Zoning Code Commission has a full house

Previous coverage

Jan. 23


By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

Think of global warming and it’s likely you visualize the fume-spewing tailpipes of cars and trucks, or maybe the smokestacks of industry.

But you may as well visualize your house. As a full session of the city’s Zoning Code Commission learned on Wednesday, nearly half of all carbon emissions in the U.S. are produced in order to heat, cool and light buildings.

Homes, offices, hospitals and schools generate 700 million metric tons of carbon each year, compared with about 500 metric tons for transportation and 300 for industry, according to architects John Gibbons and Kiki Bolender of the AIA.

The upshot is simple: While the ZCC rewrites the city’s 1963 zoning code and untangles the bureaucratic knot slowing development, it can also strike a considerable blow against global warming.

Doing so will likely require broader compliance with the well-known LEED standards promulgated by the US Green Building Council, a point-system by which projects may be awarded development bonuses in exchange for sustainable use of water, energy, and building materials.

It may also require going further than LEED. Gibbons and Bolender detailed the AIA’s “Architecture 2030 Challenge,” which calls for all new buildings to be entirely “carbon neutral” – producing no net increase in carbon emissions – within 22 years.

A new building with zero emissions? One such “carbon neutral” project already in planning is the University of Pennsylvania’s eastward expansion. According to Bolender, the project’s emissions will be offset by a Penn fund to assist West Philadelphia homeowners improve the insulation of their homes. Use energy here, save it someplace else.

“If you believe that global warming is for real, then what we’ve done by taking these actions is avert a global catastrophe,” Bolender said.

Green Models

Models of green zoning can be found in Boston and Seattle.

Boston, which became the first city to require green building in its zoning code about 12 months ago, mandates that all projects over 50,000 square feet must be LEED certified. A system of “Boston Green Credits” rewards builders for recharging the groundwater, preserving historic structures, and generating green electricity on-site. There’s also a “modern mobility” credit  for providing occupants with secure indoor bike storage, subsidized transit passes, car share parking spaces, and on-site ATMs and dry cleaners to minimize car use for errands.  For condos, Boston urges developers to sell parking spaces separately to accommodate those who renounce the car.

In Seattle, all public buildings must meet LEED standards, and private developers that meet them receive bonuses in height and density. Like Boston, Seattle also employs a design review board, consisting of architects and other professionals, empowered to approve or reject new projects.

(A report on the prospects for design review in Philadelphia can be seen here.)

The idea struck a chord with new Zoning Board of Adjustment chair Susan Jaffe, who said she had three projects before the ZBA this week that could benefit from green review right now. Jaffe was one of six new ZCC members in attendance, all appointed last week by Mayor Nutter: Judith Eden, a zoning attorney and former ZBA member; Natalia Olson de Savyckyj, a transportation planner with DVRPC; Guillermo Salas, an economic development consultant; Sam Staten Jr., president of the Laborer International Union Local 332; and Daniella Voith, architect.

With the Nutter appointees, Wednesday’s meeting was the first time – after six months of work – that the ZCC arrived at what appears to be its final membership.

Beyond the building

Beyond the scale of individual buildings, smart zoning can cut carbon emissions by regulating the placement of buildings in the landscape.

Luckily, Philadelphia’s old age puts it ahead of the national curve. Our 19th century density avoids the waste of sprawling suburbs, where residents must burn fossil fuels to run errands because walking is impossible and mass transit inaccessible.

Nevertheless, Gibbons and Bolender argued even a dense city has room for improvement, laying out the AIA’s “Ten Principles for Livable Communities”:


 1. Design at a human scale
 2. Provide choices
 3. Encourage mixed-use development
 4. Preserve urban centers
 5. Vary transportation options
 6. Build vibrant public spaces
 7. Create a neighborhood identity
 8. Protect environmental resources
 9. Conserve landscapes
 10. Design matters

Perhaps cuing off number 4, new city council member Bill Green wondered aloud why density is something the city allows as a concession to developers. Along major streets, it might be something the city should require.

“It seems like density is an environmental measure in and of itself,” Green said. “Why is it always limited? Why not have a minimum? … We have failing community corridors all over the city because there are no people there.”

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