Greenprint for a sustainable city 

Imagine an entire city of low-impact buildings, greenways, and porous pavement. Impossible? Too expensive? Steve Moddemeyer says "no" — as long as you plan ahead.

Wednesday night at IUPUI, Indianapolis engineers, architects and even a city official were on hand to learn about Moddemeyer's experiences greening Seattle infrastructure and development. During his 15 years in the city of Seattle's Department of Planning and Development, he helped to make city planning sustainable and implemented a "green factor" requirement in city building codes.

Building is all about cost, and Moddemeyer gets that. But he also believes that green is the cheapest method. "Sustainable strategies compete or outcompete on a life cycle basis," he says, "but if you never do the math, then you never know that."

Moddemeyer argues that most city officials and developers avoid sustainability planning because it's unfamiliar, it takes extra time, or they just assume it's too costly. The solution in Seattle was incorporating sustainability in the planning process for every civic project and new commercial development.

On the city side, the main issue was that the internal capital improvement program took a "silo approach" where each department worked on its own specific issue without collaboration. Sustainable solutions require multi-faced solutions, says Moddemeyer; for example, sewer overflow can be tempered by porous pavement that lets water back into the ground, but the Seattle water and transportation departments did not typically work together.

To fix this, Seattle adopted a "whole city approach," which requires all projects over a million dollars to demonstrate that collaboration across departments and full lifecycle cost evaluation were part of the planning process. Moddemeyer says that these extra steps often reveal that sustainable plans are possible and cheaper in the long term.

For commercial projects, Seattle created the Green Factor, a landscape requirement for their building code. The policy designates 30% of the property for vegetation, which helps with water drainage and combats the urban heat island effect. Elements such as green roofs, vegetated walls, extra green space or porous pavement contribute to meeting the Green Factor formula. The more sustainable impact an element will have, the more points it earns toward the building's quota.

Moddemeyer says the Green Factor has become "a really powerful tool for sustainability" because it has the support of environmentalists, neighborhood activists and developers. These additional elements typically add between two tenths and four tenths of one percent to a project's total cost. The Green Factor has been in effect since January 2007, and now half of all new construction includes green walls or roofs, and two thirds are using porous pavement.

Although Indianapolis is not as environmentally progressive as Seattle, the cities do share similar urban challenges. As Moddemeyer spoke on Wednesday about the expense and hazards of combined sewer overflow, Indianapolis' very own system was overflowing from the day's rainy weather. Urban heat island effect — an increase in city temperature due to black roofs and lack of vegetation — is another local concern.

Moddemeyer suggests that Indianapolis has potential to follow in Seattle's infrastructure footsteps. He referenced the Indianapolis Infrastructure Advisory Committee's recent identification of $5 billion in infrastructure needs. "That's strategy, and thinking ahead, and opens up huge opportunities for using sustainable strategies," he stated, estimating that sustainable planning for major projects should begin two years in advance. "If you've got a project manager and a budget, then it's already too late. Framing the problem presupposes the answer, so framing has to happen with this kind of [sustainable] thinking."

Moddemeyer's other tips:

*Take advantage of all on-site resources. "Rain and sun are resources, not waste products," Moddemeyer says. He also advocates geothermal heating and green roofs for cooling ("Think of plants as little air conditioners"), and says there are even more sources of energy and heat on-site if engineers look closely. For example, buildings can use a heat exchange to extract heat that naturally radiates from the waste water line.

*Demand that every dollar spent provide multiple benefits. When weighing the costs of energy solutions, for example, cities should also consider the hidden costs or benefits to public health.

*Identify passionate advocates. "Government officials are very busy doing what they already do," says Moddemeyer. "It takes weedling and luck to find the right kind of person who will find the time to work on this."

*Go with the momentum. If there is a government official that's passionate about a certain sustainability issue, Moddemeyer says to "run with that, because it will expand to other things."

*Build a knowledgeable, activated citizenry. "We're not going to have the green cops for the upkeep of Green Factor standards," says Moddemeyer, but he believes citizens are crucial for keeping the city and developers accountable.

Alison Pumphrey, Project Manager for Indianapolis's Office of Sustainability was in the audience and said she was excited to learn about a success story based on "grass roots efforts from people that already get it."

She liked the idea of "getting people together" and "looking really broadly" at sustainability issues. Pumphrey said there has been some cross-collaboration on the city level through the Department of Metropolitan Development's Green Team, but she would like to see even more — for example, reaching out to offices like public safety. She also liked the idea of including education, such as a sustainability speaker series for city staff. "We need to reach across boundaries and structures," Pumphrey said. Other city officials joined Pumphrey to hear Moddemeyer speak again on Thursday.

Indiana Recycling Coalition conference

On the same day roughly 50 miles south of this presentation by Steve Moddemeyer, the Indianapolis Recycling Coalition held their 20th annual conference and exhibition in Bloomington. During this conference, Indiana's own efforts towards greener communities were discussed, including some along the same lines as those implemented by Moddemeyer in Seattle.

CLEAN (Indiana Comprehensive Local Environment Action Network), an organization present at the IRC's conference, is similar to Seattle's Department of Planning and Development Association.

CLEAN is voluntary and results in assistance for cities in becoming greener. Beginning with identifying what in a given community affects the environment negatively, CLEAN works alongside cities in developing a plan to first fix what is affecting the environment negatively and then advancing into more progressive means of living green."Itemization is the biggest challenge and the most important thing to do," stated Tony Reid, the Assistant Director of Public Works in Valparaiso. CLEAN has pushed the city of Valparaiso, for example, to take steps in getting greener, including the distribution of rain barrels and same day recycling and garbage collection.

Just as Green Factor in Seattle inspires business to grade the environmental friendliness of their buildings, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is present and active in Indiana.

An independent, third party certification, LEED encourages companies and their builders to reach silver, gold, and platinum levels of certification based on the environmental friendliness of their buildings. Both LEED and Green Factor motivate builders to invest in green in order to increase profits, bringing to light the money saved by investing in green products such as permeable parking lots and storm water collection tanks.

Bill Brown, the Director of Sustainability at Indiana University, is working to make all buildings on the IU campus certified at the silver level or higher by increasing the presence of recycled materials in construction and repairs and by combining the communication between the builders and engineers on the IU campus.

The IRC's 20th annual conference and exhibition also discussed the passing and processes of House Bill 1859, which, according to Carey Hamilton, Executive Director of the IRC, is "the most aggressive bill of its kind." Bill 1859 reorganizes and makes mandatory the recycling of electronic waste.

For more information, contact the Indianapolis Recycling Coalition at, the Green Building Certification Institute at, or CLEAN at - Story by Reilly Gill


Speaking of News, sustainability; Green Building;building Code; Urban Planning; Infrastructure; Seattle; Green Factor; Green Roof; Office Of Sustainability; Allyson Pumphrey; Steve Moddemeyer

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