THE BLOG
05/10/2010 03:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Living City Block Denver: A Glimpse of a Greener Future?

Smart growth. Sustainable cities. These terms get tossed around a lot. And, typically, they are used in reference to new buildings and new communities. What about our existing buildings and our aging cities?

Living City Block is taking aim at this question. By combining urban revitalization with a focus on energy-efficiency retrofits and cutting-edge renewable technology, they are trying to set an adoptable standard for urban sustainability.

Raising the bar

Typical building renovations increase energy efficiency by 10 percent. Pretty marginal. If you consider the fact that 80% of the existing buildings in the U.S. will still be in operation 50 years from now, that's not exactly pushing the envelope to a sustainable future.

What if you could cut the energy consumption of an entire community by half? Even better, what if that community could produce more energy than it consumes?

This is exactly what Living City Block intends to do, starting with its pilot project in Lower Downtown Denver. They're calling it LCB LoDo. The site chosen encompasses a full city block between 15th and 16th, on Wazee and Wyknoop Streets. Here, the organization will showcase advanced renewable energy and efficiency practices, while enhancing the "livability" of the community. Essentially, they want to create an environmentally friendly place where people come to "live, work and play."

LoDo is already a thriving community. Once a seedy skid row of abandoned warehouses, the neighborhood underwent revitalization a couple decades ago. It is now a lively center of restaurants, coffee shops, businesses and upscale lofts. So in that respect, this project has a bit of a head start. Nevertheless, achieving the energy goals set forth will be extremely difficult.

Greatest Hits of Green

So what will a Green LoDo look like? At first glance, not a whole lot different than it does now.

Much of the work involved in retrofitting buildings involves maximizing insulation, rearranging mechanical systems, upgrading lighting systems and installing high-efficiency windows. Though not as sexy as solar panels, this kind of work is by far the most important when it comes to creating green buildings.

As the energy needs are brought down through efficiency improvements, cutting-edge green technologies can be much more effective at creating a building that produces more energy than they consume.

That's where the fun stuff comes in -- what we're calling "a greatest hits of green." After a few years, the block should feature a range of technologies, such as wastewater treatment, composting, rooftop gardens shaded by solar panels, ground source heating and cooling, and my personal favorite-permeable sidewalks, which allow rainfall to absorb through walkways and into the soil below, reducing runoff in the streets, the need for storm drains, and in turn the mixing of water with dirty oils and chemicals.

Barriers

LCB Lodo has already gained some support, most notably from Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Still, the future of this project must contend with a fair amount of obstacles, particularly regarding behavioral and business norms.

"We need new models of collaboration that can be applied to real estate development and urban revitalization throughout the country," says Chad Riley, project lead for Business and Economic Development project at Living City Block. "And to do that we need to unite numerous players toward to a common goal."

So the team has held several intensive meetings at the famed Tattered Cover Bookstore, one of the buildings on the block. These workshops have brought together leading architects and designers, local utilities, representatives from various government offices, and the owners of the buildings on the block. The goal: to break through conventional planning and financing practices and find practical opportunities to really make the project work.

Translating sustainability

The team is confident that it can reach these goals with a financial payback as quick as 5 years. The hard part is communicating and visualizing the work in a way that will inspire support. So they're working with the design programs of Denver University and Metro State College of Denver's to create various interactive media that will show what the block will look like at various stages of the project. These displays should start rolling out sometime this summer.

This also relates to the community vitality element of the project. Living City Block is working with University of Colorado-Denver's Planning and Health Departments to better understand what makes a community thrive. In tandem with the actual retrofits, there will be an extensive research component to this project.

"We want to get a better idea of what a community needs and wants and then go forward with improving social connectivity in the area," says Lindsay Franta, head of Community Research and Development for LCB.

Spreading the idea

Ultimately, the organization hopes to encourage others to replicate their work by making available a laundry list of recommendations and best practices. In addition, they will work with other organizations and building owners around the country to launch "sister-neighborhood" projects. Like LCB Lodo, these sister projects must include an NGO that will organize the project, a local city council on board, an academic institution that will commit to research to the project. And the site chosen must be mixed use, with nearby access to a transit hub and a group of tenants and owners that are committed to sharing the costs of retrofitting their buildings.

As a nonprofit organization, Living City Block is currently trying to drum up support and funds to keep the project moving. If you're interested creating an LCB of your own, you can contact the organization. First you need to identify an NGO that will organize the project, a local city council on board, an academic institution that will commit to research to the project. And the site chosen must be mixed use, with nearby access to a transit hub and a group of tenants and owners that are committed to sharing the costs of retrofitting their buildings.

Cross Posted from Big Green Boulder