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Growth, The Environment & Human Health

green house made of foliage in the grass with blue sky and clouds in the background

From the function and design of suburbs to building size within cities and which types of fuel we rely on, the decisions we make today will represent our realities in the coming decades.

The City of Bellingham became more actively invested in measures to create a green community when it joined the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. In 2007, the City Council released a Climate Protection Action Plan that established goals to reduce our climate pollution in compliance with the international community in the Kyoto Protocol by 2020. The City updated this plan in 2018 to meet new targets for 2030 and 2050.

In our new 20-year Comprehensive Planning cycle, as we look towards the population growth that Bellingham anticipates by 2045, it’s important to consider factors that can help our community develop in an environmentally sustainable way that keeps us near our targets. As we know, eco-conscience development practices are not just good for the natural world, they are also beneficial to the short and long-term health of Bellingham’s residents.

What is a Green Community?

Green communities, sustainable communities, environmentally responsible communities — there are many terms to describe places that are built with an eco-friendly mindset, and they come in as many forms. An article from The Atlantic does a good job of summarizing what an environmentally responsible community might (ideally) look like:

At the Natural Resource Defense Council], we use the phrase to describe places where per capita use of resources and per capita emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are going down, not up; where the air and waterways are accessible and clean; where land is used efficiently, and shared parks and public spaces are plentiful and easily visited; where people of different ages, income levels, and cultural backgrounds share environmental, social, and cultural benefits equally; where many needs of daily life can be met within a 20-minute walk, and all may be met within a 20-minute transit ride; where industry and economic opportunity emphasize healthy, environmentally sound practices.

In short, green communities are located, built and sustained in a way that doesn’t compromise the future of the environment for the sake of the present. These communities are close to necessary services, and adopt green infrastructure strategies that integrate new technologies and systems to reduce carbon emissions. It may sound like a complex process, but developing green communities has never been more convenient or accessible.

How Are Green Communities Different?

Bellingham is growing, and to support that growth, we will need to build roughly 825 new homes every year. New construction has environmental consequences, but we can mitigate the impact and implement a more sustainable approach to growth by applying green building methods.

A key component of green building is to create neighborhoods that are energy efficient. The EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, founded in 1992, has helped American homeowners and businesses:

Save 5 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Avoid more than $500 billion in energy costs.

Achieve 4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions.

Under the ENERGY STAR New Residential Construction Program, homes are 10% more efficient than homes built to code. Builders follow strict requirements to ensure the building has a complete thermal enclosure system. Insulation, air sealing and high-performance windows help reduce utility bills. Homes require high-efficiency heating and cooling systems that improve indoor air quality and control moisture. Homeowners and renters are protected by the complete water management protocols that protect the foundation, interior and roof from potential water damage and indoor air quality issues that can be caused by mold and mildew.

The program is so rigorous that builders even take precautions before construction begins by storing materials in dry areas to prevent mold growth and rotting. The final ENERGY STAR requirement for new residential construction is to install energy-efficient lighting and appliances. These products are rated for their quality and lower energy/materials consumption. The durability of these products increase their longevity and help minimize landfill waste.

In addition to the ENERGY STAR program, LEED for Homes®, LEED for Neighborhood Development®, and Built Green® standards implement a more holistic system that focuses on developing buildings and communities that meet ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) goals resulting in safer, healthier and more equitable communities. LEED system goals:

1. Reduce contributions to global climate change

2. Enhance individual human health

3. Protect and restore water resources

4. Protect and enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services

5. Promote sustainable and regenerative material cycles

6. Enhance community quality of life

LEED and Built Green-certified buildings undergo review and verification processes at each phase of the build to ensure all prerequisites are met. In Whatcom County, Built-Green and LEED inspectors are difficult to come by although builders can still implement these practices in an effort to produce healthier homes and communities. Projects that apply these methods without certifications can be referred to as “green built.”

The Health Benefits of Green Built Homes

A wide adoption of green building measures means the reduction of hazardous chemicals contained in certain types of insulation and the use of low or zero VOC paints, finishes and carpets for improved interior air quality. Studies have shown that children living in green public housing had fewer asthma attacks and sick days than those living in what are referred to as “sick buildings.”

Adopting green built, energy-efficient methods for homes can have an impact beyond just creating a healthier environment. One study found that by taking a balanced approach to reach net zero greenhouse gases we may be able to extend our lifespan. The study is the first of its kind —it looks at the populations living in England and Wales and examines a variety of measures residents can take including retrofitting homes, adopting renewable energy, exchanging automobile usage for active transport and eating a diet richer in plant-based foods. The model the researchers applied found that the accumulation of these actions can significantly extend the life of our population.

Another study from Northwestern found that having more green spaces where we live can slow biological aging, and that “people who live near green spaces were 2.5 years younger biologically.” This shows that our community and environment have a tremendous impact on our physical health, so much so that the effects can be seen on a molecular level.

The health benefits of living in environmentally-minded communities are not only physical. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns revealed how access to green spaces helped mitigate mental health decline in the United Kingdom, and another study in Helsinki, Finland found that regularly visiting green or aquatic spaces can reduce the need for prescription drugs.

Green Built Homes = Healthier Communities and a Healthier Environment

Many people living in Bellingham can tell you about the emotional and physical benefits of spending a day in the bay, in the mountains, or in one of our many parks. Bellingham’s natural outdoor playground is one of the reasons people choose to move here.

Another is the emphasis the community places on sustainable living, from the Green Home Tours & Talks presented by Sustainable Connections to the Whatcom Housing Alliance that is committed to creating opportunities for diverse housing choices to build more “equitable, prosperous, healthy and vibrant communities for everyone.” Bellingham is a hive of innovative thinking when it comes to how we marry human health, environmental sustainability and growth.

So, it’s no surprise that Bellingham is home to one of the largest green-built solar communities in Washington State, Larrabee Springs. For this solar community, energy efficiency and healthy living are paramount. The team behind Larrabee Springs created a formula that has, so far, successfully built over 400 green-built (some Built Green), ENERGY STAR certified solar homes that are affordable to a wide range of incomes. Understanding the connection between human health and a healthy environment, the walkable community is home to shared open spaces like parks, trails, and a community garden. More so, environmental stewardship practices have been central in the development of the community. The visionaries have invested in integrating the community into the existing environment by undertaking large wetland restoration and creation projects which preserve and enhance the natural ecosystems.

The use of local contractors and building materials, as well as appliances sourced from local businesses, minimizes the carbon footprint of development and keeps dollars circulating within the local economy. This formula for healthier homes and a healthier environment, has been applied year-over-year since 2014, resulting in a strong sense of community spirit that values eco-conscious living.

Because of the interdependency between the environment, housing, and human health, we’re on the precipice of a green-built placemaking opportunity that residents invested in sustainability can rally around. With a demand for 16,501 new homes over the next 20 years, the Larrabee Springs green-built model of development is a model that our community may want to embrace if we want Bellingham to further its climate action goals as we grow.

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 the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.



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

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