Why sustainable communities must look above the street level

The False Creek Residences in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo: Bentall Kennedy

I can’t recall a period in which the sustainability of our communities has captured the public attention quite like the present. Bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly city-planning, electric vehicle charging stations, green belts and, of course, public transportation seize the public imagination and quite often become the subject of heated debate.

While this debate rages on at the street level, a quieter but arguably more substantial green revolution takes place far above the treeline of urban parks and bike lanes. From the ground level up to the sky, the greening of urban commercial and residential buildings is reversing the traditionally challenging environmental footprint of high-rise facilities for the better.

As sustainable communities rise to the challenges of climate change, the role of buildings has evolved to become part of the solution. Buildings have become healthy places that are built with sustainable materials and use significantly less energy than they once did. Every year, more green building and sustainable energy use features come into use, and contribute to reducing environmental impact. In this way, our buildings have come alive, elevating green initiatives well beyond street level and into the soaring towers of our cities. In the process, they are becoming important contributors to the sustainable communities we all aspire to live in.

“The greening of urban commercial and residential buildings is reversing the traditionally challenging environmental footprint of high-rise facilities for the better.”

This about-face has come to fruition thanks to a change in attitude. Today, we look at the buildings that shape our communities as part of a living, breathing ecosystem — not as isolated environments. In this new approach, a sustainable community simply isn’t complete without buildings that help address the challenges of climate change, bringing increased stability to our fragile environment.

This shift in thinking and accountability has building owners looking beyond tactical energy savings and green building techniques to become full-fledged participants in shaping the social and environmental well-being of our cities and towns for the future.

Are we happier in green buildings?

At the most basic level, green buildings help meet an important goal in sustainable communities — reducing resource consumption. Lowering energy usage is good for the planet and the balance sheet alike. In fact, at Bentall Kennedy we avoided $37 million in utility costs (PDF) between 2009-2016 thanks to energy management programs across our portfolio of commercial buildings. But there’s a bigger purpose as well.

Office tenants increasingly choose communities and buildings based on their ability to attract and retain talented employees. College-educated millennials tend to gravitate to urban live-work-play neighborhoods that enable a sustainable lifestyle, and they prefer companies that share those values and reflect them in their building spaces.

Green building certifications, such as LEED and ENERGY STAR, help companies establish a commitment to sustainability. Add on broader sustainability programs, and companies have an opportunity to create community within their organization around a shared purpose.

Companies are bringing sustainable communities into the vertical developments they inhabit, seeking out buildings with amenities that advance health and well-being goals such as fitness centers, indoor bicycle storage and higher walk scores. Additionally, buildings that use natural light, views and outdoor space effectively are very appealing to tenants. Look no further than the trend toward rooftop and courtyard amenities to see this factor coming into play.

Photo: Bentall Kennedy

A shared purpose of sustainability strengthens communities

In today’s digital world, people increasingly seek authentic experiences in the communities where they live, work and play. Real estate plays a central role in the creation of vibrant communities, and the reverse is also true — the vitality and growth of a neighborhood is a determining factor in a building’s success. Building owners and managers can deliver this sense of community through tenant engagement initiatives and cooperation with local leaders on shared sustainability goals.

At Airport Executive Park, Richmond, British Columbia, a vegetable garden started by an employee of the property’s largest tenant was expanded to include volunteers from all tenants at the park. A large cistern captures water from storm drainage for use in the garden, and the vegetables are donated to local charities, as is honey from beehives donated by the facility management firm. Tenants view the garden as a way to foster teamwork, social engagement and job satisfaction, while the property owner sees an opportunity for greater tenant retention.

Look to the sky, where sustainable communities are taking form in the buildings where we live, work and play. If buildings are rooted in environmental design principles and operated by people that animate shared spaces for people to gather and connect, it will contribute greatly to the economic, social and environmental revitalization of the communities we cherish.

Anna Murray(*) / GreenBiz

(*) Anna Murray is vice president of sustainability at Bentall Kennedy (Canada) Limited Partnership. Bentall Kennedy is one of North America’s largest real estate investment advisors and a recognized leader in sustainable building practices. Bentall Kennedy includes Bentall Kennedy (Canada) Limited Partnership, Bentall Kennedy (U.S.) Limited Partnership and the real estate and mortgage operations of their affiliates.