Numbers are powerful. They provide context, status, and proximity to goals. They can be used to shame or celebrate.  Often they are presented as irrevocable facts, but we can ‘work’ numbers to get them to tell our story, or to uncover one that has remained silent for too long.

It’s argued that data is the new resource; a currency. To hear about how many have access to water, electricity, food, education… can spark a call to action or applause at an award ceremony. What we track can have long-term impacts. We look for trends in water and energy conservation, waste diverted and types of transportation trips. We judge performance based on movement in the numbers we count from year to year.

Every industry has its key metrics. I’m working on a report now where we’re trying to broaden the scope of what we count to better capture what’s important to this business. Yet, it’s a challenge to quantify all the things we value. The metrics have become the low hanging fruit, what’s easy. We can modify how we represent the numbers by choosing the timeframe or magnification of scale to get graphs to reflect the story we want to tell. Yet, we still wrestle with how to capture the level of social equity, the wellness or livability of a community. These characteristics of community are tough to wrap into a meaningful number, yet important in creating a more meaningful snapshot. Committees at USGBC and beyond are working on this – tirelessly.  The new LEED credits may not be perfect, but they’re a start.

Getting this right is important. When Antwi Akom said in his keynote at MGBCE last week that 20% of the world’s prisoners are located in the United States, he got people’s attention because it’s not how we perceive our nation. This data creates an internal conflict – a call to action. What we capture, counts. When light is shined on a complicated, wicked problem, we want to solve it. How do we solve this through green buildings?

In last week’s blog I mentioned that sanitized cities isolate those who commit crimes. Our cultural practice is to remove an identified problem so we can go on as before and feel safe. Research shows that removal doesn’t erase the problem. Prisons are expanding and becoming increasingly crowded. Incarceration isn’t a deterrent and recidivism is high. Yes, there are programs, like having great success in lowering recidivism rates for teens.  But we need more such opportunities.

Responding to crime through long-term incarceration has real and hidden costs. We can calculate the cost of housing, feeding and care, but what about the loss of that person’s ideas, strength, and progeny to the future of the community? We may never know the true cost of removing someone from our community.  However, not every community chooses to remove individuals permanently.

Crime isn’t the only way we remove someone from our community. We remove them from our neighborhoods by re-zoning, raising rents, and closing training programs. We can create communities immune from gentrification and displacement. Look to the work of native tribes like New Zealand’s Mauri. People aren’t removed from the tribe for committing a discretion, being ‘undesirable,’ or poor. Research into restorative practices can show us how to strengthen our community ties, restoring relationships and creating true resilience. We can look to partnerships between architects and medical doctors, urban ecologists and engineers, behavioral scientists and city planners for strategies to design our cities that support our long-range emotional and physical health and that of nature surrounding us.


Woman in wheelchair on corner of sidewalk

The key is to find solutions that win for everyone, not just for one group. Curb-cuts are a good example. Born out of a desire to increase mobility for those with physical challenges, they aren’t only for those with disabilities and they don’t take away from those without disabilities. New business opportunities like the explosion of wheeled carts and baggage increased exponentially as a result.  Are curb-cuts a success? What numbers do we look to to quantify the impact on quality of life for those with physical challenges? Yet, we know they have improved our cities.

Where do those incarceration numbers intersect with elements of the built environment? What could be the next curb-cut that changes the landscape for the better – and for all of us?

What are you thinking about? Spread your ideas through our community.  Please join the conversation by contacting me directly at or leaving your thoughts here.

Thank you to those whose ideas, innovations and unique perspectives are captured above:

  • Antwi Akom, Institute for Sustainable, Economic, Educational, and Environmental Design
  • David Rothstein,
  • Dick Jackson, University of California Los Angeles
  • George Bandy, Mohawk Group
  • Heather Rostenberg, USGBC-LA
  • Morgan Grove, US Forest Service
  • Schoene Mahmoud, LMU Center for Urban Resilience


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