The following post is by Kathleen O’Brien:
After participating recently in the King County Sustainable Cities Roundtable to discuss “Beyond Net Zero: Resilience, Regeneration, and Social Justice” Ron Sims agreed to an interview for the Daily Journal of Commerce’s Green Building Blog.
Q. As the King County Executive, you worked to promote sustainable development through policies, such as the green building and low impact development demonstration ordinances. And, as the Deputy Secretary of HUD, you got to see first-hand how communities across the country are addressing the issue of sustainability. From these vantage points, where do you think we should be focusing our energies?
A. The neighborhood. A well designed neighborhood correlates directly to a good quality of life. And that means things like community gathering places and safety, such as from crime, pollution; access to nature, such as street trees; and more transit options, such as walkability, and bike lending stations. It’s easier to create new neighborhoods with these features than it is to redevelop existing neighborhoods, but we have to incentivize reinvestment that incorporates these design features for truly sustainable communities.
Q. How would you propose going about doing this?
A. I’ve never seen a developer turn down density bonuses in return for more bus stops, low-income housing, etc. We need to get creative and open the door to more thoughtful mixed development, including residential options. We can tie some of this to demolition in an area. But we need to plan further out. We need to ask the question: “What should this neighborhood look like in twenty years?”
Q. Sustainability advocates hold that sustainable development incorporates not simply environmental health, but economic vitality, and social equity, as well. Sometimes this gets lost in the development timetable. How can we do a better job of maintaining the prominence of all three legs of the stool as we try to practice what we preach in the field?
A. I repeat: We need to begin planning long term to take advantage of opportunities as they come up, and to have a roadmap in place. It’s by redesigning existing neighborhoods to be healthier, safer, greener that we’ll be addressing social equity, and the health of our economy. Right now, energy efficiency is “hot.” But new technologies and new neighborhoods are still the domain of the well-to-do. It hasn’t gone viral. If we really worked on existing neighborhoods, we’d be addressing issues faced by the poor and culturally diverse. You know, you can predict health and longevity rates by zip code. Neighborhoods should and will still have their personalities, their “feel,” but every neighborhood should have the basic green features I mentioned earlier.
Q. Is there a leverage point that sustainable advocates can focus on to bring about better neighborhoods and a better quality of life for all?
A. There’s actually two. Most people are unaware, but at HUD we learned that the most significant cause of mortgage defaults in this past recession was the cost of transportation — it amounted to 42% of income. This was often in excess of the 34-36% of income of the average mortgage. If someone lost a job that required them to have a car, they were still left with a car payment. So better transportation planning (including infrastructure improvements) would help. Energy costs was another big chunk of the reason for defaults — 28-30%, so the emphasis on energy efficiency is good.
Q. With the specter of climate change-related disasters becoming more real, there has been a greater focus among sustainability advocates on “resilience” in the face of catastrophes. Disasters seem to bring out both the best and worst of us. How do we prepare and use the opportunity to course correct for the greater good?
A. I’m repeating myself, but it’s to plan, plan, and plan again. We learned a lot from the Nisqually Earthquake; we were able to apply what we learned when 9/11 happened. After the earthquake we decided we needed to build a structurally and technologically sound center that could function independently. We learned to plan for the “worst” case — and not the best “reasonable” case. We had to plan, memorialize in writing, and train. Going forward, we need to take climate change and related disasters into consideration when we are re-designing our neighborhoods — particularly the infrastructure side of things.
Q. Last question: What advice would you give young green building professionals and public sector advocates who are looking to be leaders in the kind of sustainable transformation you are talking about?
A. People think change is easy. I like to say, we are running a marathon, but because we’ve run out of a lot of chances, we need to do it at a sprinter’s pace. Will this be rewarding every day? No it won’t be. Will it be a long path? Yes it will be. If you believe that what you are doing serves the greater good, some day (not now) you will be able to take a deep breath, reflect on what you’ve been able to accomplish, and say WOW.
Kathleen O’Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development since before it was “cool.” She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. She continues to provide consulting on special projects for O’Brien & Company, the firm she founded over 20 years ago, and provides leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project.