Clark's Remarks

Beyond Buildings: Achieving Sustainable Communities

As a member of the Smart Growth Partnership board of directors, I recently saw a presentation by Nancy Gassman, PhD, natural-resources administrator for Broward County, Fla., about STAR (Sustainability Tools for Assessing & Rating) CommunitiesSTAR Community Rating System, which STAR Communities describes as a free “voluntary self-reporting framework for evaluating, quantifying, and improving the livability and sustainability of U.S. communities.” The system sets goals in seven broad categories: built environment; climate and energy; economy and jobs; education, arts, and community; equity and empowerment; health and safety; and natural systems. These goals are broken down into objectives, which are tied to community outcomes, which are achieved by local actions.

So, what does STAR Communities consider a “sustainable community”? First, it recognizes that sustainability is different for every community. Still, it sees a healthy environment and populous and a strong economy as key factors. Also, it understands that sustainability issues can’t be siloed; they have to be addressed in tandem. For instance, when we assess a building under a green-building rating system, we look at things such as light pollution and transportation options. But the STAR Community Rating System goes a bit further. Under the built-environment goal, in addition to ambient light and transportation, it considers the affordability of housing. While, under a green-building rating system, we might assess a building’s indoor-air quality, the STAR Community Rating System also considers residents’ active living. So, obviously, some of the STAR Community Rating System’s goals have little or nothing to do with energy consumption, greenhouse-gas emissions, and the like, which is what most of us are used to focusing on.

For example, under the goal of education, arts, and community, the first objective is “provide a broad range of arts and cultural resources and activities that encourage participation and creative self expression” (worth 15 of the goal area’s 70 total points). Before you stop reading because, like me, you’re not an “artsy” person, keep in mind that this program is not just a liberal politician’s pipedream. It’s based on sound business and economics, as well as environmental and social considerations. So to achieve the points for this objective, the first outcome is “creative industries,” which requires a community to demonstrate that creative industries represent at least a 5-percent share of all businesses in the county. The second outcome (“attendance and participation”) goes a bit further: Part 1 requires the community to demonstrate that at least 50 percent of adult residents attend a live performing-arts event annually (I saw Rush in concert several weeks ago, so I’m covered!), while Part 2 requires the community to demonstrate that at least 30 percent of adult residents visit an art museum annually (I’m not so covered). Of course, every community can’t or won’t meet those requirements.

Like Green Globes and LEED, the STAR Community Rating System is an online points-based system with different levels of achievement: 3-STAR, 4-STAR, and 5-STAR. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike those building rating systems (or even LEED for Neighborhood Development), the STAR Community Rating System recognizes that every community is unique and needs it own sustainability plan—another example that there are few, if any, one-size-fits-all solutions.

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