Beyond the Building: Planning for Sustainable Sites and Communities

By: Jonathan Burgess, PLA, LEED AP ND & BD+C

Vice-President of Sustainable Operations, The Spinnaker Group

West Palm Beach, FL
(November 2, 2015) 
For the past decade, many
communities throughout
Florida have seen the rapid
adoption of sustainability
principles integrated into
the buildings in which we
live, work and play. With
more than 1,100 LEED certified commercial buildings in the State of Florida (representing more than 100 million sf), and another 140 million sf of Energy Star buildings, there is little question that developers and project teams are seeing the value of creating healthy and high-performing green buildings.

Despite the transformation at the individual building level, many of these same Florida communities are subject to sprawling land development patterns -- those defined by bedroom communities and strip commercial centers with excess parking, connected by environmentally degrading street networks. Our disturbed landscapes too often consist of large swaths of water-hogging turf-grass and the decimation of native habitats by invasive, toxic and nuisance plants.

How sustainable are net-zero communities 40 miles away from job centers, or LEED big boxes surrounded by acres of surface parking and no connectivity to nearby uses? It’s time for sustainability practitioners to think outside the box, beyond the building envelope and into the public realm, focusing on the broader landscape that defines our towns and cities.

Similar to the way LEED was created as a tool for market transformation of individual buildings, the US Green Building Council has partnered with the Congress for New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council to create a LEED rating system focused on sustainability at the neighborhood scale: LEED for Neighborhood Development.

According to Sandra Lee, President of USGBC South Florida, "LEED-ND is a tool that assists planners in bringing forward an alternative, sustainable form of growth. It strives for the creation of compact, walkable, vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods with good connections to nearby communities."

Here in Florida, there are several LEED-ND projects underway, including an affordable housing community in Fort Lauderdale (Northwest Gardens), a luxury retail destination in Miami (Miami Design District), a suburban town center in Doral, and two mixed-use urban revitalization projects, one in Miami (Brickell City Centre) and one in Tampa (Encore).

In addition to LEED for Neighborhood Development, Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI) – the certifying body that administers the LEED program — has also recently launched a SITES rating system to help project teams develop sustainable landscapes. The rating system can be applied to development projects located on sites with or without buildings, ranging from national parks to corporate campuses, streetscapes and homes, and much more. One such example is the Two-Star SITES Certified US Federal Office Building located in Miramar, Florida.

The LEED-ND and SITES certification programs are great tools that will allow planners and landscape architects to focus on sustainability in the landscape and at the neighborhood scale. They allows us to focus on resiliency and on creating sustainable communities that connect people to each other while safeguarding ourselves against an increasingly disruptive climate.

"Landscapes knit together the fabric of our communities," said Rick Fedrizzi, CEO, GBCI. "And sustainable landscapes are critical in their ability to reduce water demand, filter and reduce storm water runoff, provide wildlife habitat, reduce energy consumption, improve air quality, improve human health, and increase outdoor recreation opportunities."