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The Green LeapA Primer for Conserving Biodiversity in Subdivision Development$

Mark Hostetler

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780520271104

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520271104.001.0001

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Certifying Green Communities

Certifying Green Communities

(p.152) Chapter 10 Certifying Green Communities
The Green Leap

Mark E. Hostetler

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the various green certification programs and how they relate to biodiversity conservation. Often, green certification programs do not adequately address biodiversity. Strategies and examples are listed for how residents can question and explore the benefits of various green certification programs. For developers, strategies and examples are discussed for how they can select and utilize green certification programs that benefit biodiversity. For policy makers, third-party certification programs are discussed that can be utilized to benefit biodiversity.

Keywords:   urban biodiversity, conservation, conservation subdivision, policy makers, developers, LEED standards, green certification, environmental landscaping, land stewardship

With heightened international and national awareness about sustainability, both the public and governments are putting pressure on businesses to offer more environmentally friendly choices for consumers. There is a growing market for master-planned communities containing green features such as energy-efficient homes and natural open space. Independent certifying groups have evolved to produce green standards for developers so they can receive awards or certificates that establish their communities as green. Developers can then market these communities to consumers and get premium prices for their homes.

The validity of green certification programs has been questioned, because many of these programs can be gamed to achieve green certification. Certification programs are in their infancy, and for the most part their effects, particularly concerning biodiversity conservation, are marginal. I am not saying that these organizations and their staffs are not dedicated; they truly want to create green communities, and most of these organizations have very good educational information and trained staffs to help developers and communities. Certifications do serve as an important role—they help start a conversation about a different way of building a community. It is just that, in practice, having a menu of green standards and a point system opens up the practice of achieving minimal standards. The process becomes more about public relations than about significantly reducing the environmental and ecological impact of a community. The following is a summary of some of the problems with green certification standards.

(p.153) A typical certification program has a menu of points that a developer or community must address to achieve a certain level of sustainability. The problem is that each site and building is different, and having a standard menu of options does not yield the best design and management strategy for minimizing impact on a given site. It is virtually impossible to have an inclusive menu of options that provides the maximum environmental benefit for a given site, because each site offers a unique set of constraints and opportunities. Thus, a developer could choose the easiest design or easiest management practices and still gain the most points—but this would not necessarily lead to the best environmental practices for a site. Examples of this are many. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) point system has been criticized.1 The council is the premier certification organization in the United States, and it has done a lot of good; before it came into existence in 2000, no standards for building design existed, and any development company could call itself green. The LEED program has created a buzz for green building construction.

Problems with the LEED rating system indicate problems in other programs, so I use it here as an example. The following are a few issues associated with the LEED certification program.

  • The cost for just the paperwork and hired consultants to get a building certified can be high. Even for small buildings, the costs can exceed $25,000.2 Such money may be better spent to update a building or improve existing landscaping.

  • The point system for buildings gives equal credit to certain practices. This may not lead to the best design for reaching one's goals, given local conditions, but it is the easiest. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, a recreation center received a point for installing an electric vehicle recharging station, but only six electric vehicles existed in Boulder at the time, and the charging station was used less than once a year.3

  • Many innovative solutions are not on the checklist, even though they would save significantly on energy or some other environmental factor.

  • The program's bureaucracy tends to focus on meeting the standards, instead of on collaborating with developers to find unique solutions.

  • Most certifying programs emphasize design and do not offer many credits for construction and postconstruction management (p.154) practices, such as engaging residents or installing a long-term management program. As made clear in this book, management is an essential aspect of biodiversity conservation, and any design can be compromised over the long term if construction and postconstruction issues are not addressed.

  • In the LEED certification program, a developer can achieve green status for a subdivision by implementing certain green practices while ignoring others. To illustrate this point, a development may be certified because of its energy-efficient homes, even though the developer has done practically nothing to address environmental landscaping, to engage residents, or to preserve wildlife habitat. It may be that the site has critically endangered wildlife species in or around the development, and that more effort should have been dedicated to conserving it.

Most of the green certification programs include only a few points for conserving and restoring biodiversity. Many of the programs concentrate on energy, livability, and transportation. As I've noted in this book, connections exist between energy, livability, transportation, and biodiversity. For example, trees can decrease energy consumption by shading buildings, and if one were to plant native trees, this could promote biodiversity as well. It would take only a bit of tweaking to include more points for biodiversity in the certification programs' checklists. In general, specific actions and language relating to biodiversity have been left out of the equation and must be addressed more thoroughly.

Several states have launched certification programs centered on wildlife conservation. Wildlife-friendly communities tend to emphasize wildlife and wildlife habitat conservation, and focusing on this incorporates many of the biodiversity conservation practices and strategies discussed in this book. Wildlife certification programs concentrate on the conservation and management of natural areas, on the incorporation of native plants into landscaping, and on management practices that focus on minimizing impacts on surrounding environments. A particularly good example can be found in the Wildlife Friendly Development Certification Program that was launched in North Carolina in 2010 (Box 27). This certification program is remarkable because it allocates points to the design, construction, and postconstruction phases; this is not done in most other certification programs. Another relatively new certification (p.155) program of note is the Sustainable Sites Initiative (www.sustainablesites.org). It addresses ecological and social issues during design, construction, and postconstruction phases. The North Carolina Wildlife Friendly Development Certification Program and the Sustainable Sites Initiative contain probably the best guidelines and point systems for conserving biodiversity in subdivision development. I highly recommend exploring these programs.

Granted, many certification programs are new and the process is evolving; thus, change may be around the corner. Even the LEED program has gone through several iterations updating the program. Most certifying groups have very good guidelines and educational materials to help built environment professionals build a green community. The certification process is simply a bit dysfunctional in some instances. Since a developer using a green certification (p.156) group has access to its educational materials, this should help with the design of a green community—a good first step. However, let me stress again that most green certification programs emphasize design and not management issues during the construction and postconstruction phases. Without correct construction techniques and long-term management, even the best design is doomed to failure.

What Can Residents in a Neighborhood Do?

Homebuyers should never take green marketing or a green certificate at face value. One must do some investigation. In particular, every homebuyer should ask the real estate agent or developer questions about design and management practices that pertain to biodiversity. A developer concerned about the functionality of the subdivision will have addressed management issues during the construction and postconstruction phases. For example, homebuyers should ask whether the conditions, codes, and restrictions address environmental and biodiversity issues. Next, the homebuyer must evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the subdivision. It may be that a buyer values watching wildlife (p.157) from home, and so conserving wildlife and biodiversity throughout the neighborhood is a priority. A subdivision may be good at conserving energy as a result of building design, but it may not conserve biodiversity—for example, the developer may not have used native plants on lots, and the open space may be covered primarily by turfgrass. Consequently, one should investigate various sustainability issues and determine how green a community is according to what one values.

If the developer has answers, one should investigate further and see if other members of the development team—real estate agents, builders, and contractors—have a similar vision. Their answers will say much about how successfully the original intent for the community has been implemented. Also, questioning local government officials and policy makers about the reputation of the developer can reveal how trustworthy a developer is and whether the community could be another example of greenwashing.

One can rate a development's level of sustainability based on several aspects, such as biodiversity, energy, water, livability, and so on. When evaluating the biodiversity category, the recommendations in this book will help one to formulate questions and develop ratings. When looking at the ways a developer has addressed design, construction, and postconstruction issues, I would ask the following questions.

  1. 1. Was setting aside significant native trees and natural habitat a priority within the development? If so, are management plans and funds available to help manage these trees and areas over the long term?

  2. 2. Are native plants a major part of the landscaping palette for both private spaces and shared open spaces?

  3. 3. Is keeping the amount of turfgrass and impervious surfaces to a minimum a goal for the community?

  4. 4. Have stormwater treatment trains been built according to LID principles?

  5. 5. Do construction guidelines for individual lots address topsoil and natural vegetation conservation?

  6. 6. Have significant wildlife corridors been identified and conserved?

  7. 7. Did the developer hire an environmental consulting firm and contractors who are knowledgeable about and supportive of biodiversity conservation?

  8. 8. Are education programs and activities available to help engage residents in biodiversity conservation?

(p.158) When buying a home, it behooves a homeowner to understand and become familiar with all the green design and management features of a community. Often a range of management issues is associated with each green feature, and it is up to the residents to act as watchdogs and be caretakers of homes, yards, and neighborhoods. Some certifiers, such as Audubon International, require the developer or subdivision to reapply each year to retain green status. One should become involved with and knowledgeable about the recertification process and certifying group; these groups, once problems are identified, can help provide solutions. Feedback, both positive and negative, to the certifying agency can help improve their green program, as any certification must evolve over time. One should not stop there but should also speak with policy makers, built environment professionals, and other homeowners about challenges and solutions in a neighborhood. Any feedback will help raise the bar on constructing green communities and help improve the environmental movement across the country.

What Can a Developer Do?

At the very least, investigate green certification groups and programs, because they offer valuable lessons and ideas on ways to build a green community. Several government and academic programs, such as the Department of Energy's Building America program (www.doe.gov) and University of Florida's Program for Resource Efficient Communities (www.buildgreen.ufl.edu), may not offer certifications but do contain a good deal of information and consulting advice on ways to create resource-efficient and healthy communities. When attempting to attain certification with any program, one should resist the temptation to go for minimal standards. It is more important to adopt practices that most benefit the site. Each site has its own set of environmental issues and solutions that may not be adequately addressed by a certifying program. Instead of adjusting plans to make the most points, which may not make the most environmental sense, one should speak with the certifying agency and see if there is some flexibility. If not, or if the program is too cumbersome, document what was done and use this in marketing materials. Architects and developers were constructing green homes and communities before certification, and their projects are probably just as green as certified projects.

When collaborating with a certifying group or participating in a green building program, one should provide feedback, both positive and negative, to (p.159) the group, as this will help improve green building programs and create successful communities. In particular, notice whether points are given for construction and postconstruction methods and strategies. As seen within this book, these are critical development phases that typically are not addressed. Within professional societies and circles of friends, one should discuss the pros and cons of different green designs and management features and even, if warranted, put in a few good words about collaborating with a particular certification group or green building program. Word of mouth among built environment professionals carries a lot of weight when certification groups and green building programs are attempting to become mainstream.

The sales office and sales staff should be trained and well aware of the green features and vision of the community. Nothing looks worse to a potential buyer than a salesperson who is unaware of the green features. Interested homebuyers will probably ask (if they have read this book!) sales personnel about the green design and management practices implemented during the design, construction, and postconstruction phases. A knowledgeable staff can really sell the green features in a neighborhood. If a subdivision is certified, the sales staff should be aware of the certification program and be able to state its pros and cons and where the development exceeds or fails to meet the program's standards. Offering a required environmental education course(s) will help raise the awareness of the sales staff and, in turn, help educate the general public about biodiversity and natural resource conservation.

Model homes or sales centers are used to show potential homebuyers what the community is like. At these locations, the building and landscaping must showcase biodiversity conservation practices such as the use of native plants and the minimization of turfgrass. Often, this is the first experience of biodiversity conservation that a homebuyer will have, and it should be genuine. The sales center should provide educational materials about green features, which should contain information about and options for going above the green standards offered in the community. Landscaping choices, above some basic level, could be offered, with options ranging from 100 percent native plants to a mixture of native and ornamentals. If the benefits of natives are marketed, more homebuyers may go for this option, making the community even greener. Arranging several environmental packages that go beyond the standard one will give people the option to explore the idea of having more environmentally conscious homes and yards.

(p.160) What Can a Policy Maker Do?

Policies can make third-party certifications a requirement, but policy makers must be careful when selecting the certifying agency and determining how points are allocated for certification. As mentioned previously, many point-based certifications are problematic and may not produce green communities that are much different from conventional communities. In particular, a certification program may heavily emphasize energy and water conservation, and award very few points for biodiversity conservation measures. Green development certification is usually achieved by obtaining points in various sustainability categories, and a developer could attain certification by incorporating green features found in only one or two categories. For example, certification could be achieved through incorporating green features in the energy and transportation categories, and very few features in the biodiversity and water categories. In this scenario, a developer would obtain a third-party certification with little or no thought about biodiversity conservation. If a government utilizes a third-party certification program, policy makers must evaluate whether the program has enough mandatory points in the biodiversity category. The certification program should not only look at design, but it should also require strategies to address construction and postconstruction issues. A good example is the North Carolina Wildlife Friendly Development Certification (see Box 27).

Certification programs attempt to increase the adoption of new practices and reward people who do so. Most of the principles and practices discussed and recommended in this book would apply to a certification program that has biodiversity conservation as its primary goal. However, developers and other built environment professionals must be educated about the different strategies to use during design, construction, and postconstruction. To conserve biodiversity, governments should develop or collect a number of reference documents that contain guidelines, and even detailed resource manuals that demonstrate such things as the identification and conservation of natural areas, construction techniques that have minimal impact on conserved trees and natural areas, the installation of low-impact stormwater treatment trains, and how to develop an environmental education programs for residents. Ultimately, local green subdivisions could serve as model neighborhoods that provide developers with a firsthand look at green practices. As mentioned previously, showing working models of this sort can go a long way toward (p.161) increasing the uptake of alternative design and management practices. Without resource manuals or working examples, most people will likely balk at adopting alternative practices, because they will be apprehensive about figuring out a new way of doing things.

If financial incentives such as the reduction of permit fees are offered to developers to promote green building practices, and certification fails, then the developers should return the money. In the case of construction issues such as violations during construction that are not rectified, the building permit should be revoked and construction halted. For postconstruction issues in cases where density bonuses have already been rewarded, punitive measures, such as increased impact fees, should be applied if a developer does not follow through and fails to address long-term issues.

In the end, policy makers may have to create their own certification program or adopt a known certification program and create points that address biodiversity, construction, and postconstruction issues. It may take a bit of extra money, but municipalities could hire a trained planner who is aware of the pros and cons of green development and of certification standards as they relate to biodiversity. Such an individual can help a municipality work out the best strategy for encouraging the construction of developments that conserve biodiversity. One could also train existing staff on the ins and outs of green building designs and practices as they pertain to biodiversity. Most municipalities have building inspectors, and they must inspect buildings and issue permits for occupancy. Through a series of trainings, these building inspectors could be provided with the knowledge to reward extra points for builders who adopt green construction practices that conserve biodiversity.

The ability of municipalities and third-party certifiers to monitor what happens during the construction and postconstruction phases is a tricky issue. Government regulators rarely visit a site multiple times during the construction phase and again years after build-out. To address this, government agencies could hire a few inspectors trained in inspecting and evaluating biodiversity conservation practices as they are implemented during construction and maintained over the long term. To fund a group of inspectors who can monitor construction and postconstruction phases, governments will have to be creative. For instance, if a developer is creating a green development and is going through the process of getting a construction permit, then perhaps the city or county can award a reduced permit fee or a density bonus, and in exchange the developer can fund independent inspectors who visit the (p.162) site during construction and postconstruction. These visits would generate a report to help the developer correct problems and monitor the environmental effects of certain building and landscaping practices, such as maintenance of the silt fences during the construction phase. If enough developers take advantage of this type of policy, and some taxpayer money can be allocated, then perhaps an office of green inspectors could be established to help monitor the construction process and evaluate the effectiveness of practices that address biodiversity conservation. Another option is a special tax initiative approved by the public; special tax initiatives have been successful in establishing a pool of money to buy critical land within counties, and the same strategy could be used to promote green development programs.

Certification programs are one tool that can be used by governments to help direct the way future and current neighborhoods adopt biodiversity conservation practices. In general, policies and government programs create the enabling conditions under which built environment professionals and citizens can adopt new practices that appreciably improve biodiversity conservation within cities. However, no certification program is perfect, and it will take some evaluation to determine the benefits of a given program. I cannot state strongly enough the importance of monitoring, because one can learn much from monitoring programs. Such feedback can be used to further modify and improve certification initiatives that attempt to raise the bar of sustainability.


(1.) Schendler, A., and R. Udall. 2005. LEED Is Broken … Let's Fix It . N.d. Alpen Snowmass. Available at www.aspensnowmass.com/environment/images/LEEDisBroken.pdf.

(3.) Ibid. (p.184)