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Getting Down to Business In Sustainability 2.0

Anthony Flint and William Shutkin / Mar 12 2009

For Release Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anthony FlintWilliam ShutkinBOULDER, Colo. — For those concerned with sustainability, some big things are on the way from Washington. There’s the distribution of the $787 billion economic stimulus package for public works infrastructure. The reauthorization of federal transportation funding, which could finally shift significant funds from highways to transit. The Obama administration’s ambitious clean-energy plans, and its interest in a cap-and-trade system to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We haven’t been used to such heavy lifting from the federal government. For years, the action has been at the local level, in metropolitan regions that have been engines of innovation focused on green, compact, transit-oriented settlement. In fact, during the final stages of the Bush administration and into these first days for President Obama, the bottom-up dynamic has led to a kind of Sustainability 2.0.

Consider the innovative practices of two Denver-based developers, Urban Villages and Zocolo Community Development. They’re building mixed-use, walkable, dense infill development that is integrated with transportation and open space, with all buildings constructed to last 100 years, powered by state-of-the-art heating and cooling systems–solar, radiant, thermal–that will use 80 percent less energy than the typical building today.

Efficient urban residences rely on location–the city–to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, so much so that the LEED standards for green building are already seen as out of date.

“LEED was a good start. But we need a whole new scorecard,” said Grant McCargo, president of Urban Villages. “I don’t get credit for embodied energy. I’m penalized for retrofitting in LoDo (Denver’s Lower Downtown district) because I can’t collect rainwater. That’s absurd.”

McCargo was among the leaders in urban development and climate change gathered for ELEVATE 09, a symposium the University of Colorado hopes to put on every year. The goal–to take advantage of the forward-thinking development practices percolating in the Denver-Boulder-Fort Collins corridor. The idea is to gather mile-high, and take the discussion of sustainability to the next level.

While early green efforts had a trial-and-error quality, the latest exhibit a get-down-to-business sharpening of focus. One strong new trend: a real wariness of greenwashing, and the need to analyze initiatives to test not for good intentions, but for impact.

Local policies such as plastic bag bans, restricting lawn watering and tree-planting must be evaluated to judge their actual outcomes in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the quality of city life, said Judy Layzer from the urban planning program at MIT. Otherwise, “it’s just so much easier to do ‘sustainability lite’,” she said.

Metropolitan regions also need to be guided through the maze of grants, rebates and tax credits available for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. In the midst of the current economic tumult, green leases and green loan documents will become central to development financing, requiring sure-footed modeling that shows the savings of going green over the long term.

Another challenge: green affordable housing. Low- and moderate-income families can’t shoulder the burden of re-engineering our energy use and built environment. The Congressional Budget Office says that policies that reduce emissions by 15 percent would impose a $750 to $950 a year increase on families in the bottom 20 percent of the income spectrum. “We simply can’t continue to make green buildings only for the wealthy,” said Trisha Miller of Green Communities at Enterprise Community Partners.

And yet another: the barriers that stand in the way of sustainability. “It’s not the tools–we have those and we know what works–it’s implementation,” said Peter Pollock, the former Boulder city planner, and now a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a co-sponsor of the conference. Success requires regional collaboration, strengthening federal-state-local connections, confronting the problems of the local collection of sales and property tax revenue, and reforming zoning, which in most communities is outdated and needs to be fixed.

John Cleveland, co-founder of the Innovation Network for Communities, said that green initiatives are only now on the verge of scaling up. “I don’t know of a (fully) sustainable community anywhere in America,” he said. “Mother Nature doesn’t give a rip about relative progress; she needs hard targets, and if they are missed, there are going to be some very violent corrections.”

Currently it’s more in fashion to talk more about cost savings, security from volatility, quality of life, and economic development than climate change, he said. “The problem is, when you start talking like that, you lose all rigor.”

With the economy disintegrating, and the impacts of climate change advancing beyond all predictions, the imperative for new policy directions has never been clearer. Local innovations have been fruitful, but we need rigor more than ever now.

Anthony Flint, director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, can be reached at William Shutkin, director of the Initiative for Sustainable Development and Chair in Sustainable Development at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, can be reached at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

Comment by David Crossley of Houston Tomorrow

The stimulus money that’s coming to Texas is going to be the most damaging thing that has happened to Houston in a long time. The State has decided to spend $181 million of it to begin building the Grand Parkway, a third loop around the region. It will begin by destroying the Katy Prairie, one of the most sensitive ecosystems we have, and then will continue around through pine forests, the Big Thicket, Trinity River bottomlands, Lake Houston, and coastal marshes.  Just devastating.
Nearly all of it will be built in uninhabitated areas, so there is no transportation component.  It is purely, as TxDOT said at the hearings, “an opportunity to open up areas for development.” There is a lot of anger here and some of it is being directed at the President for unleashing this total surprise on us. This was a project that had faded into the background for lack of funds, and suddenly it’s just weeks away from construction beginning. Tuesday the County Commissioners’ Court approved the beginning of right of way acquisition.
We will be a long time getting over the taste of this stimulus package, which left our city and transit agency nearly swinging in the breeze and will destroy most of the wild and agricultural land in this already suffering region.
It will suck some of the life out of the city and make it very hard to keep making progress on our livable centers program if suddenly there is a ton of cheap land for developers to build sprawl on.