NREI Readers Write


Sustainable and eco-friendly design and development strategies get back to basics.

Dustin WatsonDevelopers, architects and communities around the country are realizing the benefits of infill development and redevelopment, thoughtful site planning, and the inspired reuse of existing infrastructure and site-specific topography to make developments not only greener, but also better. Abandoned lots and underutilized properties dot cities across the US becoming magnets for crime, trash and despair causing property taxes to fall. These vacant properties represent unrealized potential.

Urban infill development is a land use strategy that stresses long term sustainability goals rather that uncontrolled economic growth and resource expansion. The development of vacant lots and sites within an urban area is connected to community economic redevelopment and job creation; it supports health and safety issues, neighborhood revitalization and counters suburban sprawl. By better managing growth and slowing down sprawl through infill development, land is used more efficiently. Many problems associated with vacant properties originate from current patterns of growth that are land consumptive, environmentally destructive, and developmentally unsustainable. Our ability to advance a plan for infill development that creates places of long-term value and restores urban areas will allow our communities to grow more sustainably and provide an alternative to developing in greenfield locations. Denser, more compact and efficient projects with walkable layouts and a memorable and compelling sense of place, this new generation of “greenfill” projects are both more sustainable and more economically viable and appealing to communities and civic leaders—no small benefit at a time when access to capital is still tight and getting ambitious new projects approved can be a challenge.

While a boom in new energy efficient technologies and materials continues to grab headlines, an ongoing retail construction trend is taking a decidedly old-school approach to sustainability. A number of innovative planning, design and development strategies that rely less on high-tech solutions and stick closer to the basic “three Rs” of the conservation hierarchy—reduce, reuse, recycle—are proving that inspired green design does not need to be revolutionary to be effective.


Reducing a project footprint is not only a great way to reduce the environmental impact, it can help to create the kind of dense, dynamic mixed-use environment that promotes and enhances social and commercial activity. Sometimes this can be accomplished by “going vertical”, making a committed effort to achieve the highest and best use of space. In other instances, however, architects and developers are coming up with more unconventional ways to create welcome efficiencies of space and function that save money and save the planet.

The Corners in Brookfield, Wisc., 15 minutes outside of Milwaukee, is one such project. The 470,000-sqare-foot mixed-use development uses innovative site planning to remarkable effect. Taking advantage of unique site topography, The Corners features one full level of below-grade parking—enough for more than 1,900 individual spaces. This dramatically reduces runoff, reduces the urban heat island effect, and other associated environmental stresses that accompany above-ground parking, it also provides an aesthetic benefit and a warm covered parking facility for residents and visitors. Guests will likely be thinking more about their own warmth, comfort and convenience than about reducing environmental impacts when they park directly below the project's retail avenues during Wisconsin winters, but that certainly will not make the sustainability benefits any less significant.


From a sustainability perspective, adaptive reuse is extremely effective for one very logical reason: in almost every instance, the greenest thing you can do as a developer is to preserve or rehabilitate old buildings instead of building new ones. This “greenfill” approach, which encompasses everything from brownfields reclamations to the renovation and revitalization of urban communities, capitalizes on existing civic infrastructure. That infrastructure, whether it is utility networks, roads and public transportation options or simply existing social structures, presents a ready-made framework that developers can use to great advantage.

Cities such as Portland, Ore., have embraced greenfill projects, with brownfields developments such as the Brewery Blocks built in 2002 as part of a revitalization plan has dramatically changed the area with its mix of historic buildings and sustainable design. Thoughtful greenfill opportunities create new densities…real urban environments where preserving the architectural heritage of existing buildings dovetails well with the priorities of delivering a vibrant and contemporary mixed-use destination. That density and that space-saving reuse not only results in a dramatically lower impact on the environment, but is also often able to capitalize upon an existing (and by extension, authentic) sense of place to achieve a more meaningful and cohesive community destination.

Similar adaptive reuse approaches are also emerging in public-private redevelopment projects, such as Bayshore Town Center in Glendale, Wisc., and The Peninsula Town Center in Hampton, Va. These previously enclosed malls surrounded by a sea of parking were converted into community-connected open-air mixed-use destinations. Many existing buildings remained intact through the conversions, proving that sustainability is also about knowing which physical assets should be preserved when transforming a public space.


Repurposing and recycling existing resources is one of the central tenets of low-impact design. Increasingly, projects are finding ways to connect to and integrate with defunct or underutilized civic resources, particularly recreation and transportation networks. In addition to the obvious synergies that come with piggybacking off of major public transit hubs, developers are also using green space strategically to add both environmental and experiential value to new projects.

The Corners' site plan, for example, makes a number of connections to a system of public trails immediately adjacent to the site. Pedestrian corridors throughout the site function almost as extension of those trails: a series of linear parks and plazas that are designed to activate and animate public space. Increasingly, developers are realizing that for a project to transcend retail and emerge as a true mixed-use live-work-play community environment, green space (especially urban green space) is an important piece of the puzzle. In this very literal sense, projects are “going green.” The Corners' proximity to a major public transportation hub also creates connections to the broader community.

Encouraging infill development can turn those underutilized liabilities into productive assets providing future growth with more desirable communities and a better quality life for residents in a more sustainable way. It is encouraging to see design and development professionals break free from a green checklist mentality and begin to fully appreciate the degree to which sustainability, livability and profitability overlap. In the meantime, additional factors—from tax breaks, to customer and tenant demand, to valuable efficiencies, increased productivity and lower operating costs—are continuing to drive more creative and compelling green design strategies. It is a trend that is sure to continue, as architects and developers continue to reduce, reuse and recycle their way to more sustainable and appealing projects in the years ahead.

Dustin Watson serves as partner and director of sustainability with Baltimore-based DDG, an innovative architecture, design, planning and graphics firm with a history of creating high-profile, high-quality interior and exterior environments around the world. Watson is a LEED-Accredited Professional, and DDG is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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