The selection of neighborhood designs in America grows more variegated every year. The models and forms of previous centuries are still with us, like big-city apartment blocks, small-town Main Streets, streetcar suburbs, and Levittown-style suburbs. In many places those neighborhoods continue to be very popular and successful.

In recent years those models have been modified, combined, and hybridized to yield a profusion of new neighborhood types in a variety of settings. They include gated McMansion enclaves, suburban high-rise superblocks, exurban townhouse pods, live-in shopping malls, new town centers, live/work/play downtown redevelopment, and so on.

Too often there isn’t enough consideration given to the long term in some of these developments. They are designed to sell well today, but it’s less clear whether they’ll be successful for generation after generation of residents — whether they’ll perform well in terms of quality of life, finances and sustainability, and adapt gracefully to changes in the larger economy, culture and environment.

This is where tools for evaluating the design and performance of neighborhoods can be useful. A variety of rating systems are available, such as checklists, scoresheets and performance measurements. A range of groups and constituencies are interested in these tools, including planners, developers, policymakers, researchers, investors, activists, and home buyers. Each of these groups has compelling yet somewhat different reasons to rate neighborhoods. The reasons for rating can be grouped into six broadly overlapping categories: communication, recognition, planning, marketing, research and investing.

Communication

Education and advocacy are probably the most common reasons to rate neighborhoods. Advocates use checklists to promote principles of good planning and good development, with the ultimate goal of educating and persuading public opinion. For instance, the Colorado Smart Growth Scorecard (2003), written by the Colorado Center for Healthy Communities, says:

Our aim is not to be negative or critical, or place communities in competition for the “best score.” Instead we hope this tool will help your community assess its readiness for smart growth in a realistic, specific, revealing way. We also hope that using this tool will help you engage members of your community in discussions about shaping your community’s future.

Urban planners and officials are interested in neighborhood rating as a teaching tool — a convenient, easy-to-understand way to inform property owners, developers, and citizens about preferred techniques, and thereby improve the design quality of projects submitted for approval. (This function is somewhat different than rating schemes that are an integral part of the approvals process; that is discussed later.) The EPA has compiled a sampling of smart growth scorecards that may be used for these communicative functions.

One system listed by the EPA, and written by this author expressly for communication purposes, is the TND Design Rating Standards. It underpins the Town Paper’s list of TND websites, the purpose of which is to highlight web sites and web pages that illustrate the principles and techniques of new urbanism. We began compiling this list in 2002. Although at first it was a reasonably straightforward task, as time went on we saw more and more cases where the distinction between neotraditional and hybrid forms was fuzzy and complex. There was a need for a system that would provide transparent, repeatable guidelines for evaluations, and so the TND Design Rating Standards was born.

Some evaluation tools are created specifically to teach and elaborate upon a pre-existing set of principles. The New Urban Development Project Appraisal System was created in 2003 by Nathan Norris, Allison Ude and various contributors. It is based explicitly on the 27 principles of the Charter of the New Urbanism. Town planner and engineer Peter Swift developed a rating system that is also based on the Charter, with support from the Knight Program in Community Building.

The Smart Scorecard for Development (2002), by Will Fleissig and Vickie Jacobsen, translates the 10 smart growth principles into specific criteria and benchmarks. The initiative was developed in collaboration with the Congress for the New Urbanism and the EPA, and is intended for an audience of planning commissioners, city councils and staff, neighborhood organizations, and project applicants.

The Smart Growth Project Scorecard, released in 2008 by the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, also draws on the 10 smart growth principles. The Scorecard was developed with funding from the EPA, and is notable for putting forward scaled, numerical standards for affordability.

Recognition

Neighborhood rating systems can furnish prestige or recognition. This can be important because alternative formats — smart growth, transit oriented development, new urbanism, traditional neighborhood development, etc. — are generally harder to accomplish than conventional suburban development. In some cases alternative development formats are carried out by nonprofits or government agencies that are working to achieve economic revitalization, affordable housing, and other non-pecuniary goals. In such cases where profitability may be lesser, recognition can serve as an supplemental reward for the dedication and effort that is required. Recognition improves the reputation of agencies and organizations, and can lead to greater political popularity or financial support. For practitioners, being associated with a recognized project can improve one’s reputation and lead to professional opportunities.

For project recognition, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification is clearly the industry leader. LEED-certified projects receive a plaque which the USGBC describes as “the nationally recognized symbol demonstrating that a building is environmentally responsible, profitable and a healthy place to live and work.” Clients can parlay a LEED certification into press attention, goodwill, heightened reputation, and institutional and political support.

The USGBC has built its own credibility by developing rating systems that are detailed, complex, and more objective than most competitors. The LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, now in its pilot phase, represents the USGBC’s expansion beyond the individual building scale to address neighborhood design, performance and sustainability.

Award and recognition programs are a common way to highlight well-designed plans and projects; often the judges will use evaluation tools to identify the winners/recipients. For example the Washington Smart Growth Alliance (SGA) is part of the Urban Land Institute’s national network of smart growth alliances. The SGA runs a smart growth recognition program with a straightforward mission:

Developers in the region recognize that there is a major challenge in gaining the necessary approvals for projects that are consistent with smart growth principles. The purpose of the SGA’s Smart Growth Recognition Program is to help those projects get approved by informing regulators, public officials, citizen groups, developers, and others of the merits these projects would bring to a community and the region.

The SGA’s reviewers use a fairly detailed checklist to identify smart growth project proposals that deserve recognition and support.

The EPA’s National Award for Smart Growth Achievement bestows recognition on governments and other public entities. The award highlights achievements and best practices that might otherwise remain obscure, and can help boost political support or funding for programs back home. Reviewers for the EPA awards use a checklist that draws on the 10 smart growth principles.

Planning and approvals

Many of the rating systems that are used to teach, advocate and recognize — like those described in this essay — are also intended to help planners identify good development proposals.

One such program in the UK is the Regional Sustainability Checklist for Developments, supported by the World Wildlife Federation and the UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and developed by Building Research Establishment, Ltd. (BRE), previously a government agency and now a charitable foundation. The checklist is described in BRE’s book A sustainability checklist for developments: a common framework for developers and local authorities (2002).

The BRE checklist has been applied to the proposed Sherford development (projected population 12,000), which will be an extension to the city of Plymouth on the south coast of Devon. The very detailed Sherford Sustainability Appraisal illustrates the complete BRE assessment procedure.

Assessments of this nature are expected to become more common in the UK in response to policies like the Code for Sustainable Homes, which will require that all new housing in the UK be zero-carbon by 2016; and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004, which requires that regional spatial strategy and local development documents be subject to a sustainability appraisal.

In the United States, a few municipalities have adopted this more stringent approach where ratings of project applications may be formally incorporated into the approvals process. One of the earliest was the city of Austin’s Smart Growth Matrix (first adopted in 1999 and phased out in 2003). Applicants could elect to have their projects formally rated; those with high scores would receive bonuses like waived fees, public funding of infrastructure, and other financial incentives.

In 2008, the city of Cedar Rapids, IA, implemented its Smart Growth Scorecard. The scorecard is applied to projects requiring city council approval, such as major site development plans and projects requesting financial incentives. The scores are carried out by city staff and then incorporated in the staff report for the planning commission and city council to review.

Many U.S. cities and counties have already adopted planning policies that favor LEED-certified buildings. As the LEED-ND program is rolled out, some governments are responding with policies to support it as well. In 2007, the state of Illinois passed the Green Neighborhood Award Act, which makes available enterprise zone grants to three pilot developments that meet LEED-ND standards. The New Urban News reports that governments in the Chicago region and Sarasota, FL, are also supporting LEED-ND with incentives.

Computerized planning tools that model the impacts of different development scenarios can provide a useful basis for ratings. An example is Criterion Planners’ INDEX software, which models alternative planning scenarios and can rate the results. Six redevelopment scenarios were modeled for a former military base in Weymouth, MA, and the impacts of each scenario were rated using defined indicators and scoring ranges. The ratings are illustrated in Using green ratings to improve neighborhood design, which states: “This example of a 1,000-acre Massachusetts project demonstrates the positive influence of integrating Criterion’s ratings into the unfolding design process.”

Keep in mind, however, that GIS analyses are only an aid to human judgment, not a substitute. As Criterion Planners principal Eliot Allen said, “No methodology should ever be applied blindly. It is always necessary to tailor a method to site-specific conditions.”

Marketing

Green is popular like never before. Into every imaginable market niche, green goods and services are being introduced and are selling. It’s the trend in industrial design, responding to consumers’ demands and manufacturers’ budgets. The cleantech industry aims to be the hottest venture capital sector. An Inconvenient Truth was the third highest-grossing documentary ever.

The same trend is showing up in real estate markets. Robert Charles Lesser & Co. reported the results of its green real estate marketing survey in the June, 2007 Urban Land magazine and in a company report, Measuring the Market for Green Residential Development. About 36% of the market can be described as green buyers, willing to pay a price premium for green features. The company says this market is composed of “Forest Greens” (altruistic motivation), “Greenback Greens” (money-saving motivation) and “Healthy Greens” (health-motivated).

The accomplished town planner Andrés Duany put forward his own view of green target markets, and illustrated it in his article “The Marketing of Sustainable Communities” published in the Council Report VII: On Green Architecture and Urbanism. According to Duany, the market is composed of “Ethicists” (guilt-motivated), “Trendsetters” (motivated by style and hipness), “Opportunists” (profit-motivated) and “Survivalists” (security-motivated).

A measure of the appeal of sustainable neighborhoods to these markets is the response to LEED-ND. A total of 350 developments answered the pilot program invitation, far more than expected and in spite of a potential fee of $8,000 to $20,000. Many of the 238 that were selected to participate have advertised their participation in their marketing materials and press releases, even though only a handful have been evaluated so far and none have formally received certification yet. Undoubtedly not all will qualify for certification, but that abates the enthusiastic proclamations not a single bit.

The amount of interest the neighborhood development program has received, and the general enthusiasm in the marketplace for green and sustainable building, is “beyond our wildest dreams,” [USGBC President Rick] Fedrizzi said.

What is a green neighborhood? Aspen Daily News, 10 Aug. 2007

Similarly, recognition and awards programs like those described above are often cited in the marketing materials of new developments. Anecdotally, I can report that after I wrote a formal evaluation of Belmont Bay in Woodbridge, VA, several residents linked to the article in their online ads for selling or subletting their homes.

The WalkScore website went online in 2007 and is designed to “help homebuyers, renters, and real estate agents find houses and apartments in great neighborhoods.” The website takes any address and automatically generates a standardized score based on the number of shops, schools, libraries and parks nearby. Even though Walkscore acknowledges flaws in its methodology, it is being incorporated into real estate websites, and developers are promoting the Walkscore of their properties.

Neighborhood marketing that incorporates rating system scores is in the pioneering phase right now. Home buyers and renters are unaware of the issues and details, and so anything goes. As time goes on and people become more knowledgeable about urban design, the credibility of a assessment system or organization will become more important.

USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi said in an interview with the Pension Real Estate Association:

My biggest hot button is that when people say they are going to build a green building but not going to go for the certification, they are going down a very slippery slope of what we call green wash. They are saying they have values, are going to build a green building but are not going to ask anybody to certify it, to validate that they did what they set out to do. My only advice to folks like that is the marketplace is getting way too smart. Nobody is going to allow that to happen, especially the people who have invested in solid green buildings with LEED certification.

PREA Quarterly, Summer 2007, p. 28

It should be noted that the LEED program itself is not without controversy. Its rating systems have been criticized for failing to prioritize or include important sustainability factors — both in building ratings and in neighborhood ratings.

Research and academics

In the past 15 years, researchers have been very active looking into the relationships between urban form and pollution, energy use, health, crime, security, economic value, and many other factors. The urban form metrics that were originally available — usually different aspects of density — tended to be limited and crude in application. So, researchers have worked on standards that give a more nuanced representation of urban form and thereby support better research results.

Rating standards take that process to another level. By developing scoring systems and standards, researchers and academics are able to compare a given location to many others using a consistent scale. This aids the testing of hypotheses about about urban design and its relationship to urban life and urban function.

In her article, “Measuring Urbanism: Issues in Smart Growth Research” (2003), professor Emily Talen makes four incisive points about the importance of urban form measurement. One, measurement is needed to communicate smart growth concepts rigorously. Two, measurement supports a common vocabulary about urban form that reduces unnecessary adversarial relations between groups with similar goals. Three, lack of specificity about urban form leads to inconsistent and conflicting research results. Four, better measurement will help demystify basic questions that have been the province of theory, such as the performance of the public realm.

Talen has written many articles about rating neighborhood access to public space, parks and amenities. One example is Neighborhoods as Service Providers: A Methodology for Evaluating Pedestrian Access (2003), which presents a GIS scoring system that rates neighborhood block groups in terms of need for park space and access to park space.

The research initiative Identifying and Measuring Urban Design Qualities (2005) was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation and carried out by Ewing et al. It is likely the first attempt to develop a statistically rigorous scoring system for the perceptual qualities of urbanism. The study sought to measure the “intervening variables” that influence the way that an individual feels about the environment as a place to walk, in order to better understand the relationship between physical features of the built environment and walking behavior. A notable aspect of the study was its statistical tests that showed that perceptual scores could be reliably repeated between different evaluators. Repeatability is essential for any rating system that is intended to be rigorous.

The study Close Encounters With Buildings (2004) by Jan Gehl, et al, reviews several systems for classifying and scoring the characteristics of facades that can either enhance or diminish the attraction and liveliness of pedestrian space. Performed to support planning and design practice, the purpose of the study was to investigate “the connection between the content, transparency and design of ground floors, and the extent and nature of pedestrian activities and stays along the street.”

Investing

Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) became well known in the 1960s, and during the 1970s the number of dedicated SRI mutual funds began to snowball. The philosophy of SRI is to maximize both investment return and social good by screening for corporations with good environmental, social, and governance practices. Today SRI is a $2.3 trillion industry, but very little of that is directed to property investments. A major limiting factor is the lack of industry-wide standards, which limits investment decisions to case-by-case reviews.

Responsible Property Investment (RPI) is a fledgling offshoot of this movement. The leader in the RPI field is Gary Pivo, professor of urban planning and natural resources at the University of Arizona. Pivo’s article RPI Criteria Developed using the Delphi Method (2008) reviews a survey of 51 experts that prioritized standards for RPI evaluation. Pivo outlines how the results may be applied toward the development and refinement of RPI evaluations and ratings:

Third, existing SRI research organizations… can use the findings to design their next-generation property sector evaluation criteria which they use to rate property companies. … Fourth, the findings can contribute to a global consensus on the elements of a sustainability report for property companies. … Fifth, it may be possible to use the findings to inform the creation of an RPI certification process for property funds and fund managers… Sixth, existing green building rating systems might assess their criteria in light of these findings with an eye toward addressing social concerns and adjusting the weights given to environmental ones.

Other leading organizations in the RPI field are the Boston College Institute for Responsible Investment, the collaborative Responsible Property Investing Center and the Property Working Group of the UN Environment Programme Financial Initiative. The latter has published a report, Responsible Property Investing: What the Leaders are Doing (2007) that outlines 10 principles of RPI.

Conclusion

Many tools are available to evaluate neighborhood-scale development and smart growth. Rating systems may involve checklists, scorecards, surveys, performance measures or other methods. Results can range from completely intuitive and subjective (and not necessarily inaccurate) to thoroughly precise and objective (and not necessarily accurate). No single system is perfect for all situations, and the appropriate choice depends on the application and audience.

The reasons for rating neighborhoods include communication, recognition, planning, marketing, research and investing. There’s one important application missing from that list: urban design.

Rating systems are not urban design manuals. There are are hundreds of existing textbooks, manuals, case studies, books of theory, instructional programs, and other resources for the learning of urban design. Rating systems can illustrate principles, and can provide performance benchmarks for comparisons between different designs and scenarios. But rating systems are by definition standardized, abstracted and technocratic. They do not encompass the full range of human judgment, intuition, and emotional and psychic responses — all of which are essential to the urban design process, being as it is an art as well as a science.

Therefore, rating systems should not be used as design instructions. “Designing to the test” is putting the cart before the horse. Ratings are not intended to be used that way, and doing so results in unintended, even counterproductive outcomes (the above-mentioned LEED critique article gives examples of that).

Urban design principles are based on the hypothesis that certain physical patterns support high-quality urban environments. That hypothesis should be tested, and a rating system can help to do so. At the same time, every rating system is based on abstractions and generalizations. Rating systems should be held accountable by asking: Are they truly identifying the urban design forms and patterns that contribute to beneficial outcomes? When used with wisdom and informed judgment, rating systems can help build better living environments for all.

 

Bibliography

Aurbach, Laurence, TND Design Rating Standards. Town Paper Publications, 2005. See also Laurence Aurbach, Five Stars for Urban Design, New Urbanism Division Newsletter, American Planning Association, Summer 2005 issue.

Aurbach, Laurence, Belmont Bay: Community Critique. New Towns, Winter 2004.

Billeci, Mark and Todd Briddell, Rick Fedrizzi. PREA Quarterly, Summer 2007.

Blofeld, Stuart and Lynne Ceeney, Sherford Sustainability Framework Final Report. Prepared on behalf of Building Research Establishment, Ltd. for Redtree LLP, 2006. See also Redtree LLP’s Sherford website.

Brook, Daniel, It’s Way Too Easy Being Green. Slate, December 26, 2007.

Brownhill, D. and S. Rao, A sustainability checklist for developments: a common framework for developers and local authorities, Building Research Establishment, Ltd., 2002. See also BRE’s general statement about the benefits of the process and a summary brochure from World Wildlife Foundation that reviews the goals and partnerships of the program.

Campaign for Sensible Growth, Green Neighborhood Award Act unanimously approved by both houses of Illinois General Assembly, press release, June 13, 2007. See also the text of Illinois General Assembly Bill SB135.

City of Austin Transportation, Planning, & Sustainability Department, Smart Growth Criteria Matrix. Version 9, 2001. See also the related Smart Growth Matrix web pages.

City of Cedar Rapids Department of Development, Smart Growth Open House Boards. December, 2007. See also City Council plans to grade development proposals for smart growth by Rick Smith, The Gazette (Eastern Iowa), November 15, 2007.

Colorado Center for Healthy Communities, Colorado Smart Growth Scorecard. 2003.

Criterion Planners, information sheets including Using green ratings to improve neighborhood design and INDEX Case Study: South Weymouth, Massachusetts and Smart Growth Indicators.

Dittmar, Hank, Looking Beyond LEED-ND. Presented at Congress for the New Urbanism XV, Philadelphia, PA, May 2007.

Duany, Andrés, “The Marketing of Sustainable Communities,” in Council Report VII: On Green Architecture and Urbanism. Published by The Town Paper, April 2008. Order print version with the Town Paper order form.

Ewing, Reid, et al, Identifying and Measuring Urban Design Qualities Related to Walkability — Final Report. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2005. See also Ewing et al, Measuring Urban Design Qualities — An Illustrated Field Manual (2005) and the associated Measurement Instrument for Urban Design Quantities Related to Walkability (scoresheet).

Fleissig, Will and Vickie Jacobsen, Smart Scorecard for Development, in collaboration with the Congress for New Urbanism and the U.S. EPA, 2002.

Gehl, Jan, Lotte Johansen Kaefer and Solvejg Reigstad, Close encounters with buildings. Urban Design International, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 29-47, April 2006. Originally published as “Nærkontakt med huse” in Arkitekten, September 2004.

Langdon, Philip, LEED aims to set ‘first national standard for neighborhood design’. New Urban News, September 2007.

MacDonald, Adrian, Next LEED goal? There goes the neighborhood! Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle), July 23, 2007.

Norris, Nathan and Allison Ude, eds., New Urban Development Project Appraisal System, 2003.

Pivo, Gary, Responsible property investment criteria developed using the Delphi Method. Building Research & Information, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 20-36, 2008. See also Gary Pivo’s Selected Publications and Other Resources.

Smart Growth Leadership Institute, Smart Growth Project Scorecard, 2008.

Smart Growth Online, Principles of Smart Growth, Smart Growth Network/Sustainable Communities Network.

Steuteville, Robert, Cool Spots, bright idea. New Urban News, January/February 2008.

Talen, Emily, Neighborhoods as Service Providers: A Methodology for Evaluating Pedestrian Access. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 181-200, 2003.

Talen, Emily, Measuring Urbanism: Issues in Smart Growth Research. Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 303-328, 2003.

UK Department for Communities and Local Government, The future of the Code for Sustainable Homes — Making a rating mandatory: Summary of Responses. November, 2007.

UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Sustainability Appraisal of Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Documents. November, 2005. See also the related Sustainability Appraisal web page.

UN Environment Programme Financial Initiative, Responsible Property Investing: What the Leaders are Doing. Geneva, Switzerland: 2007.

U.S. EPA Development, Community, and Environment Division, Smart Growth Scorecards. Compiled by Matthew Dalby, 2006. See also the U.S. EPA, National Award for Smart Growth Achievement program.

U.S. Green Building Council, Pilot Version LEED for Neighborhood Development
Rating System
. Developed in partnership with the Congress for New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council, 2007.

Wackerle, Curtis, What is a green neighborhood? Aspen Daily News (Colorado), August 10, 2007.

Washington Smart Growth Alliance, Smart Growth Recognition Program Criteria, 2005. See also the projects recognized by the SGA and the parallel initiative, the Regional Conservation Priorities List.

Additional resources

ApartmentRatings.com is the number one consumer resource for apartment rentals, currently featuring more than 600,000 ratings. Its “Zagat-style” format could be readily adapted to a open-participation neighborhood ratings database.

Environment Canada’s Sustainable Community Indicators Program includes the manual Guidelines for the Development of Sustainability Indicators.

The Places Rated Almanac was first published in 1981 and sparked a national fascination with the characteristics and rankings of cities. It kicked off a long string of imitators, and today place rankings are common– most bikable, most green, best for parks & recreation, most energy efficient, and so on. Is the American passion for ranking exemplified by our preoccupation with sports statistics? Maybe it’s relevant that Places Rated Almanac was conceived during a football game.