gb&d: You call yourself a “recovering litigator.” Tell me about your role with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Kaid Benfield: I’ve always had an idealistic streak, so I went to the NRDC after a decade in government and private practice. I spent my first 10–12 years there as a litigator working on protecting national forests and became interested in pursuing the solutions side of environmentalism. The environmental movement has become more sophisticated, thinking of pursuing good things rather than just stopping bad things, and my career followed that trajectory.
gb&d: Why was there a need for LEED for Neighborhood Development?
Benfield: We need to influence the shape of new development. In the last part of the 20th century, we sprawled out so much—we developed land twice as fast and increased traffic three times as fast as we grew in population—and all of this was to the great detriment of our social fabric, environment, and economy. We clearly needed to grow in a different way.
gb&d: You contribute regularly to the NRDC blog. What is the one-sentence takeaway you want to leave with readers?
Benfield: I’ve always hoped that they see a lot of humanity in what I write. I believe that people have to come first. If our solutions don’t work for people, they’re never going to work for the planet.
gb&d: What is the greatest obstacle to implementing green initiatives in urban America?
Benfield: I like to think in terms of opportunities and challenges. I think we’ve got a tremendous opportunity and challenge, simultaneously, because we’re going to have so much building in the next two or three decades. Real estate demographers predict that by 2040, half of the built environment will be buildings that don’t exist today. We’ll be building to accommodate new populations and replace older developments, particularly suburban commercial developments that don’t have long lives. As a result, we have a chance to really get it right. I’m pretty optimistic. I think one of our challenges to having good, healthy urban environments is making sure that they benefit all of our citizens equally. It can’t be just green; [it has to be] affordable.
gb&d: You’ve lived in Washington, DC, for many years. How does it stand out as a sustainable city?
Benfield: We had terrific leadership in DC under (former planning director) Harriet Tregoning. She was a believer in sustainability, growing the right way, and green living. And she had good leadership qualities. Her tenure really helped turn DC into a city that became interested in sustainability. I don’t know that 20 years ago I would have said that DC is a leader for sustainability, but in the last 10, it has been.
gb&d: Do you think the Sustainable DC Plan, DC’s first set of long-term targets for a greener, healthier city, sets obtainable goals?
Benfield: It’s a 20-year plan, and it’s only in its first few years of implementation. I don’t know that they’ll all be obtained—they’re set very high. They’re idealistic by design. But in every instance, they go in the right direction. They bring unity to the city government, and with the citizenry, in thinking about these issues. It’s a really good plan that sets a very good direction. If we met those goals halfway, we’d be doing a lot to improve the city for generations to come.
MORE ON WASHINGTON DC
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