Editor’s Note:  We’re pleased to publish this guest commentary by Kevin DeGood, Director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress. This commentary originally appeared as a tweetstorm, and is republished with his permission.  The text has been consolidated and edited for publication at City Observatory.  Earlier City Observatory essays have questioned the sustainability of an 1,800 space LEED certified parking structure, and “net zero” homes with three car garages.

By Kevin Degood

Let’s talk about what we mean by sustainable development. The Soleil Lofts in Herriman, Utah, outside Salt Lake City offer a perfect example of why a narrow definition that looks only at energy consumption is insufficient. We must assess transportation and land use for a full picture.

The sleek Soleil Lofts will be all electric with lots of distributed solar energy generation and local battery storage. Very cool. In total, the 600-unit development will boast 5.2MW of solar and 12.6 MWh of energy storage. Building electrification and distributed energy are essential​ to meeting our climate goals. Soleil should be applauded for solar plus battery design, which should become standard practice everywhere. Yet, the transportation and land use context of Soleil is deeply problematic.

The problem is that Soleil is a disconnected CAR ISLAND with two entry/exit points that both connect to Academy Parkway but not the surrounding houses. Whether you are going for a gallon of milk or cross-country trip, you must use Academy Parkway.

This forces residents to use a car for every trip and every need. If, for instance, you wanted to head to the nearby neighborhood Boulder Falls Park, this would be a 5.7 MILE drive or a 2.4 MILE walk . . . on streets totally hostile to walking.

The dominance of vehicles in Soleil’s design is apparent from the rendering, which shows that a high percentage of space is dedicated to car storage and rights of way.

The City of Herriman’s land use plan proudly promotes a transition away from large-lot residential plots to a community with livable bike/pedestrian development with a greater diversity of housing types. Soleil fails that test.

This land use should not be considered sustainable – even with the modest density and electrification. We must look beyond energy use to consider how people move and accomplish life’s daily needs. A car island is not human-scaled or sustainable.  For too long, we have focused on building height when thinking about “human-scale” development. Yet, this is the wrong reference point. Human-scale development is about distance, not building height.

If you have to use a 2-ton vehicle [whether internal combustion or battery electric] for every need, it’s not human-scaled and not sustainable. And even EV cars have a ton of embodied energy/emissions.

Cars must become a peripheral part of our daily mobility (again, regardless of powertrain) – something we use to accomplish the small subset of trips for which cars are uniquely suited. This can only happen with a fundamental shift in our transportation & land use systems.

Editor’s Note:

City Observatory reader’s may be interested to know that the Soleil site has a Walkscore of Zero: