2013 was a year of interesting work that led to even more interesting insights.  From leading a new ULI program for entrepreneurial developers in New Orleans and Seattle, to participating in a career changing community planning project in Hawai’i.  Working with one of three teams selected for a ‘coopetition’ in Calgary and helping re-envision the town-gown relationship for a Midwestern University.

For me, this work and the results of the 2013 UrbanGreen Index  further reinforced a number of very positive trends for those of us interested in sustainability and the built environment:

  1. Well Beyond the Fringe – sustainability was identified as a primary objective for almost ¾ of new real estate efforts.  Sustainability has moved from leading edge to a primary objective of development briefs everywhere.
  2. Growing Different – the form and location of future growth will be different.  This is not a temporary swing of the pendulum fueled by a spoiled Gen Y, but a long term, systemic shift in values – across all age groups.
  3. Moving Beyond Rating Systems - The desire for integrated and ‘bespoke’ sustainability frameworks is showing up time and again in my business requests.  Green certifications are becoming akin to building codes – which is not a bad thing – but like building codes, not very inspiring.   Clients are asking me ‘what’s next’ and ‘what can I do to truly reflect the unique nature of my project and this place?’  Through my advisory role with U.K.’s BioRegional I see what could be next as they work to scale their One Planet Living program.
  4. Regulatory Reform at Last – The last impediments to sustainability – outmoded regulations and codes – are starting to give way.  Progressive cities and towns have used the lull to revamp regulations.  We still have a long way to go but palpable change is increasingly present.
  5. Planning Different – cooperative, regional, and collaborative planning processes are increasingly the rule rather than exception. While still awkward, time consuming and expensive – largely due to process inefficiencies or inexperienced teams or constituents – the long term trend will be more responsible outcomes for the built environment once we finally get the approach streamlined.  The use of technology to communicate, gather input and model scenarios will accelerate more informed and broad based outcomes that are good for everyone.
  6. From Red to Green - after years of getting scorched by deals gone sour, the real estate capital markets are seeing the virtue of sustainability – maybe not for what it means for the planet – but for reduced risk and volatility.  A de facto insurance policy against obsolescence.  A new twist on the old axiom of location, location, location, as evidenced in the new survey results shows that sustainability, value and location are all inextricably linked.  Recent visibility of  ‘green investment funds’ and an increased spotlight on responsible property investing will only lead to better things once we all agree on the metrics.

All of this bodes well for 2014 and beyond, but also presents a ‘tale of two futures’.  While some cities and towns are harnessing the benefits of two decades of experimentation in improving livability and quality-of-life (think street interventions, road diets, green streets, pop-up retail, food trucks, micro-housing, parking maximums, bikeshare programs, etc), other places seem mired in old attitudes about development. Cities going far beyond ‘tweaking their codes’ (i.e. Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Washington DC, Salt Lake to name a few) will be big winners – attracting high value knowledge workers, which in turn attract high quality employers, which only begets investment in better real estate.  This isn’t dumb luck – this is because leaders and constituents committed to building cities where sustainability and livability are top priorities.

So what are you seeing?  How is your hometown preparing for this new fashioned future?  Drop me note and let me know.

If you want to learn new tools or see examples where these ideas are taking hold, join me and other industry leaders in 2014 at three new programs I’ll be leading for the Urban Land Institute:

To find more insights and observations from what I’m learning, please check out my blog ‘ChasingBetter’ , which chronicles the ongoing challenges and successes in the pursuit to sustainable human settlement.