03/13/2012 12:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Evaluating Green Communities: Part 4

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 the community in both the short- and long-term, I will post 10 questions to ask a developer, realtor, or homeowner. Use them to start a conversation as what is "green" and this will help one to determine if "greenwashing" is occurring. The questions address home, yard, and neighborhood issues. Questions 7 and 8 are below.

Question #7: Does the community have a green transportation system?2012-03-12-flowerhouse3.JPG

Driving a car is a significant source of energy consumption. Not only do automobiles use a lot of fuel, they emit pollutants into the air. Furthermore, they need roads, and highways take a lot of resources to create. Anything that discourages the use of a car and diminishes the surface area of roads will minimize the consumption of natural resources. Some things to look for:

  • Minimal width streets, with "calming" devices such as speed humps, roundabouts, curved roads, and speed limit signs.
  • Streets built (in part) of recycled material.
  • Multiple exit/entry points into the neighborhood and local street connections to nearby neighborhoods. This keeps the neighborhood cars from funneling onto a single arterial road, which can cause traffic congestion.
  • Trees planted along roads and in parking areas. This shades the asphalt and reduces the urban "heat island" effect.
  • Roads and parking areas made of light-colored material to reduce absorption of heat from the sun.
  • Walking trails and bike paths to local retail areas, schools, and recreational areas.
  • Sidewalks, driveways, and roads made from permeable pavement that allows water to seep into the ground.
  • Where roads bisect natural areas or wetlands and streams, are culverts and underpasses designed to promote wildlife movement and passage of fish and other aquatic species?
  • Dark-Sky lighting is used along streets to reduce light pollution, reducing impacts on wildlife populations.

Question #8: Is the developer seeking any third party "green" certification?

It can be difficult ascertaining how "green" a community really is. You may have limited time and access to information to evaluate a home or neighborhood fairly. The home and/or neighborhood may be certified by a third-party certification program. However, there are problems with some environmental certification programs. Many have argued that it is often too easy to get certified as green. If the developer is marketing the community as green, ask whether an independent third party has certified the home or community. The Energy Star program, for example, is a certification program that certifies whether a home meets a standard of energy efficiency. If the developer does have some type of certification, ask to see the application and comments made by the certifying group or agency.

Beyond the level of the building, there are some organizations that evaluate the entire community, including such things as site layout, landscaping, and road design. Examples include Audubon International and the U.S. Green Building Council LEED for Neighborhood Development. For more biodiversity/wildlife conservation programs, I would recommend the Sustainable Sites Initiative and the North Carolina Wildlife Friendly Development Certification. In my opinion, these certification programs do a much better job addressing long-term management issues for green developments.

You should not rely on the certificate as the sole indicator of how green the community is -- rely more on your "on-the-ground" analysis of the community. Certification programs can be flawed, as there is typically a menu of strategies that a developer can implement to meet certification. In the scientific and environmental community, there is no consensus on which strategies are the best. Sometimes developers will do the bare minimum to get certification. They may leave out important sustainable practices that are important to you or to the local region.

For example, wildlife habitat may be a feature you are interested in, but the community may have achieved "green status" primarily through the construction of buildings and roads. In some cases there are different levels of certification (e.g., bronze, silver, and gold). But in the end, some kind of certification is good because you have at least an outside party evaluating the community. However, ask for the application or contact the organization to determine why the neighborhood was certified.