03/07/2012 11:04 am ET Updated May 07, 2012

Evaluating Green Communities: Part 1

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. Questions address home, yard, and neighborhood issues. The first two questions are below.

Question #1: What kinds of tree protection and natural area conservation strategies have been employed?

When driving through the neighborhood -- either before or after the homes are built -- you may see lots of vegetation: designated natural areas, large trees, and shrubs. But beware! Depending on how careful the developer and hired contractors were in protecting them, trees and other large plants may not survive. How trees and whole natural areas were designated and managed during the construction process is critical for their long-term health. You may wind up dealing with the expensive problem of cutting down a dying tree near your house, a tree that was actually killed during construction. It just took several years to see the full effect bad practices had on it.

For trees, it is vitally important that their root systems be protected from damage during the construction process. Tree roots absorb oxygen, water, and nutrients for survival. Find out if fencing was used to prevent heavy vehicles, from damaging trunks and running over the root zone causing soil compaction. Compaction smothers roots and prevents them from absorbing essential nutrients. Pay special attention to how much of the area around the tree was protected. It's not enough just to place a fence or flagging around the trunk of the tree. The roots underneath the drip line (the outer edge of the leafy canopy) should be protected by a sturdy fence.

The single best factor that will help ensure the survival of a protected tree is irrigation. Stressed trees need plenty of water during the construction process and this means watering each tree to a soil depth of 30 cm about two to three times per week, depending on local site conditions.

With regards to designated natural areas, what kinds of management strategies have been implemented, both during the construction phase and post-construction? At a minimum -- as required by law in most states -- there should be well-maintained silt fences around any wetlands or water bodies to prevent silt from entering these areas during construction. Run-off can carry vast amounts of silt and other pollutants into a wetland and essentially choke this system to death. Now, well-maintained is the operative word here. Check around the construction site. Are silt fences properly placed? Have any fallen down?

Has some kind of natural buffer or transitional zone been established between human-dominated areas and the protected areas? If the protected area is right up against a yard or some kind of pavement, such as a road, then there is no chance to filter storm water run-off from the human-dominated areas.

Wetlands and small ponds with lawn right up to their margins are other examples of bad planning. Lawns usually must be managed using fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and without a buffer between the lawn and the water body, these chemicals can drain right into the water.

Take a close look at the "natural" areas. Do they look natural? The protected areas may be heavily infested with invasive exotics, such as Chinese Tallow trees, and may even be dominated by exotic/ornamental vegetation such as old fruit trees. A conscientious developer should have implemented some kind of restoration plan to remove exotic vegetation, with a long-term strategy to prevent re-invasion. Ask whether any invasive exotics were found in the natural areas. If the developer has no idea what "an invasive exotic" is, or whether any are present in the development, this is another clue revealing how serious she/he is about conserving natural areas.

A subdivision with protected natural areas should have a management/educational program for the entire community that addresses the boundaries between natural and human-dominated areas. The health of these natural areas is intricately tied to the behaviors of nearby residents. The developer should have some sort of visible educational program that addresses how local neighborhood actions affect natural areas (see question #2, below).

Question #2: Is there a long-term environmental education program for the community?

Homeowner understanding and buy-in are essential if the community is to function as originally intended. Although it is the developer who originally implemented the green design, it is up to the community residents to manage and maintain many of the sustainable features.

As an example, consider the effect if a homeowner added new plants to her/his garden and her/his choice included some invasive exotics: that choice would have an impact on natural areas that a developer set aside during site development. The invasive plants could spread into those natural areas and have a negative impact on the habitat. Property owners need to know which plants are considered invasive exotics and avoid planting them in their yards. They also need to know how to remove any invasives that might currently occur in their yards.

Initial design is fine, but management is key! Neighborhoods turn over: Houses are sold all the time, experienced owners leave, and new owners arrive, unfamiliar with the community "green culture." All residents must be on board in terms of understanding the goals of the community and actions that help conserve natural resources.

One way to get the word out is for the developer to set up an educational package that consists of a website and kiosks. The elements help inform residents in the following way:
  • Interpretive Kiosks: Highly visible interpretive kiosks/signs are placed in public areas where people traffic is high or on a trail system. Each of the signs contains informative displays that discuss a particular topic, such as water, energy, or wildlife. Kiosks should be dynamic, with different informative panels being inserted throughout the year.
  • Website: Because the kiosks/signs can give only limited information, an associated website is constructed that gives detailed environmental information and management strategies pertinent to a community.

For a living example of a community that has both an environmental education package and website, click here.