Green Homes and Neighbourhoods: Not Just for the Wealthy

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog.

In a study out of Seattle, researchers have claimed that rates of childhood obesity are linked to access to healthy food, proximity of playgrounds, and the walkability of a neighbourhood. The results hold true when controlling for the weight of the parents, and demographic factors; that is, regardless of level of education, income, or health of the parents, children in these neighbourhoods are still less likely to be obese. At the same time, a new study by the Canadian National Research Council (NRC) shows that green buildings score higher not only on quantitative measurements like energy efficiency, but also mood, night-time sleep quality, and overall satisfaction.

At first glance, this is all nothing but good news. When talking about green cities and communities, sometimes health and quality of life benefits get forgotten in favour of energy savings and efficiency. However a modern, low-carbon, green city is inherently healthy: with improved pedestrian infrastructure and public transportation, there is more incentive to walk or bicycle; with greater access to local, healthy food, there is less reliance on convenience food; and with high-density living, there may be a stronger focus on community involvement. All of this suggests that savings are not just to be had in terms of energy, but also public health and social capital.

The problem arises if we get stuck in a feedback loop. While it has been shown that green buildings are not necessarily more expensive than conventional builds, this may not hold true for rents. Increased rents, despite the promise of lower energy costs, can deter lower income families and small businesses from moving into a certified green building. If lower-income families are therefore locked out of green neighbourhoods by such market forces, they will be prevented from enjoying the same health and well-being benefits that are increasingly becoming associated with such developments. Given the already clear inverse relationship between poverty and health – high income does not guarantee good health, but low income almost always equates to poor health – this should be worrying. Is the new trend of building green perpetuating health and income inequality?

To ensure this does not become the case, there are already a number of programs in place to encourage the construction of affordable green homes:

These kinds of programs are a necessary first step in ensuring that green buildings are not a premium product. We are a long way from green buildings becoming normal, as existing building stock in Canada is likely to last for another generation before being replaced with modern, energy efficient buildings. However we can already try to ensure that any efforts to increase affordability are aligned with efforts aimed at increasing energy efficiency. This can be as simple as innovative design or as complex as changing codes and standards. Whatever the strategy may be, ensuring that low-income families enjoy the same benefits of green homes as all other Canadians will make Canada a healthier, and therefore more economically productive, country to live in.

(Feature photo courtesy of Mikael Colville-Andersen/Flickr)