Scaling Smart Cities Through Consistent Performance Measurement

By Vatsal Bhatt

Vatsal Bhatt is the Director of Cities and Neighborhood Development at the USGBC.

Feb 22, 2018 | Governance, Society | 1 comment

Now more than ever, our cities are at a crossroads. While the challenges our global cities face have never been more serious, the performance improvement opportunities available to those that invest in the right technologies have never been more promising.

All over the world, city leaders are recognizing the incredible opportunities that green buildings present and, consequently, a new generation of high-performance cities is emerging. The building sector, after all, presents cities with the largest potential for significantly reducing natural resource depletion, enabling energy security and resiliency, while also mitigating climate change. Buildings account for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and 60 percent of the world’s electricity consumption.

City leaders realize they can achieve their national energy and climate goals, and lead by example, by building high-performing, efficient buildings, using private sector tools like LEED to track their progress. These cities are becoming engines of regional and national economic growth and prosperity, and the leaders among them are at the forefront of combating climate change.

At the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), we are committed to fostering a new generation of cities that continuously innovate to provide safer, healthier, more responsive, efficient, equitable, resilient, and smarter urban living. For the past two decades, we’ve led strong with a simple but powerful vision that buildings, communities, and cities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation.

We work towards achieving these goals through LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Today, there are more than 92,000 registered and certified projects in these programs, totaling nearly 19.6 billion square feet of space, participating in LEED across 167 countries and territories.

Over the last two decades, LEED has helped transform building practices and continues to push the top performers, but what about the other 80 to 90 percent of buildings? We need to get them on a path to sustainability if we want to truly achieve a sustainable future for all.

Over the last few years, we’ve been expanding our vision beyond buildings. The next generation of green building will seamlessly integrate buildings into communities, to ensure a sustainable future for all. We’ve been envisioning a new way forward for the growth of smart cities, and our efforts have taught us that in order to scale smart cities globally, we need to encourage all cities to measure and improve the performance of their environment, economy and people.

When cities and communities increase transparency around their performance, they focus more and more on the outcomes generated from their sustainability efforts and strive to make improvements. They start to implement new technologies and practices to make improvements that address the water, energy, waste management, and mobility issues they are facing. They realize new ways to engage more of their businesses, residents, and community members around improvements. This creates more opportunities, supports improved citizen health and wellness, and provides economic growth, without compromising the environment or our resources.

By focusing on this type of integrated performance, cities and communities are able to revolutionize the way their buildings, communities, and cities are planned, developed and operated. This focus can improve the quality of life of their citizens, open the door for new businesses and new residents, and stimulate a robust, green economy. Our theory is that what gets measured gets done, what gets done gets improved, and what gets improved gets replicated.

Recognizing that cities lacked a globally consistent way to actually measure their performance, we introduced two new programs in the market to help city leaders communicate their performance across an array of objectives and to different types of stakeholders. Enter LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities, two new certification programs from USGBC that provide cities and communities with a framework for measuring, managing and improving the performance of their economies, environment and people.

These programs are helping cities develop responsible, sustainable, and specific plans for green energy, water, waste, transportation, and many other factors that contribute to the human experience. They encompass sustainability and much more: quality of life, health, prosperity, equity, education, resilience, infrastructure, and energy. They are designed to support continuous progress toward developing better communities and cities, and ensuring a higher quality of life for all citizens.

To get started, a city or community begins by setting goals and implementing strategies and plans to support those goals. Then, they report progress on their goals by sharing performance data across five categories: energy, water, waste, transportation, and human experience. Based on the data entered, they get a score, which can lead to a LEED certification. If they are not ready to pursue certification, they can also start small and make incremental progress towards this goal. This is the power of a performance-centric approach, which fully supports continuous improvement.

These programs also allow communities and cities to track their building portfolio performance, carbon emissions, policies, and incentives. Cities can leverage this information to develop and refine policies, generate broad private investments, increase citizen engagement and even influence large-scale behavioral change in society. Finally, by entering performance data, city and community leaders are able to benchmark themselves against their local, regional and global peers.

In September 2017, the District of Colombia became the first city in the world to receive LEED for Cities certification at the Platinum level. This achievement recognizes the city’s leadership. D.C. is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting clean energy innovation and focusing on inclusive prosperity and livability. The city has set a high bar for the development of eco-districts all over the world, by leveraging technology and data to achieve their sustainability and resiliency goals, creating healthy and safe communities where citizens can thrive.

D.C. is a leading city on issues of sustainability. Over the past two and a half years alone, the city released Climate Ready DC, entered into one of the largest municipal onsite solar projects in the U.S., completed the largest wind power purchase agreement deal of its kind ever entered into by an American city, launched Sustainable DC 2.0, and most recently, signed a Mayor’s pledge to uphold the commitments in the Paris Climate Accord. Today, 65 percent of DC neighborhoods are walkable and 58 percent of commuter trips are by bike, walking or public transit. The DC government is also 100 percent powered by renewable energy and is on track to derive at least one-half of the entire city’s electricity from renewable resources by 2032.

The city chose to pursue certification as a way to achieve the goals of their Sustainable DC Plan 2.0, which aims to transform the District into the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the U.S, and Smarter DC challenge, a green business engagement program that transforms businesses, organizations and institutions into sustainability champions and stewards. Open access to data and leveraging technologically strategically are key to achieving these goals, and the city views LEED for Cities as a valuable tool in these efforts.

D.C. has also stared a trend. Phoenix and Arlington County also recently became LEED Platinum certified cities. We’re seeing steady adoption of the new certification, with cities all over the world striving to become LEED certified: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Surat, Belgrade, Munich, Bogota, and more.

Imagine that cities could be performing at the highest possible levels, and striving to act as global models for other cities. Cities can lead in prioritizing and enhancing human health, while saving energy, water and waste. Cities can be powered by clean and reliable energy, while teaching children in in a green school buildings. Cities can be affordable for even the poorest. We see that future within reach, with consistent and clear performance measurement as the path that will lead the way.

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