Designing a New Urbanism

Buildings can go green, so why not whole neighborhoods?

Oct 4, 2010

All across America people are asking for more ecologically efficient products and homes, and government and business are responding. But some say this is just the beginning of a sea change in the way we live, work and play, and that the next big ideas on how to reduce our impact on the environment will incorporate entire neighborhoods and other large-scale urban areas, rather than the current model of singular private or public initiative.

Driving the new concept is the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit led by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, whose leaders say it’s time to make ecological efficiency a lifestyle. And by the way, they say, it’s financially savvy, too.

The CNU sees Madison as a prime candidate for its new building, rehabilitation and design concept, dubbed “sustainable urbanism,” which author and architect Doug Farr described to a local audience of architects and urban and city planners at Monona Terrace on Thursday night. Farr’s own firm designs and develops new urbanism projects across the country.

“The media focuses on objects. Many put it in the context of polar bears and light bulbs,” says Farr of a cultural obsession with “going green.” “In this case, it’s really about the society we create for ourselves.”

The ideas presented by Farr, who also serves on CNU’s board of directors, focused on applying the development strategies of LEED, a national voluntary certification program for new buildings, to whole community development. Building or retrofitting one green residential or commercial building is good, but wouldn’t green neighborhoods be even better? Called LEED-ND (“Neighborhood Development), the strategies, developed by the CNU in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council (that also oversees LEED) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are laid out in the form of a 110-point checklist. The list takes into account a project’s location to bike and pedestrian friendly destinations, the preservation of environmentally sensitive ecosystems, the efficiency of buildings and infrastructure and other areas of innovation and design.

Farr defines sustainable urbanism as walkable, transit-served urbanism integrated with high-performance buildings and infrastructure. With this definition he advocates the development and reimagining of neighborhoods into compact, mixed-use districts where most of life’s daily activities are within a reasonable distance.

Farr gave two examples of green urban-development that have inspired the CNU and LEED-ND. The first was BedZED, a four-acre neighborhood in England that is a worldwide model for incorporating renewable energy into its infrastructure. The second was Dockside Green, a neighborhood in Canada developed and financed by an accountant and turned into a lucrative endeavor and a model for turning a profit on green development.

“Does anyone have four acres available in their town? Does anyone have 15 acres available in their town?” Farr says. “I think you do. It’s not about space, it’s about vision.”

Farr’s visit on Thursday was a preview for CNU’s nineteenth annual conference, which will be held in Madison June 1–4, 2011. “CNU-19: Growing Local” will expand on the ideas that make urban development more livable and sustainable. For more information visit

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