In recent years, Houston has made great strides in green building, moving into the top ten nationally on both LEED certified and Energy Star rated structures. At the same time, fewer steps have been taken to address transportation, which accounts for one third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 3 To achieve greater sustainability, architects, planners, and developers must take the space between buildings into greater account.
As in other metropolitan areas, Houston's commercial developers and property owners are continuing to embrace green building standards, particularly the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard for new construction. As a result, new offices, schools, institutions, and commercial buildings are increasingly efficient, incorporating a full array of technologies to minimize energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. These are major steps in the right direction, but we can and must do more.
Individuals spend only part of their day in any given home, office, school, or other facility. They must also travel between other locations. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2009, approximately one-third of GHG emissions came from buildings and another one-third came from transportation. If we are to reduce total GHG emissions, it will not be enough to address only buildings.
The (lack of) proximity of these daily destinations to one another is a significant driver of the energy consumption and emissions of travel. Further, the quality of the public infrastructure between destinations directly affects which travel modes are available. Destinations that are well-connected by wide sidewalks, bike lanes, or transit—complete streets—are likely to be reached on foot, bike, or transit. Distances that are connected only by auto-oriented roads or highways are likely to be traversed in cars.
LEED for New Construction offers 17 (out of 110) points that are related to location of a building or the transportation options serving it. 4 However, none of these points is mandatory and in many cases they can be earned too easily. For example, points are available if there is any bus or other transit stop within 1/4 mile of a project, without regard for the frequency that buses stop there or whether the connectivity that would allow someone to get from the stop to the project site exists.
In order to create greener buildings, it behooves developers and others making site-selection decisions to locate new buildings in or near existing activity centers, to take advantage of proximity to other destinations, and to help enable transit service, which works best where there's density. Getting the location right is especially important for new public facilities, including civic buildings, health clinics, schools, community and senior centers, etc. Second, it behooves owners of existing buildings and local jurisdictions to work together to retrofit streets (in the same way one might retrofit an older building) to make them complete, adding safe and convenient facilities for pedestrians and cyclists. By increasing density and completing street infrastructure, we can reinforce existing locations into livable centers, increasing travel options and reducing auto dependence.