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D.C. Goes Platinum In First LEED for Cities Certification

The city is first to earn a Platinum LEED for Cities certification, leveraging information technology to track progress toward a range of sustainability goals.
October 17, 2017

The Arc platform is used to collect, organize, and communicate the performance data from a range of sustainability categories used to score LEED for Cities projects.

Image: Arc Skoru Inc.
At least 55 cities and communities around the world have signed on to test the LEED for Cities pilot, and Washington, D.C. has achieved the first certification in the new system—a Platinum rating.

Cities seeking certification submit performance data for a range of sustainability categories—Energy, Water, Waste, Transportation, and Human Experience—to receive a base score. Up to ten additional points can be earned by certifying individual projects within the city and by creating action plans for specific goals like carbon reduction, climate resilience, and green infrastructure.

The emphasis is on using data to drive continuous improvement through a holistic approach to ongoing sustainability efforts. Washington, a leader in the use of “smart city” tools, could serve as a model for how cities can lead on climate change in a world that is rapidly urbanizing.

Keeping up by scaling up

The vision of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is that, within a generation, all people should be able to live, work, and learn in a green building or community. According to the organization, one impetus for developing the LEED for Cities system was the recognition that efforts focused on individual building projects are not sufficient in such a rapidly urbanizing world.

“The building-by-building rating strategy for accomplishing our global mission was not aligned with the ferocious speed of urbanization globally,” says Roger Platt, senior vice president of strategic planning, USGBC. He told BuildingGreen that there has been a big push from hyper-urbanizing places like China and India for a tool that could be applied to entire cities or districts “so that the scale would be more aligned with the reality of what they’re actually trying to accomplish.”

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In addition to the need to address sustainability at the urban and infrastructure scale, also driving development of LEED for Cities is USGBC’s increasing emphasis on performance. Platt explained that the goal is to move toward an integration of the aspirational design component—represented by the traditional, strategy-based LEED for buildings systems—with the actual operational performance of the building.

According to Platt, there will eventually be a performance-only version of all other LEED rating systems. To earn certification, teams will enter performance data into the Arc platform to demonstrate that their projects are operating at the required levels.

There is an increasing shift toward the idea that, as Platt put it, “a green building is only a green building if it’s performing now as a green building.” He says that all too often, buildings built with tremendous aspirations to be high-performing don’t perform well “unless there’s additional incentive to make sure people are making them perform well.”

Transforming cities with the power of data

LEED for Cities is structured around gathering information to inform goals and action. A city pursuing certification in the new system would follow this basic process:

1) Set specific, measurable goals for increasing the city’s sustainability across a range of categories.

2) Develop action plans for meeting those goals.

3) Track performance regularly.

4) Adjust strategies accordingly to further improve performance.

Projects are required to track 14 different data points across the five categories. Performance in the Water category, for example, is measured by domestic water consumption, and performance in the Transportation category is measured by “distance traveled in individual vehicles daily.”

Because the quality of the metrics used is crucial to the effectiveness of this process, USGBC consulted the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Labs and programs like C40 Cities and International Ecocity Standards to determine what to include.

Platt explains that the metrics included are ones that a majority of municipalities around the world already had access to or were tracking. For example, the metric used to measure performance in the energy category is greenhouse gas emissions expressed as tons per person per year.

Rigorous enough?

If the LEED for Cities pilot is successful, the system will proceed through the same review process and comment period that all other LEED systems went through. One critique that may be voiced is that the system should be more rigorous in order to really drive change and improvement. This might be achieved, for example, by setting more progressive benchmarks against which performance scores are calculated, or by setting more advanced pre-certification requirements.

For now, cities like Washington that are ahead of the game might see LEED for Cities as more of a pat on the back than a tool supporting transformational change. As Wilson put it, “I think that it’s one tool in our chest. LEED for Cities provides a great opportunity for us to tell the story and to start measuring our progress so that we can compare ourselves to other cities, but we also are just going to move forward, making progress on our own as well.”

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A longer version of this article, with more overall policy discussion, originally appeared on BuildingGreen.com as Washington, D.C. First to Achieve LEED at Citywide Scale.

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