The Greenwashing of Sprawl

"The Lakes of Orange" advertises itself as Ohio's first green-certified residential community, but it is a sprawling mess. Photo: ##http://lakesoforange.kertesenterprises.com/index.aspx## Lakes of Orange##

Twenty-eight miles southeast of Cleveland, there is a development that bills itself as “Ohio’s FIRST Green Certified Residential Community.” According to the developer, The Lakes of Orange “offers a rare, one-of-kind opportunity to build and live in a green and sustainable environment.”

“Reserve your place in eco-history today,” its website implores. “We are accepting lot reservations now; lot sizes range from ¼ acre to ¾ acre.”

“Eco-friendly developments” whose marketing materials read like a contradiction in terms — they can be found on the outskirts of almost every metro area. Check out the Saxony in the distant Indianapolis ‘burbs — a “new urban” development advertising both its walkability and “ample parking.” Or how about The Bridgelands in Texas, which says it plans to build a “bustling town center, right next to the proposed Grand Parkway” — the mega-highway project it is depending on to lure residents from Houston, 30 miles away.

Ah, working in the exurbs. How green! Photo: ##http://www.saxony-indiana.com/## Saxony--Indiana##

I guess it’s hard to blame developers. As mounting evidence shows Americans are beginning to favor more walkable urban environments, the motivation to greenwash sprawl is clear.

Urban Land Institute fellow Ed McMahon says while consumer preferences may now favor more walkable urban environments, there are still financial and regulatory hurdles that make developing farmland cheaper and easier than urban spaces.

“The first principle of better development is figuring out where you should not develop,” McMahon said. “We need to make it easier to build in the places we know we want development to occur.”

LEED certification has become the industry standard, said McMahon, especially when it comes to Class A office spaces. It’s practically a requirement to finance that type of project in a major market, he said. But that is far from a perfect measure of environmental impact.

“What has not gone mainstream to the same extent is people thinking about the location of the building,” he said.

And many of these new housing developments — to be fair — are real improvements over their 1990s counterparts. All of the houses in the Lakes of Orange are built to green building standards. And the Saxony, like the Bridgelands in Texas, incorporates the town center model — which at least attempts to mix uses.

But any environmental savings these developments produce will likely be eclipsed by their near-total dependence on auto travel, which accounts for almost a third of Americans’ energy use. The Lakes of Orange is on the undeveloped periphery of Cleveland — a shrinking city surrounded by a shrinking metro area. Literally 30,000 vacant homes that are already served by sewer, roads and water, sit closer to retail and work, accessible to the region’s transit system. As architect Carl Elefante first said: “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

The Bridgelands, in Houston, is part of a predicted wave of development coming with the completion of the city’s third outerbelt, the Grand Parkway. Environmentalists expect that large-lot, low-density developments like this one will consume the Katy Prairie, one of the country’s last natural grasslands and an important migratory feeding ground for millions of birds.

“The location matters,” McMahon said. “A project in a sprawl location is not truly green. And a building in an urban location isn’t really smart if it isn’t green.”

In 2009, the US Green Building Council introduced LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) as a formal certification system — the “certified organic” of sustainable development, if you will. LEED-ND rates developments on items like street connectivity and walking and bicycling distances. Points are awarded for infill development and rehabbing existing buildings.

But it has yet to become the industry standard. Since LEED-ND was launched, 125 projects have registered but only four or five have gone all the way through the certification process, said USGBC’s Jeff Lovshin. Many of these projects require a long time frame, but Lovshin also said there is an “education and knowledge barrier.”

So when will we see a new “Lakes of Orange” or ‘The Bridgelands” in a sustainable location with multiple transportation options and a LEED-ND seal? And when will that become the norm, not the exception? It’s going to take a rethinking of the financial and regulatory incentives that favor sprawl, as well as increased awareness of what makes development truly sustainable — and that includes location efficiency, not just green roofs and compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

  • Josh

    Greenfield development in the U.S. is pretty much unstoppable and will continue until energy prices rise to the point where it’s no longer economically feasible. It’s easier and cheaper than redeveloping existing property in many ways. And then, of course, there’s an American obsession with newness and bigness, which puts any existing property at a disadvantage. Cleveland has a lot of vacant housing, but these aren’t Tony brownstones in Beacon Hill, Boston or hip lofts in Williamsburg, NYC.

    Additionally, even if you’d like to live and work in a walkable community, getting around in most of the rest of the country pretty much requires a car (let’s be honest here—there’s no Tulsa Subway, no HSR from Vegas to San Fran, nor any hourly express bus service between Phoenix and Tucson), so cars aren’t magically going to become not needed or go away overnight, hence the “ample parking” advertised. If you leave your ‘walkable neighborhood’ in pretty much any place but NYC, Boston, central Chicago, or downtown LA, getting around without a car is a royal pain in the neck, or some such body part.

    Outside of Washington D.C. in the Virginia ‘burbs, there’s a new development at Fair Lakes across I-66 from the Fair Oaks Mall, billed as a dense, walkable community with mixed-use buildings (3-4 stories high) and retail, entertainment, restaurant, and residential all in the same place. It’s also not connected to public transit of any kind and is nowhere near any similar development. To leave and have access to the rest of the D.C. area, you pretty much need a personal vehicle. On foot, you can’t even easily reach the old 1960s era mall across the highway, not without going a long way out of your way on non-pedestrian friendly streets. Classic case of adjacency not equally accessibility.

    Reston, Virginia, not far away, has something similar with Reston Towne Center, a new “urbanist”, mixed-use development (greenfield-type). Ostensibly “urban”, but isolated by highways, empty spaces, and classic low-density development. Once again, most residents still own and use cars (though a planned connection to WMATA’s rail network is promised by 2018). These walkable “islands” are a sign of interest in some type of non-auto-centric living, but as yet, are only rough drafts for the type of changes we need to make to move away from auto-centricity.

  • Josh, I agree with a lot of what you are saying. But in Cleveland, the primary mode of transportation for decades was streetcars, and that also includes many inner-ring suburbs, some of them, like Shaker Heights, are truly world class (with 10% vacancy rates or higher). These neighborhoods are still pretty walkable and transit friendly (although transit service has definitely declined). So I live in a Cleveland neighborhood and I am about 90% car free — intercity travel is the sticking point for me and why I need a car.

    It may not even be about getting rid of a car altogether though. But these 35 minute-commutes people around here take for granted contribute to the problem, especially when more sustainable, perfectly practical alternatives abound. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has documented pretty thoroughly that the number of VMT is strongly correlated with distance from the center city.

  • David Marcus

    Makes me think about our stunning LEED-certified office development in Norwalk, Connecticut…which might be mistaken for a bunch of parking garages built along a river. http://g.co/maps/jc8dg

  • Danny G

    Hey I’ll certify anything you want as “Green Certified”. Just send me a check or money order for $50, and you’re in business.

  • amm

    The Lakes of Orange development is the opposite of walkable.  There’s a clubhouse, pool and tennis court that is so poorly located, they’ve provided parking so the residents can drive to the development’s amenities.  It’s only 156 houses.  It should be possible to develop so that it’s convenient and pleasurable to walk to the pool!
    site plan:http://lakesoforange.kertesenterprises.com/SitePlan.aspx

  • Phil

    This article is not quite fair to LEED, which currently devotes 26% of points to “Site Selection”. This is not strong enough incentive to get developers to change their site locations on a grand scale, however LEED understands this.  LEED will be updating this in mid 2012 and it will include another category of points for “Location and Transportation” while still keeping Site Selection for more about sustainable sitework (civil/water, etc).
    http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=2601 

  • Anonymous

    If you want to build something which is at all a departure from the conventional style, there are a thousand regulations in existing built-up areas which prevent that. Even in San Francisco: in large parts of the city, any new construction has required setbacks and parking minimums– even if the next door neighbor is a hundred-year-old building that does not conform to them!

  • Another good example of this in the Chicago region is Prairie Crossing, located 40 miles north of the Loop. While it claims to have two Metra stations “within easy walking distance” I have found that the community is still built in the typical sprawl pattern and that the Metra stations are surrounded by oceans of parking.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bike Share

    Not discussed here(nor is it the focus of the blog so it is fair to not mention): House size.  Unless these houses are smaller than average, they could be far more green.  A 4000 sq ft house has more than 2x the environmental impact of a 2000 sq ft house. I’d imagine the developers didn’t skimp on house size or consider its impact.

  • Anonymous

    All this greenwashing is epitomized by how the names these developments often use are named after that which they destroyed: Whispering Meadows, The Moorlands, Shady Woods, Oak Shores, etc.

  • Joseph Alacchi

    We have something exactly like this happening right near my house in Lorraine, QC, 20 miles north of Montreal. A supposedly “ecological” neighbourhood, yet no pedestrian paths are planned to connect the cul-de-sacs to provide access to the main street where the bus will presumably run. Not to mention the fact that if there even is bus service at all, it is sure to be dismal attracting few riders except peak commuters into Montreal.

    I was reading a newspaper (a free newspaper) on the metro with an article featuring this development calling it TOD and ecological. I got so mad I threw the newspaper across the metro car!

    The one thing the development does have going for it is it will be of relatively high density for a northern ring suburb with 5+ story condos along the main street which might be interesting.

    FYI the project is called Chambery and it’s located in the municipality of Blainville, QC

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  • As you analyze most zoning codes and plan commission approvals in suburbia, you will find that the tradeoff for sprawl has been signficant buffering and berms for residential development, and signfiicant buffering and interior parking lot landscaping for commercial development.