Striking a Balance: Urban Growth and Habitat Preservation

Green Building Codes Make a Difference in Many Communities

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Bob Engstrom is president of Robert Engstrom Companies based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Karen Jensen is an environmental scientist with the Metropolitan Council in Minnesota.

Posted: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 2:00 pm

More than 50 percent of Americans live in major towns and cities, and according to the World Health Organization, the majority of humans will be living in urban areas by 2017.

As these communities continue to build into surrounding habitat, conservationists are concerned that nature will eventually strike back, whether through forest fires, flooding or other natural disasters.

Habitat Loss and Climate Change Combine

The combination of urban development and climate change is frequently packing a one-two punch, as rainfall patterns are more unpredictable and typical rain events become more extreme, causing excess flooding and sewer overflows due to impervious – paved – surfaces.

Temperatures also are often 7-10 degrees warmer in cities, which can affect vegetation growth and overwintering. The United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zone published a new map in 2012 to reflect years of warming temperatures, adding two new zones for the warmest part of the country. In general, each zone is now considered 5 degrees warmer. Urban gardeners have gained more confidence in trying plants that are an entire zone higher, with much success.

There also is a correlation between pollinator declines due to urban development increase, which could potentially threaten up to 75 percent of U.S. food sources. Researchers are working with state departments of transportation to add wildflowers along roadsides, and in 2014, a Presidential Memo was written to select a Pollinator Health Task Force with the goal of providing a framework in research, education and development of public-private partnerships. The ultimate mission is to create and protect pollinator habitats. **

Natural disasters such as fires, flooding, earthquakes, and landslides also claim human lives and destroy our built environments, costing billions of dollars in repair. The Federal Emergency Management Agency obligated $95.2 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund for the 650 major disasters declared between 2004 and 2013.

The beautiful views of oceans and beaches can seem worth the risk of building in a hurricane prone area, but even when structures are built to withstand record breaking winds, waves and rain, the buildings are still vulnerable and cost more to insure.

Diminished and degraded habitats also are less available to support healthy populations of wildlife and marine organisms and less able to perform the economic, environmental and aesthetic functions that coastal populations depend on for their livelihoods and protection.

Building in Sustainability

To the positive, there are some great built designs and proven successes with integrated conservation development. When communities are designed with an affinity for the land, resilience and ecological restoration in mind, sustainability can be achieved. For example, nationally recognized residential developer Robert Engstrom Companies has several significant residential projects throughout Minnesota. They tie modern single family homes together by wide sidewalks, nature trails and open space. Their developments have covenants for planting and maintaining naturalized prairie plants for each lot. In the economic depression in the early 2000s, the neighborhoods reported very few foreclosures.

“Successful development results in happy people who appreciate where and how they live, with strong resale value,” said company President Bob Engstrom.

Brownfield redevelopment is a way to pursue a more sustainable way to re-use a particular site. The Environmental Protection Agency defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.”

Old gas stations and abandoned manufacturing facilities are common examples. Incentives are in place for developers to clean up these sites, bring them up to current code, allowing them to build something that proves more useful for modern day activities. In 2002, the Brownfields Revitalization Act was passed to help states and communities clean up eligible sites around the country. There are four types of competitive funding available, which is often supported and matched by other entities. According to the EPA, since the inception of the program, they have assessed approximately 24,000 sites and cleaned up more than 1,200, resulting in more than 100,000 jobs.

Building responsibly is more than just site selection. Using smart design and consideration to transportation, choosing sustainable materials and approaching the entire area as a total ecosystem is critical. LEED, Sustainable Sites and Green Globes – among others – continue improving their guidelines and rating systems used to design and maintain communities, buildings and single family homes in a more responsible manner. Many cities are using criteria to create or renovate public buildings with an “intent” to design according to a rating system, but opting out of going through the official, often expensive, certification process.

Not only are municipalities across the country implementing plans, policies and incentives to build smart and on proper sites, large corporations also are recognizing the benefits of renovating and building new offices to improve employee and environmental health. In 2015, Facebook headquarters moved into a large footprint of a nine-acre facility that includes a fully covered vegetative roof. The roof is accessible to employees and they are encouraged to explore it via nature trails and benches.

Another corporate technology giant, Google, has been building out its campuses to incorporate buildings that allow for private, corporate offices while also fulfilling the needs of its creative employees. The original campus was the site of a previous tech company, which was renovated. Since 2007, Google’s campus has featured many award-winning designs and now features roof-top solar panels on eight buildings and two solar carports, capable of producing 1.6 MW of electricity. The panels provide the power needed for 30 percent of the peak electricity demand in its solar-powered buildings.

At the national level, it is unclear from the U.S. Government Accountability Office if federal funds and programs have made a significant impact on sprawl and urban development. However, across the country, regions have recognized the need to protect heritage, build economies and work toward sustainable futures.

This means taking a long view when planning projects, said Karen Jensen, an environmental scientist for the Metropolitan Council in Minnesota.

“Thrive MSP 2040, the Council’s vision for the Twin Cities region for the next 30 years, contains policies that address environmental challenges and considerations, including natural resources, water sustainability and climate change,” she said. “Thrive also provides direction for our new Water Resource Policy Plan, which calls for the council to incorporate water sustainability considerations in all areas of council policy and actions, including overall development patterns, water management, transportation, housing, and regional parks.”

The city of Charleston, S.C., is moving forward with an incentive-based development plan in targeted neighborhoods. Similar to the density bonus in Portland, Ore., developers can build taller buildings and denser developments in exchange for including community amenities and environmentally sustainable features, such as decreasing stormwater runoff, vegetated roofs, transportation improvements, renewable energy, outdoor public space, and participation in environmental certification programs.

According to Samantha Crosby, associate planner for the city of White Bear Lake, Minn., large developers want to make quick decisions to take advantage of the market and investors, and there is often little time to explore enhanced environmental design. Therefore, planners find themselves negotiating parameters that meet both city and developer needs. For example, negotiations result in mitigation close to the site or incorporating tree swales in the parking areas in exchange for more advertising signage and more lot space.

Crosby does not see policy as much of a driver of change. Instead, policy more often lags behind the wants and needs of the community. In response to citizen concerns, a recent ordinance passed to increase the number of bee hives allowed on residential lots, Crosby said.

“Surprisingly, not only did city council support the ordinance, they increased the allowance from two to four hives per lot,” she said. “Since then, the (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) contacted us looking for a list of beekeepers in our area so they could plan to spray for mosquitoes away from the hive locations.”

The puzzle of fitting together policy, economic, and environmental programs to meet the present and future needs of citizens and businesses can be a daunting task, but many municipalities have shown that small-scale changes to neighborhood redevelopment policies can be a great start.

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