Washington achieves top sustainability certification for cities

Washington, D.C., has been recognized by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Cities as a model for sustainability.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The US Capitol is seen from a nearby stairway in Washington on Jan. 3. Washington is the first city to achieve the top certification for sustainability by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Cities.

On a work day, the US capital does not appear much more "sustainable" than any other major city. Its streets are packed with cars, lights flicker in offices long after the occupants have gone home, and stark economic divides persist between neighborhoods.

But beneath the surface, something is working in Washington, D.C., experts say.

In August, the city was the first to receive the top "platinum" certification under a global sustainability program called LEED for Cities, which tracks performance on energy use, waste management, water, transport, and even quality of life.

Washington was joined by Phoenix in December.

The LEED for Cities framework, which celebrated its first birthday last month, is an expansion of the world’s most widely used rating system for green buildings.

Places earning top marks with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) could serve as a model for officials around the world seeking to prove to investors and others that their cities are clean, green, and offer a high quality of life, experts say.

Last month Arlington County, across the Potomac River from Washington, received the first top certification under another year-old framework, LEED for Communities, which is similar to the cities' framework but covers different geographical scales.

With more certifications expected in early 2018, organizers say surging interest stems from the Paris Agreement on climate change – shunned by US President Trump – which has paved the way for local governments to step up as leaders in caring for the planet.

More than 100 cities around the world have expressed interest in the program so far.

Roger Platt, senior vice president at the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit that created LEED, said Asian partners, including China and India, advised that its initial focus on buildings was too narrow for the breadth and speed at which cities are transforming.

LEED for Cities tracks changes in how a city is performing across 14 metrics. It uses an online platform allowing cities to analyze and compare their progress, focusing on outcomes rather than pledges.

“We’re at the point now where there’s a tremendous amount of information on strategies to be cleaner,” said Mr. Platt.

“What’s missing – and what we think we can do – is a very disciplined and rigorous system for determining whether the use of these strategies is actually creating measurable improvement,” he said.

Washington’s top certification under LEED for Cities shows the rapid progress it has made in recent years, Platt noted.

Between 2006 and 2013, it reduced carbon emissions by almost a third, to 11.9 metric tons (13.1 tons) per capita. Water consumption fell by more than 13 percent in the past five years. And today the city recycles about half of its waste – more than double New York City’s rate.

Washington even does well under the LEED metrics on social equity, which include a city’s affordability and distribution of wealth.

The US capital was an early adopter of strategic plans around sustainability and the data required to measure progress, experts say.

It has focused for years on efficiency in its buildings, as one of the first cities to pass legislation in 2006 requiring use of the LEED for Buildings standard, said Jay Wilson, an analyst with the city’s Urban Sustainability Administration.

It has also regularly raised minimum standards in regulations and enforced rules such as green construction codes.

Mr. Wilson said LEED for Cities will now help Washington put all its sustainability data in one place, highlighting potential synergies – for instance, a gauge of miles driven per capita can double as a measure of emissions and walkability.

He also hopes the city can publicize its data in innovative ways, making residents aware of the shift to sustainability and steps households can take to support it.

As more cities go through the certification process, metrics will evolve in line with needs, and new trail-blazers are likely to emerge, organizers say.

“We look to celebrate what has been accomplished by Washington, but it will be a challenge for them to remain in that leadership role,” Platt said.

Surat, India’s eighth-largest city and among its fastest-growing urban areas, is one city looking to learn from Washington.

A few hours north of Mumbai by car, Surat is working towards the LEED for Cities certification. The city's expansion has made efficiency in service delivery a key concern, an official said.

M. Nagarajan, deputy commissioner of the Surat Municipal Corporation, said achieving the certification would help Surat create a green image, and attract best practices and technologies from developed countries.

But first it needs to iron out a few “hitches,” he said, particularly around data on greenhouse gas emissions, which is outdated, and on equity, which is not methodically researched for Indian cities.

The data element is also critical for Savona in Italy, another city undergoing LEED certification.

Mayor Ilaria Caprioglio said the short-term goal is to gather data providing a detailed overview of Savona's levels of sustainability, which can then inform future decisions.

Savona, a town of 62,000 in the country’s northwest, is an important port for Mediterranean cruise lines, and it is now in the midst of a multi-year agreement to bolster sustainable development in the cruise industry.

“Our aim is to give the new generations an increasingly green, smart and environmentally friendly city,” Ms. Caprioglio said.

This story was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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