the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. I come with past experience in endowment consulting and food system work, and hoped that my fellowship experience would allow me time to understand the intersection of food and policy in communities.

I am thankful to be working on the development of a comprehensive suite of resources to assist local activities and decision-making within the area of local foods. The resulting content will be used to build a brand new section of NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI) on Sustainable Food Systems. As the centerpiece of NLC’s sustainability efforts, SCI provides a dynamic online platform of resources and peer‐networking opportunities to assist cities in identifying, planning for and implementing holistic, long‐term approaches to community‐wide sustainability. The Sustainable Food System section will be the latest addition to SCI and is scheduled to launch in early 2013.

My hope was to see the intersection of my interests as a fellow and the goals of SCI, come together to answer questions like: What issues are on concerned citizens minds about food that connect with local, state and federal policies? And how can local government play a role to help incentivize, finance and provide partnerships towards sustainable food systems? I started to answer portions of these questions while at CoC 2012.

The call to action that started this piece, made during our Supporting Local Food Systems Roundtable discussion, speaks to how I hope we as staff and the elected officials we serve see our respective constituents. Potentially, that the best way for a local elected official to preserve their cities and towns is to make sure their constituents are successful at home, at work, and in their neighborhoods. Potentially, that the best way for NLC to preserve its local elected official membership, is to equip that membership so that it is successful in its communities. This call to action recognizes that supporting worthwhile efforts, through preservation and maximization of resources can make successful communities.

During the roundtable discussion, I was reminded that food is critical to cities and towns because it connects so many different issues: poverty, economic development, public health, etc. I have found that the more I learn about food, the more it becomes an issue that unearths other issues; that a reality like food insecurity, is a symptom of something larger that city leaders strive to address.  I believe that NLC will make these connections from food to areas like economic development and infrastructure.

City leaders continued to make these connections at the conference during a World Cafe table on financing healthy foods, and a workshop titled “Growing Your Local Food Economy.”  Ideas were shared and roadmaps were offered around the issues of healthy food access, urban agriculture and the difficulty of luring large grocery stores to underserved communities. Also discussed were potential avenues of state funding, novel examples of partnerships and passing of ordinances to support, preserve and maximize efforts.

Every elected official who spoke up in these sessions had something to offer and was looking for something new for their communities. It reassured me that those who are thinking about food issues in their municipalities are striving to understand what other communities have done to help alleviate a difficult situation and how a solution goes beyond food to mean community benefit.

We in the Sustainability program at NLC need these stories!

A Sustainable Food Systems section is scheduled to launch in early 2013 on the SCI website, including tools such as classroom content, case studies, reports and guides, model policies and more. As we continue to develop these resources, we want to hear from you: what resources, tools or topics would be most helpful to assist your efforts in developing a strong, sustainable and healthy food system in your community?

Send feedback, ideas, successful practices or questions to David DeVaughn, NLC National Urban Fellow, at devaughn@nlc.org.

For more information on the Sustainable Cities Institute visit http://www.SustainableCitiesInstitute.org and follow us on twitter @SustCitiesInst

Elevating the Principles of Net-Zero Buildings to Teach Us About Building Sustainable Communities

A few weeks ago, at the Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, I attended a session that featured NREL’s Research Support Facility (RSF) in Golden, CO. The session’s speakers described the design and construction process of the RSF, a net-zero energy building (NZEB) that today serves as a model for performance-based design.

The possibilities presented about achieving net-zero energy at scale were exciting: How do net-zero design strategies alter the discourse about how we design and build? Does NZEB necessitate a paradigm shift in the way we imagine and deliver buildings?

With my inner architecture geek fired up, I attended our own Congress of Cities Conference the following week. There, I had an opportunity to sit in on the Energy Efficiency workshop as Mayor Henrietta Davis of Cambridge, MA, along with Kurt Roth of Fraunhofer USA, presented the M.L.K School. This net-zero energy project, taken on by Cambridge Public Schools and the City of Cambridge in 2012, is to serve as a pilot project for achieving net-zero, specifically in schools.

“For Cambridge the process of planning and designing a net-zero school has changed the way we think about energy in all our buildings.  It has made us think about what energy we really need to use in our existing city buildings and will surely change some of what we do even in buildings not slated for full scale renovation or rebuilding.”

As Mayor Davis clearly states above, the process of planning for and designing net-zero buildings offers a new perspective on how we interact with and use energy in our communities.

Additionally, through the workshop sessions I realized that the focus on a life-cycle perspective (which the NZEB process elevates) offers principles applicable not only to energy efficiency in buildings, but also to the larger dialogue on taking sustainable communities to scale:

The Power of Integrated Design.  At the San Francisco Greenbuild session, speakers described the need to effectively integrate and coordinate the various building components and processes in order to achieve maximum energy efficiencies.  With NREL’s RSF, they spoke about the high level of coordination that took place between the various ‘designers’—the architect, engineer, contractor and operations/maintenance company—in order to ensure that energy efficiency was a prioritized goal (on par with scheduling and cost savings) throughout the process. Through open lines of communication, each ‘designer’ in the process ensured that their building component was as energy efficient as possible with relation to the various other components working in parallel.

Sustainable communities emerge from the thoughtful design and integration of the various components of a place.  While many of us are aware of this, do our planning practices actually encourage dialogue between the various ‘designers’ of the city—the architects, the transportation planners, the youth and the civic and faith-based organizers? Often, city planning is happenstance, pieces of communities clashing and colliding into places; and while there is beauty in the intersections that emerge, sustainable cities necessitate greater coordination and communication between these traditionally unlikely partners.  Create spaces that encourage open communication- the first step is to have everyone working together.

The Plug Load Problem.  In both sessions, the speakers used the example of plug loads—essentially the energy consumed by what you and I plug into a socket rather than the energy it takes to heat or light a room– to describe how much end users impact the overall building energy use.   To be able to achieve a NZEB, they emphasized 1) incorporating this variable into early energy modeling for the building and 2) creating an education process whereby end users (if known) understand the NZEB principles and the effects of their actions on overall building energy use.

Now this sounds quite simple, but how often do we forget that different communities are created for and occupied by different types of users?  While we may not ‘model’ a community like we do a building, we certainly envision outcomes early on.  So, in the design/visioning/ goal-setting process, the first step is identifying who the end users are (think: age, demographics, socioeconomic status) and how they already occupy spaces.  The second step is creating an educational component to the process so that “the users” understand the effects of their individual actions and are better equipped to make day-to-day decisions. Focus on the end user from the beginning—the key lies in the operation not just the planning.

The Passive Design Potential.  A critical component of designing a NZEB is incorporating passive design strategies—strategies that maximize the energy provided by natural systems as much as possible. Rather than defaulting to purchased energy, passive design creates a process whereby ambient sources of energy such as daylighting and natural ventilation are maximized. Both sets of speakers demonstrated that understanding the site and its “passive assets” was critical to minimizing the number of energy- consuming products that would make NZEB goals more difficult to achieve.

In the case of moving towards sustainable cities, how quickly do we assume that the ‘right’ answer in one place is the ‘right’ answer in another?  The fact is that each city has its own geographies, typologies, assets, and so forth. The strength of encouraging passive design strategies in net-zero building is that the excess addition of systems and components takes a second seat to the inherent assets of the site.

In the creation and implementation of a sustainability vision for a city, identifying those assets and qualities that already progress a city’s sustainability goals are not only low-hanging fruit, but often more successful in the long-term than imposing programs or policies that may not fit.  Build more with less-every community has untapped assets waiting to be utilized.

As NZEBs are still relatively recent in the sustainability conversation, I’m excited to see how building and energy rating systems develop and what lessons we continue to extract from the whole process!

Stay tuned and share your thoughts with us –comment below or email us at sustainability@nlc.org.

Eugene, Oregon to Veterans: “Thanks and welcome home.”

With leaders from across the country gathered in Boston for NLC’s Congress of Cities, about 40 people joined a conversation about housing for veterans with disabilities.

The City Manager of Eugene, OR, Jon Ruiz, discussed his city’s Veterans Housing Project. From his personal experience in helping veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Jon spoke about the need for local leadership, identifying a coordinating agent in the community, and using existing efforts and/or social structures to help better serve veterans.

We had the opportunity to interview Jon. His insights are pragmatic guides for how cities can directly help veterans and their families by focusing on their housing needs.

Watch the interview and read more about what is happening in Eugene.