By: Conor Merrigan

As change-agents and impact-seekers, one of the pivotal questions we seek to answer is how our projects can be most effective in delivering positive impact? The answer depends on many different variables – stakeholders, opportunities, constraints, and client determination being critical. However, when these variables converge in the right combination, projects can happen that shift paradigms, produce drastic results, and have long lasting impacts. The sustainability sweet spot.

Of particular interest in this discussion is the question of scale. As an organization, we work with projects ranging from educating within building walls, to optimizing the systems behind those walls (and ceilings, mechanical rooms, envelopes and floors), to impacting building portfolios and city-wide efforts. Each scale has inherent limitations and opportunities, and each presents differing challenges. But the question remains, is there some sort of right-sizing that can be applied to find the scale with the greatest impact?

Individual buildings can be optimized in a discrete manner, typically involve few parties, and can move towards implementation and savings rapidly, but only affect one building at a time. City scale planning and implementation efforts can have significant impacts across a wide swath of population, but take time to filter into individual actions and are limited by the ability of the public sector to influence private sector change. In between these two scales lies the neighborhood, where the ability to change and the scale of impact are both significant.

It has been said that neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities, and when we think of it in that manner, their potential begins to emerge. Neighborhoods are where people are invested, where they socialize, and where changes in the built environment are immediately apparent. They are where property owners can work with cities, where economies of scale make sense, and where the complex dynamics of vibrancy and creativity are nurtured. In short, neighborhoods are where collective actions meet personal actions to leverage change that has a great chance to ripple community/city wide.

Sustainability Sweet Spot

If neighborhoods are where change can happen effectively, the question shifts to how? There has been a steady growth of interest in neighborhood scale dynamics of sustainability, from community based development models such as cohousing that capitalize on shared resources, to quantification of what qualities neighborhoods demonstrate that increase resource stewardship, social cohesiveness, resiliency, and generally support people in living satisfying lives while reducing their ecological ‘feetprint’.

In the past 10 years or so, a host of systems have emerged intended primarily for evaluating and certifying new neighborhoods such as LEED for Neighborhood Development, SITES, Eco Districts, and the Living Community Challenge. Existing neighborhoods attempting to become more sustainable are finding assistance from city programs such as the Sustainable Neighborhoods Network developed by the City of Lakewood, or relying on third parties via the Green Neighborhoods program from the Audubon Society, and 2030 District programs across the nation. A detailed comparison of these systems is available here, but the point is that the power of this scale has been recognized and there is a growing body of work supporting the quantification of impacts.

Image via Eliot Allen, Criterion Planners

Image via Eliot Allen, Criterion Planners

For practitioners in the fields of community planning, sustainability implementation, and metrics-based analysis, these systems are providing new tools for evaluation, recognition, and investigation. As each tool is used in varying scenarios, it should evolve and better define what sustainability means for each community, whether new or existing.  As consultants, it is our role to help guide clients and communities through the array of tools in order to express their vision of what sustainability means. At the end of the day, what makes a community sustainable is, well, a whole lot of interconnected and often hard to define pieces. What these new tools are doing is helping to define what may be missing, what elements or characteristics to focus on, and what opportunities exist for greater collaboration with stakeholders.

So, are neighborhoods the sustainability sweet spot? Are they the Shangri-La of sustainable design, implementation, and impact? They just might be.

Conor MerriganAbout the Author – Conor has been working with large scale energy and sustainability planning and implementation for the bulk of his career. A focus on neighborhood scale sustainability metrics is the result of both educational background with Master’s Degrees from the University of Colorado- Denver in Urban Planning and Urban Design as well as professional experience as the leading practitioner using the LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) rating system in the State of Colorado.

In addition to municipal planning expertise, Conor also served the State of Colorado as the Manager of the Commercial Efficiency Program for the Governor’s Energy Office, and has a background in energy and program management. He is a Certified Energy Manager and a LEED Accredited Professional. Conor has developed trainings on sustainability metrics for public sector planners and is the current co-chair of the American Planning Association’s Colorado Chapter Sustainability Committee. He authored the Sustainability Action Plan for the small town of Nederland Colorado, and has worked with the STAR rating system to look at metrics on such sustainability areas as air quality, water consumption, and smart growth. He has experience working with regional indicators of sustainability and has developed a number of strategies for cities and counties to measure the effectiveness of their sustainability efforts.