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Changing the Way We Develop

hands holding up a house made from green moss against a blue sky

By now, we all understand that housing is a critical need, both on a national and local level. Building production rates have simply not kept pace with the demand, and there are an estimated 832 unhoused people on any given night in Whatcom County according to the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2022 Annual Report. While the housing crisis is very much an urgent matter, protecting and maintaining a sustainable environment remains paramount.

It may seem like these two issues are at odds, but they don’t have to be. There are ways to build thoughtfully and with the environment in mind. In fact, sustainability has far surpassed being a “trend” — it’s something that people rightfully expect in every aspect of their lives, including in their homes. This article explores why it’s important to consider the environment when it comes to development, and what is already being done in regard to sustainable housing in Bellingham and larger Whatcom County.

Two Crises, One Solution

Climate change and the housing crisis are exceptionally complex, nuanced matters. Humans and communities need homes, but they also need environmental quality. Thus, solving one crisis should not come at the expense of the other. There can (and must!) be a balance between housing development and environmentally conscious decisions.

An article in NewScientist addresses this duality well: “We’re beginning to understand just how vital access to natural space is for our mental well-being – with implications for how we design cities worldwide.” In Bellingham, we especially understand just how much the surrounding area and nature impact our way of life. The article goes on to assert:

“The evidence of positive effects from nature includes studies on specific psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and mood disorder. Access to nature has also been found to improve sleep and reduce stress, increase happiness and reduce negative emotions, promote positive social interactions and even help generate a sense of meaning to life.”

The environmental impact on human well-being is also a key consideration for investors and future homeowners. According to an article in Forbes that references findings from the National Association of Homebuilders, “homebuyers want — and will pay more for — sustainable features like energy-efficient appliances, windows and the like, alongside features that ensure better air quality. As younger generations are expected to enter the home-buying market, this socially conscious group is looking for green features and sustainability that is built in.”

As is true with most things in life, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Completely renovating major urban sites like New York City to be hyper-sustainable and green is not realistic, at least in the immediate future. But what we can do today is plan thoughtfully and widely integrate green building practices that are both healthier for humans and the environment as we develop more housing to accommodate future generations.

Revamping the Way We Develop

Mindful development has been underway for over a decade in Bellingham and Whatcom County. In fact, the largest (privately managed) wetland creation and enhancement project in the area is located in Larrabee Springs, one of the largest green-built, solar communities in the state of Washington. Currently, more than 23 acres of habitat including wetland areas, buffers, and stream corridors have been restored as the community has evolved. Producing green built homes while restoring and protecting the surrounding ecosystems demonstrates how harmony can be created between development and the environment.

This wetland restoration project is particularly important because wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, and are even comparable to rainforests and coral reefs. Part of the restoration project included planting over 30,000 native trees, shrubs, and grasses to welcome back numerous species of fish, birds, and mammals.

A large portion of carbon emissions come from the real estate sector, and of those, 70% come from the actual construction process. But with thoughtful planning, builders can reduce the carbon footprint of their projects by implementing practices like buying and sourcing local supplies, hiring local contractors, using energy-efficient materials, integrating drought-tolerant landscapes, and more. At the same time, planners and engineers can be assessing the natural environment and implementing protections as the development is integrated into the land.

A Brighter Future Ahead

It’s not just how we build, but where we build. While some conflate greenfield development with sprawl, it’s important to note, they’re two different things. Sprawl is an unplanned or poorly planned problematic expanse into undeveloped areas that strains resources and disrupts ecosystems.

Greenfield development, on the other hand, is a thoughtful approach to urbanization that prioritizes sustainable living in areas near the urban core. This sort of development can help planners design sustainable communities that are environmentally conscious, socially responsible and economically beneficial to the community— preserving farmland and local ecosystems.

Affordable, sustainable living is in demand, both for the greater good and for practical reasons such as energy bills and future-proofing property value. Adopting an environmentally-conscious approach to development can result in smaller carbon footprints, sounder environmental practices, stronger local economies, and healthier communities— because when thoughtfully planned, growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment.

ABOUT— Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When we understand land use planning processes, we can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in our community.



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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