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sustainable seattle

Seattle: A Model City Taking Sustainability to the Next Level

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Aug 20, 2018

Making more sustainable improvements and retrofits to your own home not only makes your own home healthier, more comfortable, and more durable but also saves you money in the long run. Modifying our own home is one place where each person can make a difference.

However, the challenge of creating a sustainable world goes beyond the individual responsibility to modify the homes we live in. While international treaties and policy action on global warming are certainly important, most individuals have very little voice in how environmental law is negotiated and implemented. Where’s the middle ground? The communities in which we live.

In the Seattle area, there are several prime examples of communities coming together to make sustainability a central part of the homes they live in and the streets they share. Below, we look at three examples of communities in and around the Seattle area that make sustainability a collective effort.

The Living Community Challenge

The Living Community Challenge (LCC) is a program of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), which Rise profiled in this article. The LCC offers a framework for master planning, design, and construction in an attempt to foster a symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment that communities share. On a practical level, the LCC program is a call to action to governments, campuses, planners, developers, and neighborhood groups to create communities that are as connected and beautiful as a forest.

In downtown Seattle, the North Rainier Mount Baker Hub is one of the first communities in the country to voluntarily take on the Living Community Challenge. The community is committed to working towards a “net positive” future, meaning that as a neighborhood, they plan to produce more energy than they collectively use. The community will also continue to pursue zoning and design review changes with the local government that will support the inclusion of the green building components that they envision.

The residents also believe that their neighborhood can become a hub for sustainability and a place that attracts like-minded people looking for green jobs and job training, a more sustainable development paradigm, and green infrastructure that supports the development of businesses that are diverse in nature. Instead of becoming yet another suburb whose residents commute to the city center on a daily basis (creating a sizeable carbon footprint at the same time), the North Rainier Mount Baker Hub hopes to truly become a community where people can stay, work locally, and live sustainably.

According to Allison Capen, the Technical Director for the International Living Future Institute, “ILFI started with buildings. But if the public spaces and transportation systems don’t support sustainable living, it is an uphill climb to have a significant impact building by building, so we developed the Living Community Challenge.” She says, “The ideal scale for sustainable design varies depending on the type of solution being proposed. Once you have two buildings or more, a diversity of uses, and public realm (think of a multi-modal street—the space between buildings) you have graduated to the community scale.”

Allison goes on to explain that “communities have opportunities that individual owners don’t. They operate at a larger scale, set policies, have strong purchasing power, and can share risks and benefits across a larger realm, having more positive benefits for more people.” The North Rainier Mount Baker Hub is an example of a community that embodies these opportunities for sustainability shared by a group of like-minded neighbors. 

Grow Community on Bainbridge Island

A half-hour ferry ride from downtown Seattle will take you to Bainbridge Island, where Grow Community is established as a “One Planet” neighborhood. One Planet neighborhoods and communities are organized by BioRegional, a London-based organization that works with communities around the world to champion a better, more sustainable way to live and work.

The Grow Community on Bainbridge Island incorporates several distinct elements of sustainable design, including beautifully designed solar-powered homes, shared community gardens, and clean transportation options.

While most suburban neighborhood developers are focused on maximizing the amount “units” that can be fitted into a certain amount of space, Grow Community amazingly dedicates upwards of 60 percent of its land to shared gardens, woodland and orchard, and a broad green where neighbors can come together to socialize.

In terms of the sustainability criteria of the individual homes, all of the buildings meet the 5-star criteria of Built Green, a Seattle-based holistic green home certification program. All homes come with a solar panel system that pays for itself within a decade or so through energy savings. The community is actually the largest planned solar neighborhood in Washington State, with every single-family home and duplex in the Village powered by photovoltaics. They also incorporate some of the following sustainability aspects: energy-efficient building envelope with super-insulated walls and ceilings, energy-efficient windows, mini-split heat pumps, locally sourced and renewable building materials, extremely low-VOC materials for finishing the interior of the homes, and low flow water fixtures throughout the home.

Holiday Apartments

Sustainable home and community design is often considered to be a “luxury” that only the middle class and upwards can enjoy and invest in—but what about rental units? In the busy Capitol Hill Neighborhood of Seattle, Capitol Hill Housing recently built a modest, 30-unit apartment complex that is considered to be an affordable housing option for Seattle residents.

While the three-story apartment building at first doesn’t appear any different than any other apartment complex, this building boasts a powerful solar farm on its roof, making it one of the first affordable housing complexes that incorporate a solar power PV system. The 25 kilowatts (kW) system has a unique collaborative funding mechanism that allows people from across the city to participate in a community solar project.

If, for example, you live in another apartment complex that is shaded out by Seattle high rise apartments and skyscrapers—thus making solar power unfeasible—you can invest in the Holiday Apartment complex community solar program and still receive the financial incentives that come with supporting solar energy.

The North Rainier Mount Baker Hub, Grow Community on Bainbridge Island, and the Holiday Apartment complex all offer different examples of how communities in their diverse manifestations can make sustainability a community-inspired effort.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-10T05:59:00+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.