Green Urbanism

Green and urban. At first glance the two go together like balloons and thumbtacks. But combine green building concepts and urbanist ideals and you've got just that, "green urbanism," a growing movement toward walkable communities that are not just nice to live in but good for the environment, too.

We Americans tend to look for green solutions when we can see the savings, which is why so many people have turned down the thermostat in the winter; turned it up in the summer, and installed curly light bulbs all over the house.

"All those things are really good things for us to do," said Mark Nickita, president of Archive DS, a Detroit architecture and design firm that specializes in improving urban areas. "But there’s far too much emphasis on the little things everyone can do and not enough emphasis on the most important things that have big impact  - the amount you drive every day, the amount of miles you live from your work, the amount of sprawl."

Nickita moderated a session on the redevelopment of Detroit at the country's premier gathering of green urbanists, the Congress for the New Urbanism’s conference in Philadelphia May 17-20.  

One comment he heard there struck him with particular clarity: "We need to talk more about lifestyle and less about light bulbs."

Nickita lives in downtown Birmingham. On the weekends he walks everywhere and during the week he takes the bus into Detroit. At times he goes weeks without starting his car. 

"Those are lifestyle changes," he said. "Every time you turn on your car and drive somewhere it’s wasteful. If you can minimize those trips, that’s green urbanism."

How green is green?

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system is the national benchmark for high-performance green buildings. LEED certification is the stamp that says a building is energy efficient, healthy for the people using it and supportive of the environment surrounding it.

Green Urbanism is the next step.

Buildings generate more than a third of our greenhouse gasses, mostly from the energy used to heat and cool them. But another third comes from vehicle emissions generated by moving people and goods to and from those buildings.

So the Congress for the New Urbanism along with the United States Green Building Council and National Resource Defense Council have developed a pilot program for neighborhood development (LEED-ND) that sets standards for sustainable neighborhoods. The full program, scheduled to launch sometime in 2009, will certify not just buildings but entire neighborhoods based on criteria that shrink their environmental impact and create complete, compact, connected, energy efficient and environmentally sound communities.

That's fine with Nickita and his partners at Archive DS, hard-core urbanists who design walkable downtowns, plan adaptive reuse of historic buildings and design mixed-use construction on formerly weed-filled lots. They're currently involved in renovation of the Vinton Building, a 12-story neo-classical Albert Kahn building in downtown Detroit that will eventually have restaurant, retail and residential space. In Ferndale, Archive DS designed ID Woodward, a development that will have a combination retail and residential space on what used to be an underused parking lot. All that density and mixed use make for less environmental impact without giving up on historic buildings or giving in to faceless sprawl. Nickita borrows from author James Howard Kunstler when he describes their work as "creating places to care about."
"That really sums up the whole point," Nickita said. "When you create a Wal-Mart, you create a Wal-Mart, but you don’t create a place to care about. When someone comes with the wrecking ball, no one will stand in front of the wrecking ball and try and stop it." 

If you build it…

It just might revitalize your city. The Ferndale-based Michigan Suburbs Alliance has worked with the governments of cities like Lincoln Park, Eastpointe and Grosse Pointe Woods, helping them cut through municipal red tape and adjust master plans to make redevelopment more efficient and less complicated. The alliance, now 29 cities strong, is also working with communities along the Ann Arbor-Detroit corridor to help pave the way for future mass transit with walkable, mixed-use development around likely stops.

In Ann Arbor, four new downtown condominium projects all look to capitalize on the city's reputation as a pedestrian-friendly cultural center. Developer Peter Allen says about two thirds of the buyers at his Kingsley Lane Lofts are young (25-40), local, and work in downtown Ann Arbor. The other third are empty nesters and retirees who want to be close to the action. Builders broke ground in March, and 18 of the 46 units are already sold.

For $200,000-$750,000 buyers get a home within walking distance of work, entertainment, two small grocery stores, the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market and Zingerman's Deli. But proximity is only part of the draw. The 46-unit condominium incorporates sustainable building materials like cork and bamboo flooring, concrete made with reclaimed aggregate, recyclable standing seam metal roofing, and natural- and recycled-fiber carpets. Kingsley Lane's smaller units don't have on-site parking, but include space at nearby municipal lots, an arrangement Allen says has turned out to be a good sharing of infrastructure.
"It's partly driven by philosophy and partly by economics," said Allen. "One, you just want to do good by mother earth and do good by your body. That's the walkable urbanity gig, and those lifestyle benefits are very important to our buyers at Kingsley…. The other is the result of $4 gasoline."

Realtor and Eco-Broker Laura Shope says demand for sustainably-built living and working spaces in southeastern Michigan hasn't reached the level of places Denver, Portland, and Seattle. But more and more people are aware of what green can do for them, and for the segment of the population that identifies with healthy lifestyles, it's a priority.

"In Denver and Boulder (green building practices are) part of almost all new construction," said Shope, who works for Prudential Snyder and Company in Ann Arbor. "It's almost as if consumers are saying they don't want anything else. It's an emerging market here. What I often run into is people don't realize it's an option."

Meanwhile, Chicago is angling to become the green hub of the Midwest with plans to open the country's first green mall, the Green Exchange, in 2008. The 250,000 square foot refurbished historic building will have LEED certification and about 100 socially-responsible businesses and organizations as tenants. Bikes and hybrid vehicles will get priority parking.

Sprawl happens

Don't let the name fool you; green urbanism can still happen outside traditionally urban places. According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments permits were issued for more than 246,000 new residences in Southeastern Michigan between 1995 and 2005. Clarkston landscape architect and Jim Eppink, president of J Eppink Partners, Inc., incorporates green urban principles when he can to offset the impact of that rapid growth.

Eppink's company designed the Pine Knob Corporate Centre, a 30-acre site that will eventually include nine buildings linked by sidewalks and a central park. There's already a pharmacy on the parcel, and the new zoning also calls for a fresh market, some retail and office space, a banquet center and a locally owned restaurant. 

Existing wetlands were preserved, and a series of rain gardens and bioswales capture storm water and water running through the property, clean it and slow it down to protect the lakes and rivers downstream from the project. 
The site's proximity to DTE Energy Music Theater made it impractical to incorporate living space, but it's within walking distance of several newer neighborhoods.

"I would define urbanism as creating walkable, livable communities, and I think that's by far better than suburban sprawl," Eppink said. "To do it in an environmentally responsible way makes it that much better."

Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times.


A rendering of the Green Exchange - Chicago (courtesy of Green Exchange)

Mark Nickita of Archive DS

Vinton Building - downtown Detroit

Developer Peter Allen

Model of Kingsley Lane Lofts - Ann Arbor

Eco-Broker Laura Shope

Photographs © Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is managing photographer of Model D and a major contributor to metromode

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