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Analysis proves that even small towns and rural areas have locations eligible for LEED-ND honors

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 14, 2010 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably

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I have been greatly troubled that, within weeks of our finalizing and publishing LEED for Neighborhood Development, a rating system designed to honor and encourage smart, green urbanism, a sort of negative whisper campaign began circulating, claiming that its location criteria don’t work in small towns and rural areas.  As the principal author of the system’s “smart location” prerequisite, I know that was not our intention and not likely the true result, either. 

As detailed in my last post, there are several ways for a development site to pass the system's location screens.  While small communities are less likely to have transit service, or a street network dense enough to meet our criterion for adjacent connectivity, they frequently have sites that meet one of our other criteria for eligibility.  These include infill sites that are appropriately sized for small-town development, and sites that are within a half- or quarter-mile of features on our list of neighborhood assets such as food stores, churches, pharmacies, banks, licensed day-care centers, and so on.  Our system is designed not to exclude small communities from its benefits but rather to honor and encourage development that locates within the community.  Given that many small towns have suffered disinvestment and abandonment in their town centers and Main Streets just as larger cities have in their downtown neighborhoods, this is exactly what we should be encouraging.

                 areas in green meet LEED-ND location criteria (by: Brendon Slotterback, (c) netdensity.com) 

towns on frnge with eligible locations (image via Google Earth, markings by me)

Now, thanks to Brendon Slotterback’s excellent analysis of eligible sites in and around Minnesota’s Twin Cities, we have proof that the claim that LEED-ND's criteria don't work for smaller communities is, well, hogwash.  Above (top) is his map of LEED-ND-eligible locations within the vast Twin Cities metro area.  Just below it is a map that I created from Google Earth, noting some of the communities on the fringe of that 70-mile by 70-mile area shown by Slotterback’s map to have eligible locations.  (My criteria for choosing them were very subjective, just looking for a representative sample of places on the fringe with eligible locations.) 

Let’s go clockwise from the top and look at whether any of them fit the definition of a small town or rural community:

Bethel, MN (via Google Earth)  Bethel MN's rural Main St (via Google Earth)

Bethel (population 443), 36 miles from the Minneapolis City Hall (to estimate the distance from the center of the region, I used the city hall of either Minneapolis or St. Paul, whichever was closer, and Google Maps’ recommended driving route)

entering Ham Lake (via Minnesota Real Estate Information) 

Ham Lake, (population 12,710), 25 miles from the Minneapolis City Hall

public library, Forest Lake MN (by: Weston Rieckenberg, creative commons license) 

Forest Lake (population 6,798), 27 miles from St. Paul City Hall

waterfront, Stillwater MN (by: US Army Corps of Engineers) 

Stillwater (population 15,143), 20 miles from St. Paul City Hall

Lake St Croix Beach MN (via Google Earth)  ripe for a new urbanist makeover in Lake St Croix Beach MN (via Google Earth)

Lake St. Croix Beach (population 1,140), 19 miles from St. Paul City Hall

E. 2d St, Hastings MN 9by: Todd Murray, creative commons license) 

Hastings (population 18,204), 22 miles from St. Paul City Hall

a street in Randolph MN (via Google Earth) 

Randolph (population 318), 31 miles from St. Paul City Hall

Elko & New Market MN (via Google Earth)  Elko-New Market commercial street (via Growing Elko-New Market)

Elko and New Market (population 472 and 332), 31 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

New Prague MN (by: AlexiusHoratius, creative commons license) 

New Prague (population 4,599), 46 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

old city hall, Jordan MN 9by: William Wesen, creative commons license) 

Jordan (population 3,833), 37 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

Hamburg MN (by: Andrew Flier, creative commons license) 

Hamburg (population 538), 48 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

New Germany MN (via Google Earth)  New Germany MN (by: ASAP Machine & Tool)

New Germany (population 346), 42 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

Watertown MN (by: AlexiusHoratius, creative commons license) 

Watertown (population 3,029), 32 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

Rockford MN (by: Doug Wallick, creative commons license) 

Rockford (population 3,484), 31 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

Rogers MN (by: snapranch, creative commons license) 

Rogers (population 3,588), 25 miles from Minneapolis City Hall

Those sure look like small towns to me, and every one of them has places within the green LEED-ND location-eligible areas on Slotterback’s map.  In fact, some of them suggest that our criteria are overly generous, not overly restrictive. 

What’s missing is the farm- and forestland in between those places.  You know why?  Because development in those in-between places is scattered, leapfrog sprawl, not smart growth. 

outlined in green, Langley WA's 3rd St cottages, small-town infill (via Google Earth)If you’re looking to build small-town development that is appropriately scaled and really small-town development, chances are you can find a place to do it and qualify for LEED-ND honors.  But, if you’re looking for a place to put a 200-unit development on farmland near a town with only 200 houses now, chances are your site won’t be eligible.  LEED-ND won’t stop you from building it anyway, but we’re not going to give your new site a stamp of approval calling it smart and green, because it isn’t.

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t acknowledge Slotterback’s discovery that quite a few of the eligible locations that he found were not fully zoned to allow walkable densities as defined in LEED-ND.  (Most had at least some areas with eligible zoning, though.)  That’s not a location issue, and it isn’t a problem with LEED-ND, either; that’s just a municipality that, so far, doesn’t believe in smart urbanism.  They need to hire some of my new urbanist friends to update their zoning and building codes so that they support sustainability, and skilled analysts such as Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns team to help them understand why that is in their best interests.  Until then, we can’t call them smart and green, either.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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