By Nicole Isle
Brightworks Sustainability Advisor
Cities and towns of all shapes and sizes comprise a complex network of interconnected systems. Energy, water, transportation and material systems — they fuel, move and remove essential “nutrients” such as goods, services, and information, all of which flow through our cities and towns with remarkable efficiency and speed. As in a natural ecosystem, these nutrients flow to a hierarchy of users. At the top of the food chain are the heaviest consumers: buildings, freight, autos, and industrial manufacturing. In this interdependent ecosystem, it’s people who decide how those nutrients cycle through, but as we all know, we haven’t done the best job of figuring out how to make all of this transportation, flow, and cycling happen in a sustainable way.
Our cities and towns may be complex like an ecosystem, but they fail to truly function like one – for example, where waste from one system becomes food for another, and individual niches are interdependent and share nutrients to minimize energy use. In a biological system, these are just a few examples of how an ecosystem comprised of a diversity of biological and physical elements functions, and these ecosystems are our most inarguable showcase of true sustainability.
The USGBC’s LEED rating system has guided the market to take steps toward the responsible design, construction and operation of buildings. The latest version of LEED more heavily rewards projects that are constructed in urban areas where infrastructure, amenities, housing and jobs already exist. This gets essential nutrients like goods, services, and information operating in shorter, tighter life cycles – a good thing in nature, since a constant source of fuel is essential to growth.
Sustainable transportation systems enable people to move around and receive nutrients more efficiently in ways that minimize total carbon emissions and land use impacts. One transportation rating system that strives to measure benefits and reward performance is the Sustainable Transportation and Access Rating System, or STARS.
STARS was conceptualized by the North American Sustainable Transportation Council (STC), led by Peter Hurley of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) has contracted with the STC to develop twelve STARS Project credits for potential application to their proposed 9-mile SR-1 HOV Improvement project in Santa Cruz County, California. The credit development process is being managed by Brightworks. The finished framework will best serve transportation authorities interested in comparing benefits and costs between design options, or to help inform on initial planning stages.
STARS especially suits planners who are interested in expanding transportation systems to include multiple modes such as bicycling, walking, bus, and rail. It will also help uncover the often hidden benefits and cost savings multi-modal projects can capture through improved access and reduced impacts to energy consumption and associated emissions.
STARS drives a team-oriented decision-making process using an integrated design methodology that begins at project inception. The effort brings together all affected stakeholders to collaboratively solve challenges in reaching common sustainability goals for the project. This builds commitment and community camaraderie, and is necessary when embarking on a design process that aims to shift thinking toward more sustainable means of transportation.
STARS and LEED both speak to the need for embedding urban design and planning in whole systems thinking. Buildings cannot be truly sustainable without a supporting, sustainable transportation system. The STARS program is attempting to fill in another piece of the climate change puzzle by showing others how transportation systems can function more sustainably. The next step in the credit development process will focus on transportation land use impacts to ecosystems. If our cities and towns are to function like ecosystems and truly be sustainable, then the development of this credit might hold particular potential to uncovering how a STARS-rated transportation system should function. For example, it could explore how climate and energy conditions best inform on decisions related to access. By incorporating a region’s ecological energy potential (e.g. solar insolence, heat storage, and wind) as a design parameter, transportation planners would have a true sustainability perspective when balancing access and carbon emissions reduction goals.
The future wealth and resiliency of cities and towns can only benefit from more thoughtful planning of transportation systems. The planners and project teams that will be best positioned to reap environmental, social, and economic benefits will be those that design infrastructure that recognizes the inherent interdependency of transportation with other systems at play, and accept the notion that no one sector holds the full solution to sustainability. Rating systems like STARS and LEED help demystify what it takes to create more sustainable places for the greater public, and highlight the need for sustainable solutions that span the urban realm.