Green Site Selection and Development

10/19/2007 by Paul Price

How can development leave a place better than the way it was found?

A key tenet of green development is to promote health and diversity for humans and the natural environment that supports us. One approach is to restore degraded land to enhance long-term proliferation of life. Responsible site development also involves attention to human culture and community, as well as to the needs of other species in a diverse ecosystem.

Renovating existing buildings should be considered before looking for new building sites. This reduces construction costs, while salvaging an existing resource. Sometimes it keeps a building from being demolished, which is critical because a building’s biggest energy use is typically associated with its construction. This approach may even preserve cultural heritage by keeping a historic building in use and maintained.

If no suitable existing building can be found, “brownfield” or infill sites should be evaluated next. Brownfield sites are abandoned industrial areas that often require remediation prior to new construction. If hazardous wastes are present, the use of the site should be carefully considered, even though remediation will be performed. Infill simply means building on a vacant site within an established urban area, rather than on the outskirts.

All three of these options—building renovation, brownfield, and infill development—preserve farmland and ecologically valuable natural areas and limit “urban sprawl.” These options also tend to have lower infrastructure costs, because transportation infrastructure and utilities such as sewage, electricity, and gas are usually already in place. Finally, these sites are usually located close to existing schools, businesses, entertainment, and retail, enhancing convenience and potentially reducing automobile use.

When choosing a new building site, important considerations include the availability of a sufficient, rechargeable water source and access to renewable energy sources (such as solar, wind, geothermal, or biomass). Developing land that is ecologically sensitive (including wetlands or rare habitats), prime farmland, culturally/archeologically significant, or vulnerable to wildfire or floods should be avoided.

Where should a building be sited?

“Buildings must always be built on those parts of the land that are in the worst condition, not the best.” Open space should not be the “leftover” area. After preserving (and sometimes restoring) the most ecologically valuable land in its natural state, additional open spaces for outdoor activities should be as carefully planned as the spaces within buildings.

Green development includes regional planning that gives priority to people, not to automobile circulation. The design of a green development should accommodate people who are too old, too young, or financially or physically unable to drive. Such developments include public transit (preferably pollution-free), parks, pedestrian and bike trails, an unsegregated mix of housing types (from low- to high-income, all in the same neighborhood), and a balance of housing, business, and retail in close proximity.

Other goals of a green development are to limit sprawl (with urban growth boundaries, for instance) and to provide distributed electricity generation systems (those located close to the user, such as fuel cells, photovoltaic arrays, wind microturbines, biomass, and geothermal).