As part of a series, I’ve been exploring what locations in the Twin Cities metro are eligible for LEED ND based on the land use characteristics. These locations could be considered “location efficient”, a concept which has gained importance recently due to changes in federal policy that direct the expenditure of federal money. The benefits of location efficiency include “connecting conveniently and affordably to jobs, schools, shops and other amenities through a range of transportation options”, according to HUD Secretary Donovan.
I would argue that we can also use LEED ND as a guide for growing our region more sustainably. The requirements of the rating system can show us where it would be appropriate to target future growth, what areas should be preserved until sufficient infrastructure is available, and what areas are totally off-limits. HUD, DOT and EPA are promoting a similar line of thinking with their recent partnership on Sustainable Communities and corresponding grant opportunity.
While cities and counties in the Twin Cities metro do currently have some guidance and requirements (administered by the Metropolitan Council) on how and where to plan for future development, there are many parts of that guidance that falls short when compared with the LEED ND approach. A major focus of the requirements is ensuring communities meet the minimum density thresholds for development within areas with existing or planned sewer infrastructure. These required densities are far lower (three units per net residential acre) than any common guidance on building walkable, bikable or transit-possible communities (7 units an acre and up). These lower densities can threaten natural areas while also having greater impacts on groundwater quality, infrastructure costs and the financial sustainability of a community. They also result in near total automobile dependence for future the residents of those areas, which can have its own ramifications on human health, cost of living and the environment.
Communities can meet these planned density requirements with a planned average of three units per net residential acre. This means in practice that many communities have large areas that are planned as lower than three units per acre, even within planned sewer service areas. The Met Council also has guidance on what densities are appropriate to plan for outside sewered areas, but these are not followed and/or enforced well, and the result is that many areas of the metro are planned to have densities below three units per acre, but above one unit per ten acres (the latter being the maximum density supposedly allowed in areas not planned for sewer service). These areas are most problematic because once developed, they set up an unsustainable financial situation for the city, restrict the ability to extend municipal services (sewer and water) in a contiguous, cost-effective manner, and create serious cases of NIMBYism when new, higher density development does occur.
So what are some options (that reflect the process for determining LEED ND eligibility) that could help grow the region more sustainably and bring us in line with HUD Sustainable Communities Livability Principles? Here are a few ideas:
- Identify regional natural and water resources that must be protected and require that these be identified and set aside in Comprehensive Plans and zoning codes. Currently their is vague language about natural resource protection, but no region-wide identification of resources that should be permanently protected from development (besides wetlands and some other water features). LEED ND SLL prerequisites provide a straightforward guide for doing this.
- Raise and enforce minimum planned density standards for sewered areas. The Met Council operates the regional transit system as well as the regional sewer system. Why certain densities can be required for the efficient operations of one system, but not the other has always been a little confusing to me. If we want to support walkable, healthy, sustainable communities, densities must come up. These planned densities should also not be calculated on a city-wide basis, but rather absolute minimum densities should be set.
- Guide growth to more targeted areas. Instead of distributing projected growth among many or all communities in the metro, as the Met Council currently does, focus growth in the areas where it would contribute to a sustainable pattern. This map of LEED ND eligibility throughout the region shows areas that are currently eligible for LEED ND with existing land use regulation (in red) and areas that could be eligible with updated land use regulations (in orange). Instead of spreading growth so widely (over an entire community), why not stipulate that most or all of it should be guided for these areas. Obviously more analysis would be needed on how much development these areas could realistically accommodate, but these are the areas that have the characteristics that meet LEED ND requirements.
- Require all new development more dense than 1 unit per 10 acres be sewered. Cities should also ask developers to pay for any necessary infrastructure extensions. While this may seem a little counterintuitive, requiring development to be sewered would mean that very low density development would become much more expensive. This requirement would also mitigate many impacts to surface and ground water currently being caused by failing septic systems. This strategy is not totally under the control of the Met Council, it would likely take actions by MPCA and even the State Legislature.
- Target regional and local infrastructure spending to areas meeting minimum standards. Public dollars should go to areas that can utilize infrastructure well and truly support alternative transportation modes. This means not just minimum densities, but minimum standards for environmental protection, complete streets, lifecycle housing and others.
- Price transportation based on usage and environmental impact. While the latter may have to be done by the feds, the former could be done at the state or regional level. Moving beyond the gas tax to a transportation funding mechanism that accounts for the full cost incurred by users may have a serious impact on land use patterns. This could also help us solve our ongoing infrastructure funding problem.
These are just a few ideas that could be implemented on a regional basis. None of these precludes individual cities doing a similar eligibility analysis on their own and adjusting their planning and zoning to guide new growth in efficient ways. However, if policies aren’t applied consistently to the region, the impact will be minimal and we won’t be much closer to achieving sustainability goals.