I recently co-authored a journal article titled LEED-ND and Livability Revisited, which won the Kaye Bock award. LEED-ND is a system for evaluating neighborhood design that was developed by CNU, USGBC, and NRDC. Many of its criteria, particularly site location and neighborhood pattern, accordingly reflect New Urbanist and Smart Growth principles and are inspired by traditional neighborhood design.
The prominent New Urbanist practitioners who authored The Smart Growth Manual write (p. 6.8) that LEED-ND allows us to “objectively determine the degree to which proposed projects embody smart growth principles… it is expected that LEED-ND will become a municipal standard for controlling the urban design of large-scale development.”
There are currently 381 LEED-ND projects listed in the database on the USGBC web site. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development recently started requiring applicants to secure LEED-ND conditional approval for neighborhood revitalization projects to be considered for Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grants. Workshops are being pitched to cities, offering training on how to use LEED-ND to accelerate the development of sustainable communities.
As LEED-ND grows more ubiquitous, it becomes imperative to understand its outcomes and impacts on communities. Some of its codifiers indicate that its standards can in fact foster neighborhood livability. For example, in their discussion of the benefits of certification, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, states that LEED-ND helps “create more livable communities.”
Our study thus poses the question: does LEED-ND actually capture livability as defined by residents? From our article:
This study examines LEED-ND’s criteria for Neighborhood Pattern and Design (NPD). LEED-ND was developed as a system for rating new neighborhoods on the sustainability of their planning. However, it has increasingly been adopted by cities as a de facto measure of “livable” neighborhood design and used to accelerate development processes. We hypothesize that these criteria do not accurately capture livability as defined by residents.
Our study area is Temescal, a gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland, CA. Temescal could not achieve LEED-ND certification due to technical disqualifications, yet residents of the neighborhood rated its livability very highly. Furthermore, residents consistently rated and ranked NPD characteristics quite differently than did LEED-ND, calling into question its validity as a universally codifiable rating system. We propose that a single set of weighted, prescriptive design guidelines may not be able to reflect the diverse values and desired amenities of different communities.
LEED-ND is increasingly being wrapped in the language of livability when it is presented to stakeholders. Our findings complicate the sometimes oversimplified question of how to create sustainable and livable communities. A neighborhood’s livability may be influenced in part by its pattern and design—but also by exogenous factors and the wider landscape of complex city and regional systems.
This is not to suggest that LEED-ND and its goals are bad. Rather, they simply may not be sufficient for all communities seeking to develop a good neighborhood. As we discuss in the article, LEED-ND’s prescriptive nature may also result in communities being designed according to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. So, then, what of LEED-ND? Is it an essential tool to fight sprawl, car-oriented public space, and single-use zoning? Or just the latest top-down normative template to prescribe the “good” neighborhood? I hate false dichotomies, and I’d wager it lies somewhere in between.