Skip to main content

Fighting climate change at the community level

National governments and international agencies haven’t been able to make any notable progress on tackling the issue of climate change.

So some communities have decided they’ll take matters into their own hands.

Neighborhood park in Boston.

With a multi-faceted approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, neighborhoods are lowering their carbon footprint and doing their part to slow global warming.

If that sounds like a do-gooder luxury—the kind of program that has to take a back seat to more immediate concerns in moderate- and low-income communities—think again.

Making a community greener is another way to make the streets safer to walk, help residents build wealth, bring more jobs to the neighborhood, add affordable housing or other local priorities.

“You can look at a community as a living organism, with different parts that work together,” said Julia Prange Wallerce, the assistant program officer at the LISC Green Development Center. “The LISC framework for Building Sustainable Communities has five goals that are interconnected. Being green is just an inherent part of that.”

Green Beantown

There’s no better example of what’s possible in green development than the Talbot Norfolk Triangle, a neighborhood in the central part of Boston's Dorchester area.

To plan and achieve a series of green initiatives, the Codman Square NDC has worked with Boston LISC, LISC’s Green Development Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The Levedo building in Codman square provides affordable housing in a very green building.

Now, transit-oriented development near a new train station in the neighborhood includes 24-units of affordable housing in a mixed-use development that itself is energy efficient. The Green Retrofit Initiative, an ongoing weatherization program for multi-family homes, lowers utility bills for local families. Community groups have started a half-acre urban farm, a pocket park and a community garden.

Plans are ongoing for reusing a local school and other green buildings, as well. (For more on the work, read Kaid Benfield’s great series of blog posts on Boston.)

To plan these projects, the partners are using LEED for Neighborhood Development, a tool to create smart, sustainable, and well-designed neighborhoods that is built on the model of the increasingly popular LEED rating system for green buildings.

LEED-ND, which was jointly developed by NRDC, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism, gives high scores for communities that produce less greenhouse grasses (typically by less auto use), generate less stormwater runoff, use land more efficiently, conserve natural resources, are more walkable, and promote public health.

“We’ve realized that if we only work building by building [to make the world greener], we’re not going to make an impact any time quick,” said Jessica Millman, an environmental consultant who chaired the committee that wrote LEED-ND. “This program makes all the factors of a location the core environmental standard.”

LEEDing the way

Most existing urban communities have great built-in advantages when it comes to LEED-ND—a mix of retail, residential and civic buildings within walkable distance, for example, and access to public transportation.

By leveraging those green assets, low- and moderate-income communities can raise their profile and bring in more resources.

“When we get LEED ND certification for the Codman Square area, it will be an eco-innovation district in Boston,” said Bob Van Meter, the executive director of Boston LISC, which has been an active participant in working toward the LEED-ND designation and has provided resources to the projects, including a predevelopment loan and a $5 million investment in the Talbot Station development.

“That is part of our revitalization strategy for the area,” Van Meter said. “It’s potentially a way to attract people who want to live in a community with that kind of designation, and to attract private capital, too.”

Construction starts on Philadelphia's "transit village."

In Philadelphia, the local LISC office is also involved with transit-oriented development: A $50 million mixed-use development at 9th and Berks in the North Eastern neighborhood that is being co-developed by the local lead agency, Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM), and a private developer, Jonathan Rose Companies.

The “transit village” not only will make it easier for local residents and students at nearly Temple University to avoid driving, the initiative will include green features such as a green roof, small local parks, water-efficient appliances and solar panels.

At the same time, it’s also designed to include affordable housing, a health clinic, a community center and a LISC-funded Financial Opportunity Center.

When complete, the development will be a key part of the community’s goal of achieving LEED-ND certification. “It’s a signature project in the community,” said Sarah Sturtevant, Philadelphia LISC’s Sustainable Communities program officer.

The initiative also matches well with Mayor Michael Nutter’s Greenworks Philadelphia program, which is aiming to make Philadelphia, “the greenest city in America.”

Philadelphia isn’t the only American city with that goal, as many municipal administrations realize the benefits that can accrue to eco-conscious urban areas.

“People don’t always understand how green cities are."

That momentum gives low- and moderate-income communities an opportunity to attract resources and attention with green initiatives. In Boston, for example, the Barr Foundation has provided financial support for many of the Codman Square programs.

“People don’t always understand how green cities are—the reality is, if you live in the suburbs and drive a Prius to work, your carbon footprint is greater than someone in the city who takes a bus to work,” Van Meter said.

“If society values lowering greenhouse gas emissions, then if we’ve demonstrated that our communities are effective at that, we have an opportunity to persuade [decisionmakers] that resources should flow to these communities on a regular basis.”

Making it match

Not every neighborhood green development program has to be as large as a new TOD multi-use development, however—or even be undertaken to apply for LEED-ND status.

The Citizens Guide to LEED for Neighborhood Development gives community leaders ideas for how to use LEED-ND to inform neighborhood improvements a la carte.  In Ithaca, New York, for instance, Milman said that the city is using LEED-ND as an audit tool to review its zoning code, environmental review and action plans.

“The kind of projects that are good from a LEED-ND perspective may benefit the community in a number of other ways,” Millman said.

“A sidewalk gets people walking, which means they don’t have to drive, but is also good from a public health perspective. Trees on a street are good for stormwater runoff, but local business people like them because they make the street more attractive, so more people come by to shop.”

To Prange Wallerce, that kind of perspective is at the heart of why green development is such a natural fit with comprehensive community initiatives.

“When we come in to work with a community, we start with their quality-of-life plan because we like to see what goals they have and what type of vision they have already committed to for their community,” Prange Wallerce said.

“We look for those low-hanging fruits—what have they already identified as important—because that is where we want to engage with them and make connections with the work we do.”


Read other stories in our special section about community development and responding to Hurricane Sandy.

Life after Sandy - More than half a dozen key LISC staff on the East Coast participated in a roundtable to discuss the effects of Hurricane Sandy and what it means for their cities and communities moving forward.

Response teamwork - Five big ideas for how CDCs and other local organizations can play a key role in helping their communities recover from disaster.

Posted in Planning, Affordable Housing, Parks, Open Space & Greening

Stay connected

Stay up to date with news and events related to the Institute: