Volume 29
Issue 4
Summer '17

Animating Performance Zoning at Sustainability’s Competitive Edge

Written By: Michael N. Widener


This Article argues that economic competitiveness compels cities and towns to reimagine their zoning codes by incorporating technological advances into land planning and to implement resource sustainability1 in commercial real estate development. The U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (Twenty-first session) near Paris hosted a program, “Buildings Day at COP21” on December 3, 2015, advancing this thesis. Buildings Day’s themes included the proposition that improving building operating efficiency is instrumental in reducing global energy demand and emissions.2

This Article asserts that the optimal means to accomplish this “decarbonization” of the built environment at the local government level is to adopt a performance zoning platform—a type of American land use regulation with origins in the mid-20th Century but widely overlooked since the late 1980s. Such a platform facilitates engineering resolutions to problems accompanying increased urban core density in transit-oriented and other intensely occupied districts. Its re-introduction is desirable because performance zoning will better address negative land use externalities than conventional Euclidean zoning, as will be explained below. This Article argues that the imperative of community competitiveness, optimized when millennial-managed enterprises occupy and manage resource sustainability-focused urban developments, is animated best through performance zoning codes.

This Article proceeds in Part II by exploring how performance zoning induces municipal sustainability gains by reviewing land use tenets of community competitiveness while also incentivizing private developers to leverage sustainability in order to increase profitability and institutional reputations. Next, in Part III, it reviews community competitiveness in the frame of sustainability, and in Part IV it describes the millennial generation’s consciousness of sustainability’s benefits and the modern worker’s facility with sustainability technologies. In Part V, the Article identifies technology drivers of energy savings and other sustainability tools readily accessible to millennial professionals and suitable for incorporation into commercial projects, thus propelling interest in environmentally-advanced building performance in competitive cities. The final two parts inform readers of how technological innovation in design tools and monitoring systems enables the development community, together with local spatial regulators, to expand forthcoming urban projects’ sustainability features and systems employing environmentally sound, flexible spatial regulations. Finally, this Article argues that a new era of heightened sustainability consciousness, embodied in performance zoning codes, will improve quality of life and spur democratization of local governance for both the millennial “pilots” of environmental awareness and citizens alike.

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1. I use the term “natural resource sustainability” in this paper to distinguish it from other “definitions” of an overused and badly-understood term sometimes addressing efficiency but nurturing our planet at others. See, e.g., Joseph Schumpeter, A New Green Wave, ECONOMIST (Aug. 30, 2014), http://www.economist.com/news/
business/21614152-few-pioneering-businesses-are-developing-sustainability-policies-worthy-name-new (“Sustainability can refer to anything from building wind farms to combating social inequality . . .”).

2. See, e.g., Andrew Steer & Naoko Ishii, Sustainable Cities and Buildings at COP21: Delivering Our Future Today, 58 URBAN CLIMATE NEWS 3 (Dec. 2015) (Building Efficiency Accelerator will engage cities on policy implementation issues and the tracking and monitoring of building efficiency, including benchmarking and disclosure of such efficiency); Tony Liou, International Spotlight on Buildings at Paris Climate Talks, GLOBEST (Dec. 21, 2015), http://www.globest.com/blogs/buildingsciences/energy/Builing-energy-efficiency-at-COP21-364525-1.html. Certain results of that program are discussed further in the text accompanying infra notes 150–51.