03/11/2012 02:38 pm ET Updated May 11, 2012

Evaluating Green Communities: Part 3

So you're buying a new home, and you're committed to "buying green" -- a house with good indoor air quality, that doesn't cost a fortune to heat and cool, is efficient in the use of water, and it resides in an ecologically-friendly neighborhood. How do you find out about all that? What do you look for? What questions do you ask?

Over the next few blogs, to help you evaluate the potential "greenness" of a community in both the short- and long-term, I will post ten questions to ask a developer, realtor, or homeowner. Use them to start a conversation as to what is "green" and this will help one to determine if "greenwashing" is occurring. Questions address home, yard, and neighborhood issues. Questions 5 and 6 are below (previous questions see other blogs).

Question #5: Are there trails and sidewalks planned along with shared spaces?


Trails, sidewalks, and open spaces not only encourage residents to interact with their environment, but also promote a strong sense of community by facilitating interactions among neighbors. This sense of community is vitally important to creating and fostering sustainability in a subdivision. Overall, open communications and interactions among residents helps spread sustainable behaviors as well as discouraging behaviors that may go against the trend.
Other designs within a community can promote a sense of community:

  • Look for front porches located near the sidewalks with garages in the back. This type of arrangement can encourage residents to talk with their neighbors.
  • Look for common areas where people can gather, such as a community pool, shelter, or playground. A community pool is especially "green," as it not only provides a common gathering place, but also decreases the incentive for families to build their own individual pools. This conserves vast amounts of energy and water: think about the resources used to take care of several pools versus those used for one pool.

Trails and sidewalks also make a community walkable and promote a healthier lifestyle. However, trails go in and around natural areas and misuse of the trails by people can impact plant and animal communities. Are there guidelines to keep people on trails and out of the more "wild" areas? This is important -- too many people tracking through a natural area can disturb wildlife and destroy plant communities.

How are the more groomed areas (e.g., parks and playgrounds) maintained? This is especially critical if parks are located near more natural areas. What goes on in the park can have immediate impacts on surrounding areas. If a grassy area such as a lawn or playing field is a prominent feature of the park, is it planted with a variety of grass that requires little fertilizer and water? Are pets permitted to enter the natural areas? Are playground benches, tables, and other built structures made out of durable recycled materials? If pavement or other impervious surfaces are present, are they permeable? In other words, can water soak into the ground instead of running off into nearby areas? There are a variety of products that allow percolation of water into the ground while providing a solid walking or driving surface. Rather than building paved sidewalks, trails could be mulched or even simply cleared of vegetation, with good signs or markers to keep users -- and the community -- "on the right path."

Question #6: What kind of irrigation and stormwater system does the community have, and what water conservation devices have been installed in the home?

Water quality and quantity are big growth management issues, and residential developments present many challenges. The sheer number of impervious surfaces -- such as roofs and pavement -- means less rainfall percolates naturally into the ground, replenishing the water table. Instead, the water runs off the property, and it can carry chemicals (fertilizers, oils, etc.) into natural water bodies such as streams and ponds.

With irrigation, lawns and ornamental plants can place a heavy demand on local water resources. Of course water use within a home for bathing, flushing, and washing clothes and dishes, is another source of consumption. Extensive water use can draw down the water table, especially during drought years, and cause local wetlands to dry up.

One of the best ways to manage stormwater to improve water quality is through Low Impact Development. This distributed stormwater treatment system helps water to percolate into the ground where it falls. A distributed treatment train is constructed, including such features as swales, rain gardens, permeable pavements, and other techniques that slow water movement and increase the soil to water contact time. This is a much better system as it better replicates how water naturally percolated into the ground before construction.

In terms of water consumption, the best thing that the developer can do to reduce water demand is to limit the amount of lawn and ornamental plants in the landscape. Landscape irrigation accounts for 1/3 or more of residential water use. Shared areas such as parks are a further drain. Thus, limiting vegetation, which requires extensive watering, can save significant amounts of water.

Developers should reduce the amount of turf and install native plants that generally require less water and are adapted to local climate conditions. For areas that must be watered, an efficient irrigation system, such as soil moisture sensors, should be installed. With the soil moisture system, it tells the irrigation system to turn on only when the soil is too dry. If the developer has installed an efficient irrigation system for each yard, ask if there is someone available to train homeowners about how to manage these systems properly.

Water use inside of the home accounts for about 70 percent of total water use by the homeowner, and a developer can make use of a variety of options to help make the community more water-efficient. Are low-flow toilets and showerheads installed in each home? Generally, toilets should be rated at 1.5 gallons per flush or less, and showerheads should have a maximum flow of 2.5 gallons per minute or less. Each faucet should have an aerator that flows less than 3 gallons per minute. Ask about any water-using appliances installed in the home, such as the dishwasher or washing machine: are they water efficient models? Check the water meter -- is it running when no water devices are turned on? If it is running, this indicates a leak somewhere.