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Measuring "Good" Urban Design

Just as good urban design is difficult to define, it is equally difficult to measure. Currently there is no authoritative standard, but some academics and advocacy groups have developed criteria that rate developments based on aesthetics, spatial efficiency or environmental impacts.

Laurence Aurbach, a national urban design expert, explains the difficulty in evaluating neighborhoods. "Urban design principles are based on the hypothesis that certain physical patterns support high-quality urban environments," writes Aurbach. "That hypothesis should be tested, and a rating system can help to do so. At the same time, every rating system is based on abstractions and generalizations. Rating systems should be held accountable by asking are they truly identifying the urban design forms and patterns that contribute to beneficial outcomes?"

Aurbach has drafted his own design standards, which allocate points to developments that enhance streetscapes, encourage pedestrians, are close to schools or parks, etc. These criteria, and many others, are weighted and then totaled to give each development a single score, which is represented by stars (1-star projects have the lowest scores, 5-star projects have the highest).

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System evaluates the environmental-friendliness of new developments. The U.S. Green Building Council established LEED certification in 1998 as a way to encourage efficient and sustainable building designs. Today, it has extended that mission to entire neighborhood developments. Using a point system and a list of nearly 50 criteria, LEED requires characteristics like compact development and "smart location," while rewarding projects that include additional elements, like wetland restoration (1 point) or housing-and-jobs proximity (3 points). There are four certification levels certified, silver, gold and platinum, respective of the number of points earned.

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