Carbon Emissions Series: Green Neighborhood Design

With the close of the semester, I’ve had some time to reflect on the classes I took—and which ones provided the most value. One of best courses I took this semester at Cornell was called Green Real Estate, and it was taught by Mark Vorreuter, a passionate LEED AP who was eager to see students of all majors interested in green buildings. The course covered many aspects of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a certification offered by the Green Building Council for buildings, homes, and neighborhoods that meet a set of criteria. I remembered spending several nights cramming for a practice LEED exam in which I had to acquaint myself with many of its specific criteria, but not until recently was I able to see the real effects of green building and neighborhood design.

Suburbs in Pearland offer large houses, wide roads, and generous land spacing.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit some friends in Pearland, one of the many suburbs of Houston, Texas. It was my first time in Texas, and I stayed in a house that was located in the beautiful neighborhood pictured above. One of the first things I noticed about the region was how far apart everything was: a trip to the nearest grocery store would take 10-15 by car, and houses/roads were spaced very generously. Every day, we would spend two hours round-trip driving to and from Houston and hitting other local landmarks. Mr. Vorreuter’s lectures about green neighborhoods—the lectures that I had nearly fallen asleep in—had finally come to life.

The premise behind LEED—and also, behind the design of green neighborhoods—is to reduce carbon emissions. This is the worshiped metric that most certifications are based upon; that is, if implementing a certain practice reduces energy use and carbon emissions, it is material and significant. My experience in Texas clearly showed me why LEED for Neighborhoods insists that developments be dense, urban, and centrally located. Click on the two pictures below: the left is a nice neighborhood with a small lake in Pearland, and the right is the planned development of a LEED neighborhood in San Francisco. Can you see the difference?

Among other things, green neighborhoods focus on reducing the distance between things. A reduction in distance decreases vehicle usage and promotes walking and biking. In addition, increasing population density helps to centralize energy distribution and also decreases commuting distance. I guess I can be a little bit more tolerant now when my friends from the Natural Resources department continue preaching to me about how bad urban sprawl is. If only we could urbanize Texas…

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