Get Your Green On

In general, most efforts to develop “green infrastructure” at the neighborhood level have been volunteer-led, grassroots efforts. City governments don’t tend to take the lead on creating pocket parks and planting trees or developing bike infrastructure.

Seattle’s Green Factor is a welcome exception. It’s one more example of how, when it comes to sustainability, the Pacific Northwest cities are way ahead of us East Coast dinosaurs. The Green Factor is a way for the city to measure how much a new housing or commercial development should contribute to improving the quality of the city’s air, water and soil. Not to mention public health and aesthetics.

How does it work? Just as developers of big buildings in many cities have to meet a minimum requirement of environmentally friendly materials, in Seattle building projects must surpass a certain threshold of green landscaping. The scoring system encourages developers to plant or preserve large trees and implement creative stormwater management practices. The effect will be to make both the private and public outdoor environments more livable.

Not that there’s anything wrong with neighborhood groups promoting these ideas for sustainability from below. It’s just that city bureaucracies tend to be slow to respond to change. Advocates of developing and upgrading pocket parks and street trees can run into public works departments that are used to uprooting trees rather than maintaining them. Or the advocates discover a lack of interest from parks officials more focused on funding big central parks than peripheral ones.

We have seen, however, how much a change of leadership at the top can change city government. Efforts to promote green landscaping and transportation in New York City have advanced quickly since Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed people who support these techniques to top positions in his cabinet.

In most cases, though, greening the city will happen bit by bit, neighborhood by neighborhood, on an experimental basis. That’s fine – we can’t expect our tradition-minded East Coast city leaders to all suddenly start emulating the environmental pioneers of the Northwest.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. Thanks for posting this, David. After reading your post, I went to Seattle’s site, where I was able to find and re-post some relevant images and links on my NRDC blog. What I especially like about this program is that it appears to stress and reward landscaping techniques that do not compromise the urban densities we need to preserve other environmental values. This is critical to a holistic approach to sustainability.


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