Eight Chapters, Thousands of Members, One Voice

Inclusive Decision Making

A vibrant and engaged community is more likely to be safer, healthier, resilient, more economically sustainable and economically robust. Civic input has a profound impact on the policies that drive the decision making process in all neighborhoods and communities in California.

Civic input is highly valued by elected officials, in part, because the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 codified the process for public participation in terms of regulatory rule making. This means elected officials are required to solicit public input. But that is not the full story of why elected officials seek civic input and appreciate high levels of public participation.

MLK Park OaklandThe key reason decision makers love for residents to be engaged at the very beginning and through every step of the decision making process is that it provides ownership to the community. MLK Park in Oakland is a great example of this notion. The soccer/football fields are 3 years old and are still in pristine condition. Since the community designed it, they take care of it.

The current model in many communities throughout California relies on a ‘traditional’ set of tools to engage residents, among these more traditional tools, public surveys, visioning workshops, town hall meetings and public hearings are most frequently used. In theory, these numerous tools all sound like fine engagement strategies, but anyone who has sat through one of these traditional meetings knows…well…that they are not always fun. Moreover, they are often scheduled inconveniently, making it difficult for the community members to show up. Hence, this model of public participation processes can be exceptionally disengaging, even for those who care deeply about the issues involved.

Cities throughout California have identified this problem and begun to move to a more digital form of engaging readily available, they are often challenging to locate and understand. More usable interfaces are needed, as well as broader web-based on the record communication between governments and citizens. Simply put, the power of networks and the web have not reached their full potential, yet. social media icon images

The time has come to transition from yet to now. In doing so, the public participation processes ought to be reformed to accommodate more extensive and effective participation pertaining to all community stakeholders. Making the engagement process fun and more effective through the use of creative civic engagement tools is the next watershed breakthrough in community decision-making.

By introducing more public participation opportunities, decision makers and organizations alike can offer communities the opportunity to find the most appropriate method of involvement and participation for each individual stakeholder. This can be done by using innovative visual-art techniques, social-networking, smartphone apps, computer simulation games, exhibits, music, performances, festivals and community gatherings to engage residents and spur them to share their thoughts on civic issues.

Creating simple, engaging, and easily available updates fosters a greater possibility and likelihood of ongoing participation. This is extremely important when implementing statewide policies, such as SB 375 the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.  As the implementation of state policy rolls out, tools such as ISEEED’s Streetwize platform presents a significant opportunity to digitally engage residents, especially youth!


Streetwize, as well as a myriad of other software programs, such as Community PlanItNeighborhland, and Texizen, offer residents the ability to connect to their local governments. An added benefit of utilizing digital tools, such as these or others, is that they ought to allow residents and decision makers the ability to benchmark building and neighborhood performance data. This fosters an implementation process that ensures outcome-based approaches

While the digitizing of civic engagement creates opportunities for expanded public participation in the decision-making process, this does not mean that a complete tradeoff ought to be made. Yes, communities should carefully examine what technological tools are available to spur civic engagement. Notwithstanding, they should also continue in-person meetings for those residents who prefer talking in person. The prime goal ought to be to increase stakeholder participation, not trade one input segment of our communities for another.

Density, Urban Frabric and an Aging Populace

Does density build strong neighborhood bones?

Density is an essential element to healthy sustainable neighborhoods. Yet the definition and perception of how density affects neighborhoods remains largely divided among its residents. Ask 2 or 20 people walking down the street, regardless of profession or academic background, what their thoughts are on density in their town and you are likely to receive contrasting viewpoints.

Often when my family gathers around the dinner table, the conversation naturally turns towards our community’s future. Before long, the subject of the conversation turns to how new city policies are transforming the fabric of our community. My family’s perspective varies as much as anyone!

The fact is our local, national and global populations expected growth continues at alarming pace. Our communities will have to absorb larger populations. In order for us to absorb the growing population, we will need all of our neighborhoods to shoulder the load and gain density.

Many within our community view this growth as a second baby boom the real growth in our communities is coming from the other end of our life spectrum, our aging adults (which is also a good thing).

This brings to light a fact that our growing population carries with it a complex problem. How do we reasonably, comfortably and sustainably accommodate more people?

The answer is to see increasing density as an opportunity for improving the quality of all residents’ lives. Higher density can improve residents’ lives and improve the health of the neighborhood directly and indirectly.

Direct benefits include residents saving money by being closely connected to services and community. Proximity to and close connections save money and time on travel, historically by car. Another direct benefit is an increased ability for residents to supplement income with adding rental units to existing property and small businesses having additional customers in a smaller regional area.

Indirect improvements to residents and the neighborhood are connected to environmental improvements e.g., improved air quality with less driving to everyday needs and services. Density creates a cascade of additional indirect or co-benefits such as the ability of elders to age in place by weaving ‘context appropriate’ features into existing neighborhoods.

Density means business – shrinking the regional pull of a business customer base, which in-turn often leads to an increase in small business start-ups. The health, diversity and economic impact of an increase in businesses within existing neighborhoods, especially when they are local-independently owned, are an often overlooked, yet key co-benefit, of increasing density.

Local merchants recirculate substantially more revenue in a regional economy than do their chain competitors, and the impact of that recirculation can be credibly measured. This measurement or ‘Local Premium’ has a higher local Economic Impact, measure only the money left in the local economy after the initial purchase is made, due to recirculation of money and the creation of local business multipliers.

The money they keep in the local economy through extra employment, contracted services, and local profit leads to more total output, income, and employment within the local community. This, in turn, leads to a further increase in retail sales, which are then taxed to generate additional income for public services.

Moving forward, communities ought to keep in mind that the world is changing at a rapid pace. All of us, when making community wide decisions must to keep our changing needs as well as the needs of our families, both before and after our own generations, in mind.

Accounting for seniors with limited or low mobility, who can walk perhaps ½ mile round trips, the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system is a great tool for analyzing and mapping where additional density and businesses should be introduced.

In addition to his role leading the Sustainable Neighborhoods Committee at the Northern California Chapter, Scott is a licensed California General Contractor, a LEED AP, and previously enforced building code, permits and zoning regulation for the City of Alameda. In all his capacities, Scott works to identify practical green building techniques that implement an integrated approach from design to operation. This is part of an occasional series about views of land use and development issues from the ground up, where one can take time to consider the human-scale impacts of planning strategies and decisions.

Greenbuild 2012: @ Home in SF



Way back in in October of 1993, USGBC’s first board meeting was held at the AIA SF (and now also USGBC-NCC) offices at 130 Sutter Street, San Francisco . It has taken a few years, but it is great to see USGBC, all grown up and now living in Washington, come back home to California. We’re so proud….

Greenbuild is always a great experience, and Greenbuild 2012 will be the biggest and best show yet. Starting tomorrow, the Moscone Center will be packed with special Summits focusing on Building Codes,  Green Jobs, Legal, Residential and International issues, an astounding variety of educational sessions and over 700,000 square feet of exhibit space. There really is something for everyone interested in breathing clean indoor air, in kickstarting the emerging clean economy, in rehabbing schools and homes and workplaces worth spending time in…in short everyone.

From Path to Place

By Scott Watkins

The author mobilizes….

Commuting to work by bicycle or train is far more relaxing and enjoyable than wasting hours stuck in traffic. Soon “active commuting” — getting to work by walking or bicycling — will become safer and more convenient than driving by car, not to mention more affordable!

All across California, changes in street design and connectivity are imminent, with the coming implementation of the California Complete Streets Act (AB 1358 – 2008). For my immediate neighborhood, change cannot come soon enough.

Creating excellent bicycle and pedestrian policies has a profound impact on the built environment, and how our neighborhood, city and region’s citizenry interact with it. Increased access to transit and public space create connections with neighborhoods and neighbors. With superior bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and high-quality softscapes to increase comfort and usability, we can all live a healthier, more sustainable life.

In my neighborhood, the streets that connect my house and the train station are heavily auto-oriented with little room for bicycles or pedestrians to safely travel. So I ride along the Iron Horse trail, a former rail line converted to a multi-use trail, for the bulk of my commute by bicycle. Although the Iron Horse trail is well maintained, it seems underutilized given its proximity to housing, shopping areas, workplace centers and public transportation access points.

My main obstacle to a safe and convenient commute is the ride between my house and the trail. As with many neighborhoods on this segment of the trail, and likely the larger region, the roads that connect to trails to the neighborhoods lack adequate sidewalks, bicycle lanes, highly visible crosswalks, and pedestrian signals. All of these factors create a challenge to accessing the trails. California’s complete streets objectives and LEED-ND neighborhoods both provide solutions to this problem.

The segment of trails I commute on display excellent hardscape improvements that benefit the region as a whole (e.g., storm-water management systems promoting natural water filtration and soil recharge). But accommodating exercise enthusiasts, social walkers and commuters seems to have been an afterthought when designers repurposed the railroad corridor into today’s multi-use trail.

Bike Storage photo by Chip Allen

One way to transform a walking path into a popular community space is to create features and amenities that provide residents with places to socialize, interact with neighbors and build community in a context-sensitive approach. As bicycle and pedestrian experts start to think through what is included in an active place along multipurpose trails, the elements that have been flagged as essential (e.g., trail furniture, community gardens, hydration stations, continuous shade, outdoor dining) are being referred to as trailscaping.

The trailscaping approach, paired with other trail-oriented businesses such as bicycle repair stations or healthy food carts, provide a tremendous benefit to adjacent neighborhoods. The space becomes an inviting place for neighbors to assemble for longer periods of time. Additionally, trailscaping adds a measure of security by gathering eyes on the trails, discouraging crime and malicious activity, thus compounding the benefit to surrounding neighborhoods and neighbors.

It should come as no surprise that the large majority of towns and neighborhoods across the nation meet the requirements outlined in California’s complete streets legislation, with projects and plans that closely follow the LEED for Neighborhood Development checklist. In fact, LEED-ND includes standards for most of the major topics addressed in AB 1358, including transit access, more inviting and walkable streets, a connected and open community, bicycle networks, and parking. Needless to say, governments, engineers, designers, and builders who follow the LEED-ND model of development are well positioned to stay ahead of the curve of state policies.

By cultivating effective relationships between environments, activities, and users, multipurpose trails have the potential to become one of the most desirable transportation options available – not to mention a convenient place for neighbors to exercise or simply hang out.

Scott Watkins is Managing Partner of integrated green building consultancy Buildaberg and a ChangeLab Solutions (formerly Public Health Law & Policy) staff member. In addition to his role leading Emerging Green Professionals within USGBC NCC’s Diablo Canyon East Bay Branch, Scott is a licensed California General Contractor, a LEED AP, and previously enforced building code, permits and zoning regulation for the City of Alameda. In all his capacities, Scott works to identify practical green building techniques that implement an integrated approach from design to operation. This is the first of an occasional series about views of land use and development issues from the ground up, where one can take time to consider the human-scale impacts of planning strategies and decisions.


Into the Wild: Recognizing Value in the Unbuilt Environment

By Scott Watkins

Dotting our built environment with color, ascetic and life, our urban landscapes have long been designed to accent our buildings and cities. Ever since spotting a brood of ducklings paddling in the canal waterway on a recent walk along the Iron Horse Trail in San Francisco’s East Bay area, I have been reflecting on the relationship between urban wildlife and the built environment.

As our built environment continues to densify and expand, space occupied by urban wildlife will increase in importance and value.

Each species that makes up an urban ecosystem strikes a balance with the others. Devoid of any one species, an urban ecosystem becomes vulnerable to abnormal overpopulation, invasion of alien species or collapse.

LEED ND brilliantly preserves – and in some cases recreates – space for urban wildlife by requiring and/or rewarding the restoration and long-term preservation of urban wildlife habitats and water bodies. The sum of these elements creates a balanced, healthy, biodiverse urban ecosystem in perpetuity.

As designers, builders and specialists, we are in a unique position to aid urban wildlife and ensure that they have habitats in which to survive AND thrive.

Tomales Bay in Fog
Jack Sutton, wildbayarea.com

Of course, at the end of the day, we are also professionals who must pencil out our projects financially.

Historically, urban wildlife values have been difficult to substantiate in a financial sense. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of data and information on the positive economic impact of a healthy biodiverse urban ecosystem. But now there is a ray of hope.

The development of a global “green accounting system,” recently put forward by British Environmental Secretary Caroline Spelman at Rio +20 – the United Nations International Conference on Sustainability, places specific values on environmental assets, such as urban ecosystems.

By positioning ecosystem preservation in a universally established economic framework, we can begin to look at ecosystems in terms of assets rather than project complications.

Valuating ecosystems, and there assets – urban wildlife, is not a new development. Many approaches to ecosystem valuation have been developed such as the State of Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator.

My theory, which is somewhat backed up by Australia’s public policy response to ecosystem valuation, is that the UN’s green accounting initiative is taking a similar approach to ecosystems as California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, AB 32 (Cap & Trade) takes to emissions. In that – an institution is created or, in CARB’s case, repurposed to mimic the way markets determine valuation of an ecosystem.

Traditionally, ecosystems have been valued by “fair market” valuation based on estimating the economic returns to owners based on the goods and services that are sourced from the environmental assets ,e.g., the market value of timber, water or energy on private property.

What’s missing from this equation is the underlying ecosystem valuation; especially those of wildlife, replacement costs of natural vegetation and cultural significance. These elements of the ecosystem are difficult to determine in explicit market values, even though they might be highly valued by society.

My thinking is that the same way Cap & Trade seeks to cap emissions, a similar system – which may be what this is – could be created to cap sprawl and preserve ecosystems. Consequently, those developers who seek to build out will be required to secure development rights/permits from those who seek to build up.

If this is the case, LEED ND is well positioned.

Ecosystem valuation is a new and very complex filed. As the United Nations rolls out the process for both developed and undeveloped to measure their levels of wealth by the health of their natural resources, you can be sure that every project – regardless of size – will be touched by this still evolving trend.

If you’re interested in reading more about ecosystem valuation, check out The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity.

Walkers Up! A Stroll Through Our Unbuilt Environment

Scott Watkins is Managing Partner of integrated green building consultancy Buildaberg and a ChangeLab Solutions (formerly Public Health Law & Policy) staff member. In addition to his role leading Emerging Green Professionals within USGBC NCC’s Diablo Canyon East Bay Branch, Scott is a licensed California General Contractor, a LEED AP, and previously enforced building code, permits and zoning regulation for the City of Alameda. In all his capacities, Scott works to identify practical green building techniques that implement an integrated approach from design to operation. This is the first of an occasional series about views of land use and development issues from the ground up, where one can take time to consider the human-scale impacts of planning strategies and decisions.


As weekend motorists’ tire treads screech against the highway overpass, my decision to substitute traffic jams for a beautiful afternoon walk on Walnut Creek’s Iron Horse trail sounds better and better. During my journey, I saw wildlife, more people than expected and uses of public and private space ranging from creative to bleak.

Early on the trail, I witnessed a rare sight – five ducklings bathing in the gentle canal waterway, each one trying to out-paddle its siblings upstream. I wanted a closer peak at this example of nature. As I approached, mama duck ruffled her feathers authoritatively and sent me on my way.

“Walkers up!” warned the lead rider to her group of cycling enthusiasts as they coasted by in single file. “On your left!” signaled the next group of cyclists as they swept by, one on a well used coffee-colored cruiser. The trails were alive with activity.

A family gingerly scooted by, with dad leading the way – closely followed by his eldest daughter. Mom managed to keep the youngest child, zigzagging on training wheels, up to pace. A couple pushing a stroller side by side passed, engaged in deep conversation about their work week. Several other people walked or biked by, all taking advantage of the amazing resource of these safe, multiple-use trails.

Why haven’t I taken a walk down this trail sooner?, I wondered. Everyone seems so kind and in a good frame of mind. Smiles and pleasantries – “Hello, pleasant afternoon” – demonstrated true community.

An hour into my walk, I began looking for shelter from the afternoon sun, a bench to sit on or a water fountain to wet my beak. Benches dotted the trail, every ½ mile, so there was no problem finding a place to rest my feet. When I sat down, the bench seemed positioned smack dab in the sun. And “where is the drinking water?” I thought. After a short break and a growing thirst, I ventured on.

Over the next mile, this pattern of sun soaked benches and a lack of drinking water continued. Consequently, my focus switched from the welcoming people to the absent amenities.

While many conveniences were missing, there were ample bags and trash receptacles for dog walkers – a great thing, although it appeared at least one owner had ignored the instructions to pick up after their pet. I’ll confess that if there were as many amenities for people as there were for puppies, I would use the trails frequently as an alternate to my commute.

Observing a large number of people out walking and biking on my journey proved that a number of community members appreciate the safety and convenience of the trails. So what could fill the bleak hillsides, underutilized patches of open space along the trail covered by overgrown weeds, or absent amenities to make multiple-use trails inviting and livable for the entire community?

Existing laws and policies often prevent multiple-use trails and surrounding properties from being fully utilized, resulting in bureaucratic hurdles to change. Figuring out which government entity oversees the multiple-use trails and surrounding properties, determining current permitted uses and implementing more creative uses are all significant challenges.

Cities in the Bay Area, including Walnut Creek where I live, are making significant improvements in their zoning and building ordinances. A large percentage of Bay Area cities have included green building standards for new construction and existing commercial, residential and municipal buildings into their zoning code and building ordinances.  And a number of the sustainability-minded cities directly cite LEED certified buildings in their policies as a way to demonstrate they are truly striving for an improved quality of life for their community.

The time has come for LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) to take a similar position as a policy framework. I promise to explore specific policy solutions to these challenges in subsequent posts.