Thinking Bigger than Buildings: Certified Green Neighborhoods + Cities

Thinking Bigger than Buildings: Certified Green Neighborhoods + Cities

By Kyle Crowley

Buildings account for 39% of CO2 emissions in the United States, more than either the industrial or transportation sectors.  Fortunately for the fight against climate change, green building certifications such as LEED, WELL, Green Globes, Living Building Challenge, and many others have become increasingly well-known and pervasive in the building industry.

While these certifications have historically focused on individual buildings, increasing demand for widespread, scaled-up sustainability has allowed them to broaden their reach, spurring the introduction of rating systems for neighborhoods and/or whole cities. These systems are based on sustainable design, operation, and management and require early, comprehensive, and holistic planning.  Though they are relatively new to the market, these systems are sure to increase in relevance and popularity – which is a good thing, as 70% of Earth’s exponentially increasing population is predicted to live in cities by 2050.

Though similar, each of these new rating systems applies to a different scale and prioritizes unique sustainability targets.  For example, LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) and EcoDistricts both certify a designated area of a neighborhood or city, while LEED for Cities and Star Communities can be awarded to larger areas.

Some systems function as difficult-to-attain acknowledgements of a community that goes above and beyond basic sustainability, such as Living Community Challenge awardees, while others simply functioning as benchmarking tools for community improvement.  But the one major recurring requirement across these systems is that sustainability and efficiency goals are discussed as early on as possible with as many stakeholders as possible.

Interested in finding out which certification might be a fit for your project? Here’s a quick overview:



Facilitated by the USGBC, LEED for Cities addresses all pillars of sustainability, seeking not just to curb global climate change, but also to ensure economic and social equity and sustainability.  Certified cities measure water consumption, energy use, waste transportation, and human experience on a citywide scale. Amongst others, Washington, D.C.; Phoenix, Arizona; and Savona, Italy are all using LEED for Cities.

To earn LEED ND certification, neighborhoods must demonstrate that they’ve met certain thresholds to ensure the betterment of resident health, mobility, and equity, as well as the reduction of the neighborhood’s carbon footprint.  LEED ND functions as a hybrid of the LEED rating systems for buildings (BD+C, ID+C, and C+S) and LEED for Cities. It emphasizes very specific requirements and parameters for bicycle networks, and public transportation, and the like, but it also addresses bigger-scope items like housing affordability, public health, community resilience, and climate protection.



Community improvement is the primary goal of STAR Communities, which does assign third-party verified ratings to the cities and communities it certifies, but is primarily designed to be a tool for measurement and improvement. In addition to the environmental and health concerns that are the focus of certifications like LEED, STAR Communities must also prioritize economic and social sustainability. Baltimore, MD was one of the first communities to achieve a 5-star rating under the STAR Communities framework by earning points in categories like Climate & Energy, Economy & Jobs, Equity & Empowerment, and Health & Safety. Update, December 2018: STAR Communities has merged with USGBC’s LEED for Cities to create the LEED for Cities & Communities program. The new, combined program will launch in early 2019.



As previously noted, the Living Community Challenge designation, administered by the International Living Future Institute, is not easily acquired. The entire certified community must be net positive, meaning the community generates its own energy and captures and treats all the water it needs.  Like other ILFI rating systems, awardees are graded on their performance in seven categories, or “petals”: Place, Water, Energy, Health + Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty.

Perhaps more than any other certification, designing a community like this requires an immense amount of coordination and cooperation during the early stages of design.



Looking holistically at how our communities are operating is undoubtedly crucial to engineering the sustainable cities of tomorrow, but it’s also important to remember that change starts small and adds up.  A city with the greatest sustainability plan in the world is doomed to fail if there is not an active effort to incentivize every building to be as efficient and independent (of the grid and water resources) as possible.

Verdical Group recognizes that these certifications are integral to an effective reduction of both inequality and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as increased community resilience.  For now, we are ensuring every detail is considered in every building we help to certify, and that they are an efficient part of a whole that always has room for improvement.