Kaid Benfield Archive


Transforming the market for development location

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 30, 2009 at 7:15PM

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One of the most popular tags on the overall Switchboard site is "markettransformation."  I'm a believer.  Not everything we need for sustainability can be accomplished through policy initiatives (the current feeding frenzy at the trough of "stimulus" notwithstanding).  And there are genuine market leaders out there in the world of sustainable development whose work needs to be recognized, rewarded and emulated.

   unknown location, (c) Alex S. MacLean/Landslides

So enter market mechanisms like the development endorsement programs of the Greenbelt Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Smart Growth Alliance in the DC metro area.  Enter also the location-efficient mortgage and the project that has absorbed most of my energy for the last several years, LEED for Neighborhood Development.  All of these aim to separate the truly smart from the pretenders and influence the location and shape of development.

   western AZ, (c) Alex S. MacLean/Landslides

But we're starting to get some backlash.  One of the most frustrating is something I hear a lot from the world of architects and developers:  that "market transformation" is a good goal, but it shouldn't include location, or not very much.  Development is going to occur in sprawl locations, the argument goes, so we need to, you know, make it better sprawl.

   is it still new urbanism if it's in the middle of a cornfield? (Google Earth capture of a development site in Loudoun County, VA)

Never mind that the research shows that location is by far the most important influence on driving patterns and even the best-designed, walkable and mixed-use developments in the wrong locations will have carbon emissions from transportation almost identical to those with large lots and cul-de-sacs.  Never mind that they become magnets for conventional sprawl all around them.  Leapfrogging doesn't matter, they say, because we will design it so well.  Transit doesn't matter.  Spreading development all over the landscape can be good for the environment if it has a nice grid street pattern and some shops.  We don't care about the research, because our system works in theory.

   western AZ, (c) Alex S. MacLean/Landslides

To which I say:  hogwash.  We need to transform the market for design and for location.  Do one instead of the other and we're just pretending when it comes to sustainability.

   western AZ, (c) Alex S. MacLean/Landslides

I know it can't be utopian perfection.  Not everything can be urban infill, though the environment would benefit if it could.  But, if you're going to do suburban development, don't expect a reward from NRDC unless you at least build it adjacent and connected to a critical mass of pre-existing development.  If you are going to leapfrog, don't ask for a sustainability certification unless you at least have transit, for god's sake.  And, no, we're also not going to applaud if you pave over prime farmland, no matter how green the new crop of houses is.

   farmland conversion in Maryland (by: MD Dept of Planning)

Development endorsement, the location-efficient mortgage, and LEED-ND are not Christmas candy, where every kid automatically gets a piece.  You have to earn it.

Except where noted, images are by Alex S. MacLean/Landslides.  MacLean's wonderful current book is Over: the American Landscape at the Tipping Point.