Growth and Evolution of LEED for Cities and Communities

Cities are one of the most powerful tools we have to shift from an extractive to a regenerative way of life. Realigning cities with their geography, climate, and ecosystems can reconnect us physically and mentally to the natural world. Policies and practices built on equity and inclusion strengthens the social fabric of cities and fosters social cohesion and compassion that is at the core of resilience.

LEED for Cities and Communities provides the structure, guidance, and certainty for the stakeholders pursuing sustainable urban practices. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit’s call to action – Local Agenda 21 – sustainability has evolved from a compelling concept to a defined area of practice. Early adopters, including Santa Monica, Portland, Austin, Stockholm, and Barcelona established a structure and plans based on the three dimensions or “Es” of sustainability: environment, equity, and economy. The three E approach remains viable today, serving as the foundation for the City of LA Green New Deal and LA County’s Our Plan, both released in 2019.

The fundamental challenge of LEED for Cities and Communities is to fully engage with the diversity of topics and outcomes touched on by sustainability. Like other LEED programs, there is a 110-point structure and a combination of prerequisites and credits distributed across familiar-sounding but somewhat restructured categories: Integrated Process, Natural Systems and Ecology, Transportation and Land Use, Water Efficiency, Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Materials and Resources, and Quality of Life. The prerequisites and credits address core resource management issues along with in-depth ecosystem and demographic analysis and the introduction of social and economic indicators, such as health, equity, education, and prosperity. The rating system has two options – one for existing communities and one for new development. To date, more than 100 cities and communities globally have achieved LEED certification.

Shifting a city toward sustainability is very different from designing a building or a neighborhood. For the past year, the LEED for Cities and Communities Working Group, an international collection of incredibly talented people, focused on modifying and improving the current version. Some of the most challenging categories to address from a cities perspective have been Integrated Process and Quality of Life. This meant creating a framework for including existing stakeholders and working with established governance structures, and more fully integrating topics like civil and human rights, access to education, and economic opportunity into the Quality of Life section. We felt that working through these issues is essential to the credibility and the ultimate success of the rating system.

Several Southern California cities– Rancho Cucamonga, Santa Monica, and Costa Mesa—applied and were accepted for participating in a national cohort that is working with the version 4.1 criteria, through a grant program supported by Bank of America. By going through the rating system, these cities are gaining a clearer view of their sustainability accomplishments and future opportunities, while helping USGBC to identify challenging credits, gaps in data access, or other ways that the system can be improved.

In the year ahead, the Working Group is turning our attention to the Plan and Design option of LEED for Cities and Communities. Large-scale redevelopment or the design and construction of entire new districts or cities are the intended application for this version of the rating system. While these projects are less common in the US, there are many in process internationally including the Beijing Daxing International Airport Area and the King Salman Energy Park-SPARK in Saudi Arabia. For the system to reach its potential for changing practice, it needs to understand the decision making and design processes for these projects, the added value of the LEED brand, and how to ensure that the sustainability benefits claimed in the early stages are actually realized once the projects are completed.

Several years ago it looked like the universe of LEED ratings had been defined. I’m glad that the Council sees the need to zoom out several powers of 10 to address the needs and vast potential of working at the scale of communities and cities. Cities are the unique habitat created by humans – it is essential that we help make it sustainable.

An edited version of this appears on USGBC National.

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About the Author

Walker Wells, AICP LEED AP EcoDistricts APWalker Wells is a principal at Raimi + Associates and a lecture in urban planning at UCLA and Pomona College. He is a certified planner, LEED and EcoDistricts AP, and currently chair of the LEED for Cities and Communities Working Group.

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