Green Cities: How LEED Certifications Could Help Safeguard a Sustainable Urban Future 

In January 2023, Boston University presented the grand opening of their newly constructed Center for Computing & Data Sciences building. The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 19-story building was attended by the likes of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, drawing plenty of attention across the city. For good reason at that, with the building being completely fossil fuel emission-free and holding the title of one of the most sustainable buildings in New England. 

Part of the building’s claim to being “BU’s greenest building ever” according to the school, comes with its LEED Platinum Certification. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a rating system that uses energy and sustainability qualifications to measure and determine the building’s environmental impact. The “platinum” certification is a testament to the Center for Computing & Data Sciences’ grandiosity, with LEED ratings ranging from bronze certification at the lowest level, to silver, to gold, and to platinum at the highest level.

The LEED certification system was created and is evaluated by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), who started the program in 1989. In judging a building, whether it’s residential or commercial, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), a part of the USGBC, utilizes a complex list of standards to assign “points” to different categories of environmental sustainability. Those categories include: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. 

Points are assigned based on whether a building is meeting certain criteria that leads to a total number of points added up across the categories. Buildings can be awarded up to 110 points total, with different ranges of points being the aforementioned different levels of LEED certificates. The total points range as follows: 

40 – 49 Points – Bronze Certification 

50 – 59 Points – Silver Certification 

60 – 70 Points – Gold Certification 

80+ Points – Platinum Certification

For context, there are over 100,000 LEED certified buildings across the world, and roughly 3,800 of those are platinum certified buildings as of 2020. 

LEED certification has proven to be an effective measure of how sustainable a building is, with the evaluation process being holistically complex and considering a number of factors across categories of environmental health impact. Meeting the qualifications to earn LEED certification means the building is successful in diminishing its negative impact on not only the environment’s health, but human health as well. 

One clear impact is a notable reduction in greenhouse gasses emitted by LEED certified buildings. A 2014 study done by researchers at UC Berkeley found that LEED certified buildings had 50% less greenhouse gas emissions from water use and 48% less greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste than non-certified buildings. LEED’s criteria heavily rewards these emissions reductions, which not only play a crucial role in global climate change, but also have negative impacts on human health through air pollution. 

Beyond greenhouse gas reduction, LEED guidelines encourage the protection of water resources, renewable energy usage, minimized impact on biodiversity and ecological systems, impact on community, and more. While it is clear that LEED certified buildings address a number of environmental concerns, selling it to construction companies and developers that must meet those standards to earn a certification becomes the challenging part. On average, sustainable materials and processes are more expensive than unsustainable resources, which are cheaper to produce. On top of the expense difference, there are fees and costs associated with applying for the LEED certification itself. 

So why should developers and construction companies pay for those price differences? While there may not be an inherent immediate gain, the prospect of sustainable cities is a necessity for a sustainable future, regardless of the cost. The current rate in which human society, especially in urban settings, is consuming resources and emitting pollutants is no longer a viable option if humans plan to keep existing on this planet. While some factors are not controllable or manageable, how we develop urban environments is something that can be determined by acting intentionally. 

LEED certification provides guidelines that can be and have already been successfully implemented in countries across the globe. By utilizing LEED certifications as a universal standard rather than an exception, government officials and urban developers can change the definition of what a “city” can be. Urbanization has been increasing year by year, with the World Bank predicting that by 2050, seven out of every ten people in the world will live in a city. Revolutionizing how humans approach cities must start somewhere, and changing our approach to the expansion of urban environments should be the starting point. If not, society will continue to bury future generations with the problems we refuse to acknowledge.


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