Thinking of Bolder Shades of Green

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 27, 2008

How green can we get?

Architects and their clients increasingly pursue "green" ratings as a measure of the environmental sustainability of their buildings.

To do so, they employ multiple tactics: reusing aging structures, configuring new buildings compactly, installing effective insulation and energy-efficient mechanical systems, harvesting the sun's energy and maximizing use of daylight and natural ventilation, using recycled materials, recycling construction debris, conserving water and vegetating roofs.

Homeowners are also going for green by installing compact fluorescent light bulbs; replacing energy-wasting windows; upgrading heating and air conditioning equipment; buying hybrid vehicles; and walking, biking or riding transit instead of driving.

But can we go beyond this to make an entire city green? That means addressing the complex web of public infrastructure that affects sustainability -- transportation, utilities, open space.

In Washington last week, leaders from around the world focused on this question at the annual Capitals Alliance conference, titled "Greening the World's Capital Cities." Hosted by the National Capital Planning Commission in collaboration with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Building Museum, the conference brought together representatives of capitals including Abu Dhabi, Brasilia, Canberra, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Moscow, Oslo, Ottawa and Stockholm.

For five days, attendees heard presentations, took excursions in the District and learned about greening efforts in other cities.

A primary lesson emerged: Sustainability has yet to become a public policy priority in the United States. Our cities have not adopted adequate sustainability goals and standards, nor have they eliminated such barriers as outdated zoning ordinances, building codes and regulatory practices.

There was consensus that regulatory reform and economic incentives, along with strong design guidelines, are absolutely necessary. Only then will costly yet essential environmental actions be vigorously pursued throughout private and public sectors, for cities as well as buildings.

Greening a city entails multiple strategies adapted to the city's conditions and needs:

ยท Plan and regulate future development -- smart growth -- so that land use and density are determined by and closely linked to existing and planned infrastructure, especially road and transit networks.

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