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What Is A Green Community?

Growing Green Communities

A "Green Community" is an intentional approach to growth that strives to protect natural drainage of the land and the streams within a watershed. As communities continue to develop in Iowa, Growing Green Communities is committed to creating a "recipe" of what a green community would include.

The following seven principles are included in our definition of a green community.
water management
green infrastructure
natural landscapes
appropriate transportation networks
livable communities
community character
local economic health

I.  Water Management

The first component of a green community is the way water is managed.  Stormwater is handled as a resource instead of a waste product by retaining as much stormwater as possible on site and within the absorption capacity of the natural landscape.  The goal is not to send stormwater to the nearest body of water as quickly as possible; instead water is allowed to permeate the ground where it falls and filter cleanly into the water table.

This is achieved by reducing the amount of impervious surface in our communities.  The width of streets is determined by traffic flow, and permeable paving techniques such as stone and concrete blocks are used in place of solid concrete or asphalt.  A ratio of parking spaces to square footage in the building served is recommended, not a one-size-fits-all standard.  Also, vegetated landscaping is encouraged around parking bays and the perimeter of the parking lot, as well as one tree per 25 linear feet of parking frontage.  Bioswales and other measures should be used to naturally filter and convey stormwater.

A green community should establish design standards that call for natural drainage and stormwater treatment features such as rain gardens, bioswales, filter strips, and constructed wetlands.  In addition, naturally occurring drainage features such as drainage swales and deep-rooted hydrophilic native prairie plants to absorb and filter stormwater before it leaves the development area.

Finally, natural water resources such as wetlands, rivers, lakes, and 100 year flood plains should be protected, and development limited to agriculture, public and private parks, passive recreation, and yard areas.  Buffer zones enforced through zoning ordinances or overlay districts should prevent other development within 100 feet of protected water resources.

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II.  Green Infrastructure

A planning and policy initiative should take place to discuss strategies for building a green community.  This process should:

1.   Actively involve local officials, staff, and the public in the green infrastructure visioning and planning process.

2.  Prioritize green infrastructure protection as a primary public and private investment as well as incorporating green infrastructure into community plans, policies, and ordinances.

3.   Identify green spaces, sensitive landscape elements, natural areas, waterways, wetlands, and other landscape elements important to the community.  These features may be incorporated into a natural areas overlay district that establishes allowable uses and standards for these areas.

4.   Establish by purchase and/or regulatory requirement a set of protective buffers around each of the features mentioned above wide enough to provide adequate protection (100 feet for water features and natural areas).

5.   When new development is proposed, first study the green infrastructure needs and sensitive features of the area. Once the green infrastructure has been identified and set aside, construct developments on remaining land for minimal interference.

It is also a priority to manage and restore natural areas and processes.  Areas designated as natural areas should be entirely composed of native landscapes; areas designated as open space should be naturally landscaped or restored to the greatest extent possible while retaining space for other designated uses.  Green spaces should be linked, networked, and incorporated into a regional green infrastructure, trail, and natural area plan.

Open spaces should be interconnected networks enveloping each individual sub-development to create a sense of community rather than dividing and isolating residents.  A program designed to encourage donations from residents should be implemented, as well as a tax incentive to landowners willing to keep a portion of their property natural and undeveloped.  Land owners could also donate portions of their property to conservation easements to ensure its protection perpetually.

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III.  Natural Landscapes

Local policies and city ordinances should be amended to protect and encourage the use of natural landscaping through sustainable growth and native vegetation.  Zoning, subdivision, and building codes should require sustainable site designs and natural landscaping, and municipal and public locations should serve as models for green development.  Builders, developers, and homeowners should be encouraged to use the following green site selection for development.

1.   Select sites that maximize access to public transportation, schools, employers, parks, libraries, shopping areas, and community services, that use existing infrastructure, and that reuse existing built sites and structures.

2.   Use natural site features (landforms, vegetation, sun angles), building orientation, and landscaping to provide shade during summer, maximize solar heating during the winter, and use natural daylighting for light needs.

3.   Protect sensitive landscape elements including stream corridors, wetlands, shorelines and floodplains; aquifer recharge areas; steep slopes; wildlife habitat, prairies, trees, woodlands, and other natural vegetation; and historic, archaeological, and cultural features.  Techniques include conservation easements (protective measures attached to a land deed or title), regulation, overlays, and buffer zones.  Protected areas should be specifically shown on construction plans. 

4.   Minimize clearing, grading, and other site disturbances, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, and control erosion and sedimentation during site preparation and construction using techniques such as temporary and permanent seeding, mulching, earth dikes, silt fencing, sediment traps, and sediment basins.

5.   Use cluster or conservation development techniques for multiple building sites in order to reduce the amount of land consumed for development. Locate new buildings close to the existing developed areas to minimize sprawl.

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IV.  Appropriate Transportation Networks

Railways, roadways, trails, and walkways should serve both transportation and recreational needs.  Neighborhood and community design should be based on an integrated network of roads and other transportation pathways to provide multiple routes for circulation, as opposed to conventional subdivision that relies on one or a few access points to major roads, resulting in concentrations of traffic and congestion.

An interconnected network of streets has been shown to provide drivers more travel options, thus reducing roadway congestion on nearby major roadways. Additionally, this type of design is more pedestrian and bicycle friendly as it allows for more direct paths from place to place.  All new developments should have a bicycle and pedestrian trail plan to connect to a regional trail system.

New homes and businesses should be convenient to schools, parks, and shops.  Streets should be designed with pedestrians in mind; with better visibility and more frequent crosswalks with longer walk signs.

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V.  Livable Communities

Residential areas should be mixed with commercial areas to provide convenient access to schools, shops, services, and recreation, and with appropriate transportation alternatives.  Zoning codes should be revised to allow developers more flexible, integrated designs. Allow for mixed uses within buildings, such as residential units above street-level retail units, to provide a regular customer base, place more 'watchful eyes' on the street, and extend business hours into the evening.

Allow flexible zoning districts where building use can vary between commercial, residential, and business uses according to market demand. Allow owners and occupants flexibility to determine appropriate uses for their buildings.  Also allow flexible zoning for transition areas between residential and commercial districts that can incorporate both uses.

Avoid incompatible uses such as warehouse retailers, large home improvement stores, auto dealerships, and drive through franchises within the central commercial district.  Update zoning and building codes to encourage downtown, mixed-use shopping districts rather than strip-mall developments in fringe areas. These developments compete with and often drain town centers and do not provide the same aesthetic and economic benefits.

Create active, inviting, and comfortable public spaces and destinations that entice people to stop, explore, and take care of daily activities. The unique feel and appearance of a community is essential to its success.  Work with businesses to install sidewalk amenities such as seating, shade, water fountains, food and coffee carts, display tables, weather protection, trash receptacles, and a focal point such as a fountain or public art piece. 

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VI.  Community Character

Develop community design guidelines, codes, and ordinances to protect and enhance character, aesthetics, historic features, and architectural harmony.  Identify areas of architectural or natural significance, appealing public spaces, and areas that require aesthetic improvements. Involve residents and professionals in efforts to develop guidelines for buildings and exterior spaces by holding community design workshops. Engage city and village planners, landscape architects, historic preservationists, developers, and architects to deliver presentations on how your community can adopt good design principles.

Develop downtown and historic zoning districts that specify desired design elements, such as lighting, seating, and landscaping, for areas with historic significance and existing distinctive character.  Protect natural landscape elements, topography, and views and vistas throughout the corridor, especially as perceived from roads and other public spaces.

Protect elements such as green space, neighborhood trees (especially stately or specimen trees), scenic and rustic roads, farmsteads, and forested areas, which provide a distinct and unique community sense of place.  Protect sight lines, viewsheds, vistas, scenic views, and scenic corridors through ordinances and special designation.

Use pedestrian-friendly designs and include sidewalk cafes, parks, plazas, and corner shops.  Locate parking areas and garages behind rather than in front of homes and businesses.  Cooperate with the local art community to develop public "touchable" art projects for parks, plazas, and other public spaces. Install seating, lighting, and landscaping in existing public spaces as well as in new developments to enhance safety, visibility, and appeal. Public spaces feel more comfortable when other people are present.  Also provide and maintain clean public restrooms and drinking fountains.

Create quiet residential lanes with narrower streets to slow traffic and enhance community atmosphere. Encourage front porches to enhance residential areas. For heavier traffic areas, design or retrofit roadways for a boulevard or parkway appearance with landscaped medians, street tree plantings, bike lanes, and sidewalks. Protect and restore cultural and historic elements that add to the character of the community. 

Require developers to design buildings for a specific site, and to avoid using stock plans.  Work with business owners, especially franchises, to develop acceptable building facades and signage consistent with the established character of a community rather than using visually unappealing generic designs.

Ensure that redevelopment in existing neighborhoods is consistent with their scale and character and enhances their visual appeal.

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VII.  Local Economic Health

Invest in and support local schools, colleges, and training programs, especially in technology and local trades. Sound education is the first step to a well-developed workforce.  Involve local businesses in discussions about curriculum structure at local high schools. By helping to structure education programs, businesses can assure a constant stream of well-prepared potential employees.

Take advantage of the federal structure and funding for workforce development programs. Work with the local workforce investment boards that serve your community.  Publicize your community's workforce development programs. Such programs can be strong incentives for new businesses to locate in your community.

Organize local employers. As a group, employers may be able to work together to provide valuable services such as job databases, daycare, skills training, and transportation.  Assist businesses in providing support services such as shuttle buses, childcare, and interest free loans.  Facilitate partnerships between local businesses and local community development groups.

Provide financial incentives to attract private sector participation and implement projects. Use the US Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant program to provide long term, fixed-rate financing to new or expanding businesses that create jobs and employment opportunities for low-income individuals. Below market-rate loans are available for business expansion and start-ups that exhibit solid commitments to create or retain permanent jobs, demonstrate financial feasibility, and benefit low income and moderate-income residents.

Support the local economy and locally-owned businesses.  Investigate economically beneficial eco-tourism activities such as organic farming, bed-and-breakfast lodging, and fall color tours, etc., and protect resources that support these activities such as prime agricultural land and rural character.  Hire qualified local workers for government jobs and encourage businesses to hire from the local labor force to strengthen community relations.

Promote locally-owned large and small businesses, including organic farms, markets, and restaurants, which keep capital within the community and tend to be more loyal and better neighbors to the community.  Create a local sourcing network that links local business buyers with local suppliers.  Establish an alliance of locally-owned businesses and the chamber of commerce to promote and market businesses.

Revitalize the downtown and main streets and improve and protect community character to attract economic development.  Provide regulatory flexibility and incentives such as tax breaks or loans for businesses to locate within the urban core instead of building in undeveloped areas.

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