A conservationist turns to the city

The burning of fossil fuels for heat and electricity constitutes the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions. That realization is one of the threads running through the career of Sarene Marshall, who spent more than a dozen years at the Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit dedicated to preserving the world’s natural resources. As director of the organization’s climate change program, she developed nature-based carbon reduction strategies and organized food and water security programs.

In November 2014, Marshall moved to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a forum run by the real estate industry, to tackle urban greenhouse gas emissions. As leader of ULI’s Center of Sustainability, Marshall is fighting one of the most important campaigns in the war on climate change by helping property owners and design professionals develop best practices for conserving resources and reducing building emissions.

Recently, she took time out from her busy schedule to discuss ULI’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance and some of the big changes taking place in the conservation world.


What was it like moving from the Nature Conservancy to the Urban Land Institute? They seem like very different organizations. For one thing, one focuses on wild areas and the other focuses on settled areas.

When I worked at the Nature Conservancy, a dramatic transformation was taking place in conservation everywhere. We were shifting from this older notion of parks and protected areas, places that we put fences around and kept people out of, to one where people are going to be part of conservation landscapes.

Increasingly, there are fewer and fewer places in the world that you can imagine being completely pristine. So at the Nature Conservancy our work changed significantly, from being wholly focused on protecting wild places to also working on conservation issues involving land that was ranched or farmed or timbered. We were also engaging urban populations about where their water and food is coming from.

What specific types of projects were you working on that might carry over into your work at the Urban Land Institute?

I was director of the Nature Conservancy’s global climate change program for several years. One of the things that led me to move to the Urban Land Institute was my growing understanding of how climate change is actually more of an urban challenge. Most of what has to happen to solve climate change is not in wild areas, it’s in cities. It has to do with how our buildings are built, how our transportation systems are organized, and how our energy systems are run. Cities are already starting to take leadership on these issues and developing innovative solutions. So that has carried over, because I’m still working on the climate challenge within the context of real estate and urban development.

In the US, buildings represent over 40% of carbon emissions and cities represent over 70% of carbon emissions. In cities, buildings are the biggest source of emissions. Therefore, if we’re going to solve the climate problem, it’s going to be by reducing building energy use in cities.

At the Urban Land Institute you oversee the Greenprint Center for Building Performance. Can you describe how the center functions?

The Greenprint Center was founded by leaders in the real estate industry who recognize these challenges and are stepping up to do something about them. It starts with measuring their energy performance. There are now 31 jurisdictions in the US that have mandatory energy benchmarking laws, because getting people to measure their energy usage is the first step toward getting them to manage it.

The ULI Greenprint Center takes a similar approach: we receive data supplied by our members and produce benchmarks to understand how different buildings and building types compare to one another.

Year-on-year performance snapshot from Greenprint report

What’s the next step? Do you come in and give your membership suggestions on how they can improve performance?

The Urban Land Institute is not a building management company. What we do is serve as a convening organization for the owners, investors, designers, architects, and planners. We’re sort of the broad tent where people can learn from one another. So we use the experience of our members in Greenprint, like we do in everything at ULI, to highlight case studies and best practices and to develop knowledge-sharing sessions: “what did you do, how did your performance improve, what were some of the mechanisms that allowed you to make those investments, and what were the results?” That in itself helps our constituency, because if they see that a building is underperforming they can go back to their building managers and say, “why is my building performing like this? We have energy use that’s way out of whack.”

The evidence about the ability of energy-efficiency measures to pay for themselves in relatively short periods of time is abundantly clear.

What are some of the common misconceptions about moving to a smaller environmental footprint? I was just reading in the New York Times about how Burlington, Vermont has moved to 100% renewable energy. This is going to save the city about $20 million, and consumers haven’t been hit with a price increase, while residential consumers across the US have seen a small but gradual increases in utility bills. I didn’t realize you could move to 100% renewable energy and within a relatively short period of time actually save money.

This is a no-brainer. The evidence about the ability of energy-efficiency measures to pay for themselves in relatively short periods of time is abundantly clear. Now, a lot depends on the circumstances: the building you’re starting with, technologies, policies, and all kinds of other things. But plenty of people have done the work out there to show the paybacks. If you incorporate those energy-efficiency measures into a building during the construction phase you’re going to increase its value because your operating income is going to be higher. And if you sell that building, the higher operating income will make that asset more valuable.

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