Is America’s capital the blueprint for more sustainable cities?

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
Downtown Washington DC
Image credit: Shutterstock

With its focus on renewable energy sources and eco-friendly buildings, Washington D.C is setting new standards for cities not just in the U.S. but also globally.

The U.S. capital recently received the highest level of certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard – making it the world’s first LEED Platinum city.

Originally devised to evaluate the environmental performance of buildings, the LEED certification is now being piloted for cities to recognize civic commitment to sustainability and human health alongside economic prosperity.

“The system was developed to bring a new level of leadership to cities where improvement in quality of life is prioritized in urban growth,” says Dana Robbins Schneider, Managing Director at JLL’s Energy and Sustainability Services. “This goes beyond a focus on individual buildings and spaces, and focuses on a comprehensive, sustainable city experience.”

Greenest city in the country

Two-thirds of D.C. neighborhoods are walkable, which research has shown enhances urban health and safety, and improves quality of life metrics such as creativity and the value of housing. Within the city 58 percent of commutes involve walking, cycling or public transport, helping relieve the load on the city’s streets.

Every government building is entirely powered by renewable energy, while the city has more LEED-certified projects per capita than any state. Additionally, as part of its Sustainable D.C. plan to become the nation’s greenest city, D.C. also recently signed one of the largest municipal solar projects in the U.S. as well as the largest wind power purchase deal ever signed by an American city. By 2032, D.C. officials expect that at least half the city’s electricity will be generated from renewable sources.

Yet with the United States government avoiding a federal commitment to minimize the impact of climate change, the onus is on cities and corporate bodies to devise and meet effective environmental targets.

“Receiving the highest level of certification is especially significant given the current Presidential stance on climate change,” Robbins Schneider says. “Elected officials are aware of the pressing issues and are taking a stance despite the lack of support from the executive branch of government.”

The D.C. effect

As the nation’s largest cities continue to rapidly expand, D.C. could point the way for sustainably accommodating urban growth, replacing sprawling, car-filled residential suburbs with high-density neighborhoods comprised of homes, shops and offices, and setting the bar for how to house and transport residents with minimal impact.

“Leadership is key in meeting these environmental goals,” Robbins Schneider says. “The success of D.C.’s commitment to sustainability is making urban greening an issue for government to tackle. Other cities now know the highest green building standards are possible to achieve.”

However, there’s also a significant role for the private sector to play in creating a more sustainable built environment that delivers long-term benefits. “Public and private institutions must also find the right balance between government regulation and a business case for companies to invest in environmentally friendly infrastructure,” Robbins Schneider says.

The economics of green cities

For landlords and tenants, the upsides often make going green a worthwhile investment. LEED-certified buildings with lower operating costs and better indoor environmental quality are more attractive to an expanding group of corporate, public and individual tenants.

Companies are increasingly recognizing the benefits of net-positive development that improves rather than takes away from the environment, while the privately organized RE100 is a collaboration of several companies to eventually become 100 percent-powered by renewable energy.

With municipal governments across the U.S. announcing ambitious plans for renewable energy sources – Chicago has pledged to run all city properties by wind or solar energy by 2025, while by 2035, Atlanta intends to be run entirely on renewable energy – other cities could soon be joining Washington D.C. in leading the green pack.

“For cities, a comprehensive energy reduction plan is crucial, from energy-efficient buildings and renewable energy programs, to a clean, efficient power grid that is widely accessible,” says Robbins Schneider.

“We all want to live in healthy, sustainable cities where we can raise our families and also have financial security. It’s what the built environment across the U.S. should aspire to.”

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