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Sustainable networks: Why collaboration is critical

Just like the Earth’s ecosystem, our global society is a complex system of interconnected functions. No single organization or entity can hope to manage them all. That’s why cooperation between organizations is essential, especially when it comes to sustainability. A network of civic and industry leaders and experts all working together to share knowledge and resources is key to shaping sustainable places and communities.

Some leaders working to bolster that network are Clare de Briere, EVP and Regional Manager, Skanska USA Commercial Development, and Executive Committee Chair at Urban Land Institute Americas; Cristina Gamboa, CEO at the World Green Building Council; and Sylvester Turner, Mayor of Houston. The partnerships they’re cultivating reveal the exciting possibilities that arise when we all work together.


Collaborating through shared knowledge

When it comes to solving the problems facing urban sustainability, information is power. Sharing development best practices brings more voices into the discussion about the cities we want for the future. 


Clare de Briere is trying to cultivate exactly that kind of knowledge-sharing through Greenprint, an initiative of the Urban Land Institute. Greenprint is a global network of real estate owners, investors and partners, coming together to create a more sustainable built environment. Information is the foundational element of their work. By measuring the carbon impact of various construction materials, energy infrastructure and development practices, Greenprint has spent the past decade gathering data that helps identify the most effective approaches to urban sustainability.


The Urban Land Institute then shares its data with industry partners around the world, like the World Green Building Council and the Rocky Mountain Institute. This collaboration assists these groups in their work developing standards for sustainable development that can guide municipalities and real estate developers in their local city projects.


Los Angeles, for example, created a net-zero policy with the advice of Greenprint partners, with organizations like the ULI helping LA city leaders shape specific emission goals as well as best practices that would help the city achieve them. This collaboration between private and public partners is essential to effective sustainable development. When industry experts can reinforce a sustainability plan with meaningful data, city leaders can confidently enforce policies and provide resources that allow for that plan’s implementation.


Greenprint’s approach doesn’t just support current sustainability workers, however, but also paves the way for future leaders. UrbanPlan is an initiative that targets high school and college students, often in the very city centers most affected by carbon emissions. The same information that guides projects like LA’s net-zero policy is used to create an education curriculum that provides opportunities for students to begin their own journey toward urban sustainability. Sustainability is, after all, about equipping future generations to continue the work of making built environments safe and healthy for the climate and for people.


Learning through example

Not all knowledge-sharing has to be focused on future innovation and novel sustainability projects. Sometimes the best way to tackle carbon emissions is to learn from past projects that have proven themselves successful.


This is one approach that Mayor Sylvester Turner has taken in reducing Houston’s carbon emissions and shaping a more sustainable city. One of Houston’s premiere sustainability projects, Sunnyside solar farm, was an adaptation of a similar project undertaken in Massachusetts years earlier. The Massachusetts solar farm was discussed at the US Conference of Mayors, where city leaders from around the country meet to share ideas. Mayor Turner took the concept of a solar farm built on a former landfill and adapted it to successfully implement it in Houston.


For Mayor Turner, that’s exactly the point of such a conference. Sometimes, the best education comes through practical experience. By seeing firsthand the success or failure of various sustainability initiatives, city leaders can take the broad strokes of an idea and tailor it to meet their city’s unique needs.


This sort of collaboration depends on an ecosystem of relationships between private and public industry leaders willing to work together. To help strengthen that ecosystem, Mayor Turner and the Resilient Cities Network implemented a development scorecard called “RIDE,” which helps incentivize private investment in city projects, like Houston’s Sunnyside solar farm. This not only makes it easier to develop city-specific initiatives but also encourages these sometimes disparate entities – private and public – to work together toward a common sustainability goal.


This approach of joint financing and project adaptation is built on Mayor Turner’s foundational philosophy of sustainability: relationships matter.


Holistic sustainability

Although real estate development plays a significant role in decarbonization, sustainability encompasses far more than physical, built structures. Because of this, collaborators outside of the real estate industry have to be included in the relational ecosystem of sustainability.


Those relationships are exactly the ones that CEO Cristina Gamboa is seeking to cultivate at the World Green Building Council. The WGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment not only outlines the need for sustainable construction itself, but also the need for systemic change to real estate development more broadly, including in its approach to finance and people.


The signatories of this commitment – which include 136 businesses and 29 cities – are diverse in their industries and available resources. By providing shared access to the combined knowledge of this organizational network, cities and developers can tap into information and resources that allow them to, for example, retrofit older buildings to be more energy efficient, or secure financing for new projects through green loans.


The diversity of the signatories is meant to promote a people-focused sustainability mindset. The Better Places for People program, a WGBC initiative, seeks to use the built environment as a tool to promote better physical and social health in cities. It’s a holistic approach to sustainability that recognizes the interconnectedness of the built environment and the people that occupy it, including their social, emotional and physical well-being.


Circularity is another part of this holistic vision, utilizing existing infrastructure to contribute to future sustainability, rather than simply viewing old construction as future waste. Qatar’s football World Cup stadiums, for example, were designed to be disassembled or repurposed after the tournament was over. Recycling old resources, even whole buildings, reduces waste and its associated emissions and health hazards.


Upholding these three sustainability pillars – decarbonization, health and circularity – requires a diverse network of industry leaders, specializing in their own fields and building relationships based on knowledge-sharing and sustainability collaboration.


Relationships breed success

The journey towards decarbonization and holistic sustainability requires an overhaul of our historic approach to urban development. The interconnected pieces that make communities function are extraordinarily complex, and managing them sustainably requires an equally complex network of connections between leaders around the world. By forging those connections between diverse individuals and organizations in both public and private industry, success in future sustainability becomes not only possible but a natural product of a powerful ecosystem of relationships.


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