Green Cities

How Urban Sustainability Improves the Environment

A new report published by Living Cities, Inc., describes what cities have accomplished, and where they have fallen short, in seizing opportunities to address climate change. A nod toward preservation, Green Cities: How Urban Sustainability Efforts Can and Must Drive America's Climate Change Policies points out research which shows that greening existing buildings is far better than building new ones. The report even takes note of a 2008 speech by National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe in which he said "the greenest building is one that already exists." Green Cities explains that some of the most cost-effective ways to cut carbon emissions from buildings are improving insulation, lighting, air-conditioning, and water heating—all of which are building retrofit measures and not exclusive to new green buildings.

Another interesting fact is that the U.S. Green Building Council has received more than a thousand new projects for its LEED certification program for existing buildings since January 2008—this is more than twice the rate of the previous year, so green rehabs seem to be gaining momentum.

This green roof in Washington, D.C., helps improve the urban environment.

A few large cities such as Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles are leading the charge by putting money aside to fund retrofits. In L.A., the city's utility will lend the municipality money for green projects, and the city will repay the loan with the energy savings it realizes over time. Some corporations have taken advantage of Energy Service Company (ESCO) performance contracts, which allow them to retrofit buildings at discounted up-front costs, then share in the resulting energy cost savings. A limitation here is the lack of a parallel model for small business owners.

Some cities are finding that greening existing buildings is challenging because tenants need to be relocated temporarily and some projects can be expensive; however, building owners who have already "greened" their properties are finding the effort was well worth it. Not only are they saving money from lower energy bills, but prospective tenants are showing a preference for green spaces. Another upside? The report states that $1 million spent on retrofits creates between eight and 11 jobs and generates about $300,000 in taxes – which are great numbers to ponder during a recession.

One of Baltimore's oldest adaptive-use projects to integrate preservation and sustainability is the American Can Company. The project has spurred revitalization throughout the surrounding neighborhood and helped create more than 400 jobs.

Credit: Patrick Ross Photography

The Green Cities report offers several recommendations to make retrofitting existing buildings easier in cities of any size:

  1. Organize: A single entity should be empowered to coordinate public and private-sector financing, marketing, and outreach to improve building performance and create jobs in the "Green Economy." A Main Street program would be well positioned to assume this leadership role.
  2. Fund: To pay for a significant number of green retrofits, obtain funding from public subsidies, bonding authorities, rate-based retrofit systems, or other district-level financing. Cities can use public funds to attract pools of capital from private and philanthropic institutions.
  3. Prepare work force: Cities, nonprofit organizations, and colleges need to take the lead in training people so they have the skill sets necessary for green jobs.
  4. Market and sell: Create new green messages and partners to help disseminate your message to promote energy efficiency, as well as work with others to teach the public what being green means, why it is necessary, and how to achieve it.

Living Cities, Inc., is a philanthropic, corporate, and public-sector partnership focused on community development in low-income cities.
Access the entire report (pdf)

For more information about going green, visit the Forum Journal's website to read Richard Moe's 2008 speech, "Historic Preservation and Green Building: Finding Common Ground."