How Green is Your Main Street?

The question may stump you, in part because the term is so broadly used (or abused), that it can mean anything… or nothing! Used interchangeably, the terms "sustainable" and "green" development can have different goals, and they aren't always compatible.  Case in point: the "greenest building in the world," according to the U.S. Green Building Council—the most recognized and respected arbiter of sustainable development—is the Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland. But it is a new building, constructed 10 miles away from downtown, where the Center was originally located. Employees must now drive everywhere, instead of walking as they once did. And the downtown lost a major anchor that attracted foot traffic and spin-off businesses.

The Preservation Green Lab, headquartered in Seattle, will offer technical assistance and will develop model policies on green issues.

Credit: Linda S. Glisson

Green? Maybe. Sustainable? Perhaps not, when we take a broader set of issues into consideration.

In contrast, a central principle of "sustainability" is the recognition that environmental, economic, and social equity concerns are intertwined. These "three Es" are often referred to in the field as the three legs of a stool. Lacking one means the stool will not stand; emphasizing one over the other makes the stool wobble. The broad goal of "sustainable design," then, is to make priorities and choices that put "people, planet, and prosperity" all together. And that brings us back to Main Street, and the intrinsic value of our older buildings and urban forms.

As leaders in the field, we can all be proud of the role we play in sustainable development.
Through our collective efforts, we can make Main Street a cornerstone of every grassroots sustainability initiative! Yet, if we are to legitimately claim our spot in the limelight of this new movement, there is much work yet to be done to make our buildings, businesses, and streetscapes "greener."

This special issue of Main Street News is dedicated to de-mystifying the somewhat technical and arcane language used by practitioners of sustainable design. More importantly, we hope to offer a starting point for you, as revitalization professionals, to integrate sustainability into every element of your work and districts.

Bringing Preservationists to the Green Table

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been diligently conducting outreach and partnership building to make the case that there are commonalities between historic preservation and green buildings. It may seem obvious to preservationists that the reuse of buildings, green retrofits to historic buildings, reinvestment in existing communities, and protection of our heritage are sustainable activities. For many years, however, the public and many environmental groups did not make this connection.

In 2006, the National Trust partnered with several national organizations that were developing separate sustainability agendas, including the American Institute of Architects, Association for Preservation Technology International, National Park Service, General Services Administration, and National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. The coalition's first goal was to start a conversation with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) on ways to improve the LEED rating system to better reflect the importance of reusing buildings and community revitalization.

In recent years, green rehabs of historic buildings, including the National Trust's own Lincoln Cottage Education Center, have earned LEED certification, thus proving older buildings can meet sustainability standards. Recent changes in LEED 2009 reflect some—although not all—of preservationists' concerns with the rating system. As scientific research continues, USGBC has been reforming the LEED system, and each revision of the process has reflected a higher value on preservation and revitalization.

In 2007, the National Trust launched its Sustainability Program to emphasize the social, environmental, and economic value of preservation. Through this initiative, the National Trust is focusing the nation's attention on the importance of reusing existing buildings and reinvesting in older and historic communities as critical elements in combating climate change. Through its research, the National Trust's Sustainability Initiative is demonstrating that conservation and improvement of our existing built resources are environmentally logical and economically viable elements in combating climate change.

In addition to online resources, (visit, the National Trust is launching a series of pilot programs across the nation, called "Preservation Green Lab," that will coordinate demonstration projects and provide technical assistance and model policies—all in an effort to encourage municipalities and states throughout the nation to fully consider historic preservation and the existing building stock when formulating their climate change action plans. The work will focus on three key areas:

  • Good Policy, Green Results: The greenest building is often the one that already exists, which is precisely why the Preservation Green Lab will work in various cities and states to develop and implement policies that support green retrofits and adaptive use, as well as reinvestment in existing communities.
  • Greening by Example: To demonstrate that older and historic buildings can, in fact, be retrofitted to achieve high levels of energy efficiency, the Preservation Green Lab will launch a number of green retrofit projects in pilot cities across the country.
  • The Go-To for Going Green: The Preservation Green Lab will lead the conversation on best practices and model policies for greening our country's prized older and historic buildings. It will function as the go-to resource for those navigating the intersection of historic preservation and sustainability.

Headquartered in Seattle, the Preservation Green Lab will partner with selected cities and states in its efforts to become a national clearinghouse for best practices and model policies. Seattle, San Francisco, and Dubuque have agreed to be the Preservation Green Lab's first pilot cities, and additional cities are already being considered for future projects and partnerships.