Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Sustainable Urbanism: Searching for Sustainability at the Suburban/Rural Edge

with 3 comments

Douglas Farr Public Lecture

Tuesday, March 11, 7:30 pm SFU Harbour Centre

Streaming video

Doug Farr is a pivotal figure in sustainability today, leading and practicing at the crossroads of urbanism and green building. His firm, Farr Associates, holds the global distinction of being the first and only firm to design three LEED Platinum buildings.

At the same time, he has served as Chair of the LEED Neighborhood Development Core Committee, leading the development of sustainable performance metrics for urban development.

His new book, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature, is a leading text on enhancing the sustainability of urbanism and his lectures are essential to understanding the pending sustainability convergence.

Doug Farr talked about integrating sustainable urbanism and agriculture on the urban edge. Having evaluated the sustainability of East Fraserlands, a project along Vancouver’s river edge planned by DPZ, Farr has been commissioned by Century Group (this evening’s sponsor) to consider opportunities for sustainable solutions at the suburban/rural edge in the Southlands of Tsawwassen.

Doug Farr is a Chicago architect. The mission of his practice is to design sustainable human environments. He has been closely involved in the leadership in to create LEED ND. Some of their developments include Lake Pulaski Transit Oriented Development (TOD) 1998 on the west side of Chicago. In 1999 they produced the first LEED platinum building, the Chicago Centre for Green Technology. “Urbanism did not come up at all in the first LEED standards” and there was no mention of building around transit. It was basically a systems integration approach – heating, lighting ,waste water and so on. Most clients really did not see the need: for instance at Orland Park TOD they were told to “remove the green stuff”.

Minneapolis at 46th & Hiawatha, a development relayed to a new LRT system there was a fight over density. Initially buildings had to be 1½ storeys, but after discussion it was agreed that four storeys could be accepted and an extra storey could be added if it was a green building. In Normal, Illinois he produced an Uptown development around a traffic circle: the area within the circle was used for stormwater detention, all the buildings were LEED certified.

LEED ND means “LEED for Neighborhood Development”. It is based on the observation of how much Americans drive and how far, for example, fresh produce has to travel to market: 1,500 miles on average. Children of middle class white families in up scale California developments spend 89% of their time indoors, or in vehicles.

He was sharply critical of Al Gore’s recommendations for action at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth”. He thought that Gore had“punted” the issue of transportation. What he wrote was not a mandate: that means “if the bus hits you, get on it”. By not directly tackling land use and transportation he had missed the single biggest greenhouse gas issue. We have seen in recent years the “tragic irony of efficiency” – per capita vehicle miles travelled had increased 5% which more than offset any gains due to Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards imposed on the automobile industry by the US government. At the same time average dwelling size grew 60% (from 1970-2005) but household size in the same period was declining. The Environmental Building News pointed out that even at present practices, transport to and from an office building uses 30% more energy than the building itself: and if that bldg meets LEED standards that rises to 130%.

The pillars of sustainability were set down in April 1996 when the 10 principles of Smart Growth were agreed. These can be grouped under four headings:

settle in the right location, create compact places, offer more choice and a fair transparent process.

In Atlanta, GA the average distance people drive is 35miles per day. But that is very heavily weighted by the suburbs. In the city centre residents driving distances average less than 10 miles.

The Charter of New Urbanism (also 1996) co-evolved with transit. The US Green Building Council was also formed in that year. All these institutions have become “Silos of Sustainability” promoting half measures, and each devalues the work of others. Conservation or LID development concentrates on issues like storm water and native plantings. He showed an image of an Arby’s at a suburban intersection. This could be a LEED Platinum Eligible building: “a unwalkable fatty food shack”. He also had an advert for a green building that proved hard to let that now offers free parking. He also took a swipe at Seaside – the first New Urbanist development. There the air conditioning condensers rust out every 5 years due to the sea air and the buildings also have to be painted every five years. The a/c units are located in between the buildings. This means that as soon as anyone turns one on, the house next door has to shut its windows to keep out the noise, and turn on its on a/c … and so on.

“We need to evolve to sustainable urbanism”. This has to be based on neighbourhoods that are walkable and have transit service. We need to establish relevant “weights and measures”. This what LEED ND does: its determines what where and how. A smart location is a pre-requisite: it is usually infill or adjacent to existing transit. On exception in the urban edge is where there is to be a projected transit extension. Land stewardship is central to the concept expressed as the neighbourhood pattern and design. No gated communities are permitted and the minimum density is 7 units per net acre (the US average now is 2). It is also includes erosion control and similar protection for water courses.

It is expected that there will be zoning code version, but so far 371 projects have expressed interest in certification in 42 states and 8 countries. The area covered in total is “bigger than Boston” and 80% of the projects are on brownfield sites or or infill. Many of the standards adopted have a carbon base and measurable public health benefit demonstrated by research. Even so the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) asserts that there is an “unproven connection between health and walkability”. They also accuse the proponents of a sociological agenda, as though building low density car orient4ed sprawl had no sociological effects.

He was critical of LEED ND. He pointed out that the prerequisites are a poor tool to balance competing trade offs, and they have had limited influence at the sprawling edge of the suburbs. So far they have had no discernible effect on sprawl. He gave the example of the East Fraserlands in Vancouver (on the Fraser North Arm at boundary. This was a former saw mill but included some woodland. The requirement of LEED ND is that 75% had to be previously developed and there also had to be a 100 ft set back of all development on riparian lands. So this site failed to qualify.

The “Southlands” in Tsawwassen are built up on all sides but have had no development on them, so they would also fail the LEED ND test. It is hoped that the current process will actually protect a lot of the green area from construction, unlike the original proposals which would have been a low density subdivision.

“LEED ND will not design a project” but he showed a simple, and familiar, diagram of a triangular site, based on earlier standards. This is now being used with a 10 minute walk circle to show how a dense neighbourhood can work, and reduce the meed for motorised trips.

He talked about “emerging thresholds” and something called the “80% rule”: apparently you need 2000 houses to build a TOD. (I may have this wrong as my typing could not keep up with the speed at which he was flipping through his slides). He introduced the idea of “biophilia” – people respond to nature and “nature shouldn’t be something you have to drive to”. So his developments have dual use stormwater retention and high performance infrastructure. The trip reduction potential stems from clustering buildings, but it also enhances neighbourhood health and security. The neighbourhoods are then linked into a “sustainable corridor” based on a transit line.

Most of our current planning codes should replace minimums with maximums – e.g. street width. “The current regulations are backwards.” He sees the need for a national campaign. It is a curious fact that Richard Nixon created all the US environmental agencies – and that very little progress has been made since.

“It’s the placemaking, stupid!”

LEED should apply to land use as well as buildings. The 2030 Architectural Challenge is to gradually move towards carbon neutral buildings by adopting progressively tighter restrictions each year – “like a slow burn fuse”. His practice has shown that the targets is completely possible and they will have built a 120% efficient house next year, that is one that feeds power back on to the grid.

He is now proposing a similar 2030 Community Challenge. This will be based on reducing the average driving distance – less than the 8,150 miles per person per annum which Americans now drive which is equivalent to the North Pole to somewhere in Brazil. For a family this is now 21,500 miles a year, which is very nearly like driving around the whole world. “When you experience a city at 50 mph you don’t care what it looks like.” He aims for a 2% reduction pa in VMT which would produce a 50% reduction by 2030. You can do this by “planning to drive less” – for instance simply eliminating that trip you wish you had not made last year to your in laws. But by designing “resilient communities” we can make the US less reliant on fossil fuels and hence more able to withstand the uncertainties of the future. Essentially the Challenge is a call to invest in land use and transportation integration.

In one development called Atlantic Station the average drive distance is now 8 mpd, a 75% reduction over the Atlanta average. The big gains will be achieved in the suburbs, where the driving distances are greatest will be where the highest percentage of projects need to be LEED ND platinum.

Changing the type of light bulbs we use took 5 years: changing our neighbourhoods will take 20 to 50, corridors take 20 -100 years. “We started at the wrong end.”

He endorses the view of Bill Clinton that this change represents a large economic opportunity.


  • Isn’t there a correlation between poverty and VMT? What is the role of legislation?
    A – Zoning is the way to make change. Vancouver is ahead of the curve. But in existing neighbourhoods there are “always bits being replaced” and it is here that the main opportunities will be found

  • The standard of 7 units pda is about of what is needed to make transit viable.
    A – It’s a compromise but you can exceed the standard and it probably ought to be 10 to 12.

  • The Spetifore Lands is the correct name for the site in Tsawwassen. There has been little public process. Is there a way that we can have a development that encourages individuals to experiment? Will your development end agriculture on this land? After all, it was this site that spurred the creation of the ALR
    A – The first plan was sprawl. We now expect to have a charrette. There is no plan yet but we expect to set aside
    of land either as green space, agriculture, or conservation. the basic question we are now asking is “Can we complete the town and make it a better place?”

  • An advocate for affordable housing asked if LEED ND requires mixed income, and given current building costs of around $1,000 per sf, how can that be achieved
    A – It is essential to end segregation by economic strata. In 1990 we reformed on “CNU ideals”(?) “LEED ND is the duct tape that solves every urban problem.” Usually they insist on 10 % each for sale and rent at affordable levels. The response is convincing the powers that be that it is doable. The private sector is currently not building to the market, and often all they have to do is right size it.

  • Are car co-ops just a gadget?
    A – NO. See the VTPI 2005 shared car study. Reducing car ownership actually increases wealth [note: I think he should have said “disposable income”] LEED houses cost more but the savings from redcuing car ownershop will pay for better houses.

  • Why don’t the politicians get it?
    a – In places that have a planning culture – like Tsawassen and Portland – they do. And the public’s involvement in the process is crucial. Mostly it is the local plans that do not help. You must remember that sprawl is legal – it is mandated and approved by certified Planners. Chicago is not a plan town but a deal town. The question there is, can we make neighborhoods and corridors?

  • Municipalities in Canada do not have the freedom of US cities, and they are bound to be concerned about the impact on property tax
    A – LEED ND is good government and fiscally responsible. the cost of infrastructure is much lower in dense, contiguous neighborhoods.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2008 at 1:34 pm

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Stephen — this is excellent stuff! Thanks once again.

    Some of the things I like about what I read include:

    – the fact Douglas Farr is working on the ground in a real development, not on some acedemic theory
    – the tear between LEEDs-rated stand-alone buildings and neighbourhoods is mended with LEED ND
    – harmony is established between the elements that make communities; no one element (transit, ecosystem protection, energy, architecture …) dominates the planning process
    – the car is put in its place by a natural postive, proactive and democratic community building exercise
    – developers are on board, though a change in their perspective is required
    – LEED ND is a tool that measures the rate of success of entire communities, not just a single part, and can be used as a technical evaluation to measure existing communities and to push the envelope on creating sustainable cities
    – in that light, LEED ND can become a standard to aspire to in professional circles, and to force politicians to understand and subscribe to

    On a related topic, I just discovered a PDF slide show on Pricetags given by Larry Beasley, former director of Planning in Vancouver (now a private consultant), on his recent work in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Beasley oversaw a generation of progressive planning intiatives in Vancouvver, notably in downtown during the 90s. He was retained to develop a plan for the influx of over 3 million people to Abu Dhabi by 2030.

    He invited other professionals from all over the world — including Peter Busby and several former city hall planners — to assist. He convinced the crown prince (who has all the power, but is benevolent and respected by the people) to move very seriously to sustainability. This is an order-of-magnitude mindset shift for a major oil-producing country.

    The first thing they did was kill a freeway mid-construction. Then they developed a plan through an intensive charette workshop process that first protected the rare, unique Persian Gulf estuarine habitat that surrounds the city. Next they moved very seriously into public transit, everything from high-speed rail linking satellite cities to the capitol, then to light rail to buses and ferries. The car has its place, but is seriously undermined by the plan.

    Then they moved to plan for satellite cities. One in particular will be designed after traditional Arab walled towns but will have no cars inside the walls. They are also aiming for very high energy standards and “zero waste.” This is remarkable because the UAE is saturated in oil, which gives it the revenue to experiment with stuff like this. Dubai, little brother to Abu Dhabi, is Vegas on steroids by comparison.

    Beasley got away with not only creating a plan for a sustainable city amidst the firey gas flares in the desert, but also with critisizing the client for allowing low paid foreign workers — who are currently the backbone of the economy — to live in substandard conditions. The plan calls for decent housing for everyone. He also critisizes and praises Vancouver, his home.

    Here’s the link to the slide show (hope it works). You may have posted the article before, but it dovetails well with your review of Doug Farr’s lecture.


    March 13, 2008 at 8:52 am

  2. Good stuff again,

    I really enjoy reading your summary of lectures and meetings you’ve attended.
    Sometimes you seem to find stuff that I’ve had no advance knowlege of.
    If you know of a good lecture or important meeting, please feel free to announce it on your blog ahead of time so that we can also take advantage of them.

    keep up the great blogging

    Gwendal Castellan

    March 13, 2008 at 3:58 pm

  3. I usually do – in fact in the most recent cases the announcement was lifted from the original web page and posted as “Upcoming Event” – and then that gets taken down and cut into the report.

    For the City Program go to

    For the MetroVancouver meetings go to

    Stephen Rees

    March 13, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: