Sustainable communities conference focuses on good planning

 

While people are often weary of too much planning, the CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council thinks communities have more to fear from lack of planning.

At the recent Sustainable Communities & Land Use conference, hosted by Sustainable Connections, keynote speaker Jason McLennan said Bellingham has the opportunity to plan and shape a sustainable community, and has the opportunity to learn from other city’s planning mistakes.

“Communities are shaped by millions of little decisions reacting to external factors,” he said. “You have the opportunity to ask, ‘What kind of community do you want?’”

He gave several examples of cities where failure to plan resulted in disastrous consequences.

For example, New Orleans’ failure to construct buildings well above sea level and destruction of its surrounding wetlands, which absorbed storm surges, left the city vulnerable to the major destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, despite efforts to construct levees, he said.

There are lessons to be learned from New Orleans, he said. Cities can’t just build wherever they want to, especially below sea level. They can’t rely just on technological fixes, like levees. And they shouldn’t underestimate the power of natural resources, like wetlands, he said.

He used Kansas City as another example of failed planning. The city started out with a vibrant, well planned downtown connected to neighborhoods with an efficient transit system. However in the early ‘70s, “they made a bunch of dumb mistakes,” he said, that included running the interstate system through the downtown. This got rid of entire neighborhoods and lopped off access of others into the city center, creating a ghost town.

This process also led to sprawl, as the city’s stadiums and airports were constructed 30 to 45 minutes outside the downtown, and Kansas City’s once-vibrant barbecue and blues culture dissipated with the emptying of the downtown, he said.

McLennan said Kansas City shows that when cars rule, citizens lose, and that density works, while sprawl kills a community.

As CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, which is a chapter of both the United States and Canadian Green Building councils, McLennan encouraged Bellingham as a community to embrace a type of development called a “living building,” which is a rating standard Cascadia created, when considering its future planning efforts.

McLennan said the living building rating is considered a step above platinum-level LEED certification — the highest level of green building certification awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. The rating requires developments to be built only on previously developed sites.

“As a species, we have co-opted enough land on this planet already,” he said.

So far, no projects have received the rating, but about 50 development projects in North America hope to receive it, McLennan said.

One project he said could be considered for the rating is a mixed-use project being developed on a 15-acre contaminated waterfront site in Victoria, B.C., called Dockside Green.

The developer of the project, Joe Van Belleghem, detailed an extensive laundry list of green elements at the Sustainable Communities conference. The project is targeted to receive a platinum LEED certification, and its long list of sustainable and environmental features add up to make it a closed-loop, environmental system that is largely self-sufficient and uses waste to fuel elements of the community, as well as being economically feasible.

While he is not an expert on the Bellingham community, McLennan said he thought the city was moving in the right direction toward sustainable planning by having such an excited populace and a plethora of local technical talent and firms devoted to sustainability.

But, he said, Bellingham should be wary of the pressure to grow outward, as well as of developments that, while green and sustainably designed, are located on undeveloped land.

Derek Long, Sustainable Connections program and development director, said the organization decided to host the first Sustainable Communities Conference because growth management and land use are major issues Bellingham is currently dealing with.

“Those issues are critically important in our community right now,” he said. “And all of the stakeholder groups we are involved with, from local governments to developers, architects and neighborhood planners have all asked for more focused discussion on this issue.”

For more information on the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, visit www.cascadiagbc.org. For more information on the Dockside Green project, visit www.docksidegreen.com.

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