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There is no such thing as a sustainable home. That’s a pretty provocative statement coming from someone who makes his living designing LEED Platinum, Net Zero Energy homes. What I mean is that the sustainability of a home is more than just the energy and resources that one home consumes; it’s also the lifestyle and total carbon footprint of the inhabitants of the home. I believe that community is the secret ingredient that can make all homes more sustainable.

I’ve designed some wonderfully green homes that are located far away from…well, everything. Which means that the owners need to drive to get to, well…nearly everything. And while they sometimes have an electric vehicle charged by solar panels on the home, overall, the process of delivering resources and activities to the residents of remote locations one house at a time is energy and resource intensive.

Aerial view of the final site. Click to embiggen. (Image: Scott Rodwin).

Cohousing with an urban ag component – designed by Rodwin Architecture. Click to embiggen. (Image: Scott Rodwin).

I live in Boulder, which has a well-deserved reputation for its commitment to sustainable living. Yet the carbon footprint per dwelling unit here is way above that of the average NYC resident. How it that? Boulder has mostly single family homes arranged in predominantly single-use zoning (homes here, retail there, offices somewhere else) with a low suburban density. It’s very pretty. But it means that people drive to most of their daily activities. “Single use zoning” tends to make most trips more than the half mile that most people are willing to walk or bike. “Low density” makes mass transit economically unviable and inefficient at delivering people to their destination. The Urban Land Institute, Sierra Club, the AIA and the American Planning Association have all issued policy opinions stating that if you truly want to create sustainable development, the best option is high-density, mixed use, pedestrian oriented communities.

The global population is exploding and global expectations for the “quality of life” (read “American dream suburban aspirations”) are simultaneously increasing; those fuel our consumption and pollution at every level. These are the drivers behind all development impact questions. Those issues have to be addressed as well, but most of us don’t have the ability to control those. What we do control is how we choose to inhabit where we live. The Market drives the housing product that developers and city planners offer. Demand sustainable urban planning, and over time, the market will respond.

Here are three tangible, immediate things you can do to make that happen:

  1. Start or join a “cohousing” project. Cohousing is one of many forms of community-oriented developments out there. In it, residents share resources and social activities. You own your own home and have a conventional mortgage, but houses tend to be compact and clustered, which is a more efficient land use pattern. Shared activities reduce trips in the car. Not everyone needs a lawnmower – our community has one for 11 households. Sharing reduces overall consumption of goods without any personal sacrifice. On the contrary, it means you can spend less to achieve the same quality of life.
  2. Buy or rent a home in a walkable community or one served by mass transit. Developers follow the market. When demand for mixed-use, pedestrian scale and mass transit-oriented communities increases, that’s what planners will plan and developers will build. Like cohousing, this move can save you money. The average American spends $16,000/year on their car related expenses (including parking & tolls). If you could live somewhere where you didn’t need one, you could afford a nicer home.
  3. Advocate for sustainable urban planning policy (often referred to as “Smart Growth”) that is designed for people rather than cars. Go to your city council and planning board. Write letters to the editor. Speak in favor of higher density, mixed-use, mass transit linked projects when they come to your neighborhood. When projects come up for public review, it’s usually only the people who are opposed to their impacts that come out to speak (against). Many good green and socially responsible projects die in public hearings because of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition. They need community support from people who are willing to stand up for our larger sustainability goals.

Stopping development locally doesn’t stop development – our growing global population needs to live somewhere. It just pushes it out into undisturbed areas where we destroy more natural habitat and we are less efficient at delivering the resources people need to live.

The only truly green homes are those that are part of a sustainable community.

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