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Sustainability – What is it?

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For land development, what makes a development sustainable? All forms of land development will affect the livability, economics, and environment of the region surrounding the developed site. Each individual new development becomes part of a patchwork that forms the quilt of a “city”. The problem today is that most land developments are not sustainable, which presents a domino effect that can ultimately destroy a cities long term livability –it cannot sustain itself.

The United Nations defines sustainability as a balance of People, Planet and Profit, or the 3-P’s as also adopted by Sustainable Land Development Initiative (www.sldi.org). The problem with the three P’s is it was developed for all situations, including third world countries where life’s basic needs may not be addressed, vs. developed industrial societies. The other problem is that P which states “Profit” inferring that the developer walks away with a larger bank account, but what happens for the decades and centuries the development exists far beyond that initial home sale or commercial lease?

For developed countries, we instead use a balance of the three “E”’s – Environment, Existence, and Economics. From the perspective of the civil engineer or surveyor involved in a land development, what does that mean? Once an engineer sets a direction for infrastructure, or once a surveyor acts to set property lines on a plat from raw ground, they have crossed the line into acting as a planner. The infrastructure will serve as a platform for structures, so essentially the engineers and surveyors work is the framework foundation for architectural opportunities. In other words, to produce developments that balance the three essential E’s there must be a collaborative effort at the initial stages of design.

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The Environment:
As engineers and surveyors, you need to maintain an awareness of the ever changing environmental engineering innovations to include solutions that lessen the developments impact. There is a large difference between being green and being sustainable. Here are just a few examples from actual experiences we have encountered. On one site, we designed a small 10 acre (4.05 hectare) neighborhood with plenty of space for surface flow, using the natural terrain with very little grading expense or underground piping needed. Our design was an environmentally sound solution that had great economics and would be very attractive. Instead, the civil engineer proposed an underground storage system under the 26’ wide private drives using pervious pavers with rooftop gutters draining underground. Against my warning to the developer of this absurd solution offered under the envelope of being “green”, the solution was authorized to be engineered. Compared to the surface flow solution, I had an independent engineer calculate the extra cost which would have rendered the development unprofitable. Fortunately the city refused its approval after long expensive delays and the neighborhood was approved with the surface flow system. By the time it was approved the economy collapsed, and all was ruined. Another example is the development down the street from my office with bio-retention ponds that all died leaving huge ugly areas in a residential neighborhood. There is nothing wrong with bio-retention as a solution, but it is the engineers responsibility when offering this alternative to point out the need for a continued long term maintenance programs as part of the engineering solution. In both these instances, being green was not sustainable.

The Economics:
You just learned that environmental solutions must be economically sound, but there is much more to economics than profitability. For example, most conventionally designed development has a certain amount of waste, primarily because of the geometrics involved. If one was to learn to identify and recognize waste, and reduce it before the initial presentation, then it makes the development less costly to construct (and less infrastructure is better for the environment). Low maintenance landscaping will reduce the cost of the green space. Planning neighborhoods to spread value throughout, not just a few premium locations enhances overall economic stability. Showcasing the good looking side of structures also enhances value. Creating traffic patterns that use less energy is not just good for the environment but everyone’s pocketbook. So economic sustainability is essentially lowering the long term financial load for energy and maintenance but also to preserve and enhance value over time.

The Existence:
All upscale wealthy neighborhoods will look wonderful, no matter what planning method is chosen. The upper crust of society has achieved a great sense of existence – self worth and accomplishment. Their neighborhoods are more architecturally detailed, orderly, and heavily landscaped with nice new cars proudly displaying their net worth.

But what of affordable neighborhoods for the rest of the human race? When the economics fall below the upper middle class, design and efficiency becomes ever more important. Does entering the neighborhood for that factory worker give them a sense of pride? What of the views out the windows? If someone is destined to live in that lower side of the income scale – how can we create a sense of existence for many generations to come? Do residents of this development look into a sea of parked older vehicles, or wonderful landscaped commons?

The Roadblocks to Sustainability
Who initiates the direction of a parcel of land to be developed? Developers. Some developers want to leave a legacy of building a utopian neighborhood, but those are few. Typically, developers look at land as another product to bring to market to derive profits. The first step after the land is financially secured is to get a “land plan” to start the approval process. An acre of farm to grow corn is worth only a fraction of an acre that can grow homes. Think of land development as a way to buy a chunk of coal and turn it into a diamond simply by getting a land plan approved!

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Since the interest clock (and/or the option limit) is running the moment land is secured there is a time pressure to gain approvals. Every month can be a costly delay, so the developer would want to submit a plan before the first deadline date. Pressure is on to create a sketch plan quickly. The developer wrongly assumes that they are getting the best possible plan, after all, the land plan is essentially their business plan. The planner thus is beholden to maximize the use of the site to keep the developer satisfied which translates into squeezing the most number of units into the area as possible. To accomplish this they look to the ordinances and seek out the minimum dimensions allowed by law. Thus the word “minimum” is read as “absolute”; this in turn literally guarantees monotony. To make matters worse, holding every home to the minimum front setback, the minimum side yard, the minimum square footage, etc. does not address issues like connectivity (cars and people), safety, home values, views, streetscape, efficiency, or energy savings, etc. Nor does it encourage honoring the natural surface flow of rainwater, minimizing disturbance of the earth, saving trees, etc. In short the very systems we have in place are counter to sustainability!

Technology has advanced almost all aspects of our lives – except in the design of our cities, because the technology to design land development only automated the process of building to the minimums within the regulations. Essentially “land planning” automation allows the end user to plug in lot minimums and then lots and streets appear as fast as one can move the mouse across the screen. One software vendor boasts performance of 250 LPM (Lots Per Minute). Press a button and a cul-de-sac appears looking exactly like hundreds of other cul-de-sac’s in the city. Instead of using automation to create instant subdivisions we should harness technology to create wonderful and sustainable neighborhoods. All of this is bad news to ever hope to create a sustainable world.

Fees based upon a percentage of construction costs pretty much kill the concept of a more efficient sustainable world, because a design 30% more efficient would be really bad for a consulting firm’s profitability – again a huge roadblock to sustainability.

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So sustainability – what is it?
It’s a new outlook on the way we work, collaborate, regulate, bill, and how we utilize technology. Otherwise it becomes a meaningless work on our marketing material.

We are thankful to Sir Richard Harrison for submitting this very useful information to us.

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