City seeking to update landscaping code

The new 'green factor' program encourages green roofs and low-impact development in urban villages and with infill housing. If the...

By Isaac Bonnell

Bellingham is already considered one of the “greenest” cities around and it’s about to get greener — with plants. 

Tucked into the Infill Toolkit and the Samish Way Urban Village plan is a system called the “green factor.”  This program would require developers to meet a certain level of landscaping or low-impact development, such as roofs with gardens known as green roofs and pervious pavement, which allows water to seep through the pavement instead of causing runoff. 

The idea behind the green factor is to increase the quality and quantity of landscaping in areas of higher density that may not otherwise have much green space. 

“Landscaping has never been a strong point in our code,” said city planner Chris Koch. “Our landscaping code is very deficient, especially in commercial zones.”

The landscaping code hasn’t been significantly updated since 1989, Koch said, “and even then it has largely been copied from the 1969 code.”

Through the process of planning for higher-density urban areas like the Samish Way Urban Village, city staff noticed a need for better landscaping requirements. 

“We don’t want to create a sterile environment,” Koch said, referring to the urban village plan. “Plants are extremely valuable in reducing the urban heat island effect and keeping the air clean. And they soften the building environment — it makes it more livable. It feels comfortable and more like a human environment rather than just a place for automobiles.”

So far, the green factor system has been incorporated into only two areas: It will be required for townhouse developments as part of the Infill Toolkit and it will apply in commercial zones of the Samish Way Urban Village. As of press time, neither of those planning documents have been finalized or voted on by the Bellingham City Council. 

“These will be more or less our demonstration areas, and if it works we will look at adding the green factor requirements to other areas around town,” Koch said.

How it works

The green factor system is basically a way to assign points to certain types of landscaping and calculate a total score. Seattle has had a green factor system for a year now and the Bellingham system is modeled after that, Koch said.

For each type of development, the city sets a minimum score that developers much reach. The total score can come from any combination of points in the following eight categories:

1. Landscaped areas: calculated by the total square footage of the landscaped area. More points are awarded to areas with soil depth greater than 24 inches and stormwater retention facilities.

2. Plantings: calculated by the number and type of plants in the landscaped areas. More points are awarded for large trees, although developers are encouraged to have a mix of small, medium and large vegetation.

3. Green roofs: calculated by square footage. More points are awarded to roofs with more than 4 inches of material.

4. Vegetated walls: calculated by square footage of wall space. This category has a higher point value than green roofs. 

5. Approved water features: calculated by square footage of coverage. This category carries the same point value as vegetated walls.

6. Pervious paving: calculated by square footage of area covered. More points are awarded for paving that sits on at least 24 inches of soil or gravel. This category may not exceed one-third of the total total score.

7. Structural soil systems: calculated by square footage or structured area. 

8. Bonuses: this includes other items such as drought-tolerant or native plant species, using rainwater to meet at least 50 percent of annual irrigation needs, or food cultivation from landscaped areas. 

At first glance, the green factor system can be a little confusing, Koch said. But the points add up quickly and Koch hopes it will encourage developers to put more thought into green spaces in urban areas.

“I want to see how creative developers can get with it,” Koch said. “We want to work with developers to create a livable environment. And what’s cool about this is it makes architects and developers think about the landscaping up-front instead of at the very end. This way you don’t just get little ceremonial flower beds.”

Because the green factor system is such a big step up from the current landscaping requirements, city staff have allowed for some flexibility, especially in urban village areas. For example, a developer can lower the required green factor score by building to LEED silver standards or by using a floor-area-ratio greater than 2.0. 

A side benefit of the green factor system, from a planning perspective, is that it essentially puts limits on the size of development by creating trade-offs. For example, a large building that takes up a majority of a lot will have a hard time meeting the required green factor score with the tiny amount of space left for landscaping — unless the developer is willing to pay for expensive items like green roofs or stormwater tanks that carry a higher point value.

“The more building you put on the site, the more difficult it becomes to landscape and you have to start looking toward green walls and green roofs,” Koch said. 

Little feedback so far

So far, Koch said, he has heard very little feedback about the green factor system; most of the comments are related to other elements of the Infill Toolkit or the Samish Way Urban Village plan. 

The system could have a major impact on developers and landscape companies, though, and in different ways. For the developer, it will mean investing a bit more time and money in a project’s green space — and landscape companies could be receiving more of that time and money. 

No matter who spends the money and who gets it, Bellingham simply has an outdated landscaping code and it’s about time that it was updated, said Misty Philbin, owner of the landscape architecture firm The Philbin Group. 

Philbin designs residential and commercial landscapes in Bellingham and Seattle and said she applauds both cities for taking steps in the right direction with the green factor system. She recognizes that items such as green roofs and green walls are costly, but the benefits of urban villages and infill are worth much more. 

“It’s a little shocking, but the longer you think about it the more you realize that these are the right ideas,” she said. “In the end this will help reduce resource consumption.”

Developer John Blethen is already one step ahead of the green factor system: He already has a green roof on the Creekside Building at 1701 Ellis St.

The roof is covered with three inches of soil and planted mostly with sedums. He admits the project was expensive and time consuming, but he felt it was necessary. 

“I think it’s time we pay attention to the environment we live in and this is one way we can do that,” he said.

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