Since its first observation in 1970, Earth Day has mobilized individuals and organizations worldwide to raise awareness of environmental issues and spur action toward realizing a more environmentally responsible world. This year, Earth Day commemorates a theme that resonates with the work of the ULI and its global membership: Investing in Our Planet. Since its first observation in 1970, Earth Day has mobilized billions of individuals and organizations worldwide to raise awareness of environmental issues and spur action toward realizing a more environmentally responsible world.

This year, Earth Day commemorates a theme that resonates with the work of ULI and its global membership: Investing in Our Planet. The theme reflects many evolving factors influencing public- and private-sector investment decisions pertaining to climate change. Namely, the theme emerges amidst the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Climate Change 2022 report, signaling that current plans to address the climate crisis are not ambitious enough, and the proposed SEC climate disclosure rule, which is a significant stride for a collective path to a net-zero future.

Roughly 40 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to buildings. Thus, the real estate sector has a great responsibility to bear, and this responsibility comes with tremendous opportunities to go beyond just minimizing environmental impact. By creating and sustaining spaces, buildings, and communities where people live, play, and work with an emphasis on generating social, economic, and environmental value, ULI’s global membership and the broader industry can position itself as a leader for investing in our planet.

ULI supports its members in this endeavor through the Randall Lewis Center for Sustainability in Real Estate, which was recently renamed to honor longtime ULI member and trustee Randall Lewis. With his generous $10 million gift, the Center is expanding three programs—the Building Healthy Places initiative, the Greenprint Center for Building Performance, and the Urban Resilience program—to help ULI members make the business case for sustainability through education, thought leadership, convenings, and partnerships.

In celebration of Earth Day 2022, we explore some of the Center’s recent work advancing sustainability in the built environment through the lens of this year’s Earth Day theme.

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Optimizing the Built Environment for Health & Wellness

The impacts of climate change are closely intertwined with human health outcomes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), direct damage costs to health attributable to climate change impacts is estimated to be $2-4 billion per year by 2030.

Recognizing the links between climate change and health, ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative (BHP) elevates the role of health in the Center. Its recent Greening Buildings for Healthier People report demonstrates how strategic investments designed to achieve one ESG goal can be harnessed to create co-benefits across human health promotion, climate mitigation, and enhanced physical resilience to climate risks. For instance, when treating health and climate responsibility as inherently connected issues, owners may seek out strategies that cost-effectively meet tenant demand for better indoor air quality without compromising goals on energy use and conservation—all while advancing project success. In addition to research on climate change and health, BHP primarily aims to embed health and social equity into mainstream practice for real estate and land use.

Learn more about BHP’s thought leadership, ULI District Council partnerships, and leadership programs advancing health and equity in the built environment at uli.org/health.

Expanding the Discourse on the Value of Green Buildings

The Greenprint Center for Building Performance fosters a community of practice for a global alliance of 70 companies that have committed to reducing their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030. A subset of those companies has gone a step further by aligning to the Greenprint net zero carbon operations goal. Together, ULI Greenprint members are making the case for the financial benefits of green buildings – increased asset value, marketability, and reduced operating costs – and tackling new challenges together like tracking and reducing embodied carbon in development. Greenprint’s report on embodied carbon outlines how the real estate industry can select building materials (one of the key issues identified in the ULI Global Sustainability Outlook 2022) to reduce embodied carbon and improve health outcomes for occupants. Other reports like JLL’s Return on Sustainability, demonstrate how quickly the conversation is evolving “beyond value creation (green premium) to be about value preservation (avoiding a brown discount).”

To learn more about how Greenprint supports ULI members and cities in leading the way on climate action, visit uli.org/greenprint.

Located in Brooklyn, New York, the Empire Stores won a 2019 ULI Global Awards for Excellence and is featured on Developing Urban Resilience for its resilient design features addressing sea level rise, flooding, and stormwater inundation. Once a vacant warehouse, the site is now a mixed-use redevelopment project in a landmarked and historic district. (© S9 Architecture / Imagen Subliminal)

Resilient Design for Climate Change Prepared Buildings & Communities

Investing in resilient buildings and cities creates valuable benefits for our planet and for our communities.  For every dollar invested in climate resilience strategies, between $4-11 is saved in avoided recovery costs. Further, integrating such disaster-resistant strategies helps to maintain the integrity of our structures, preserving the embodied carbon already embedded in our existing buildings. With this in mind and in expanding upon a theme that developed from the Urban Resilience program’s partnership with select ULI District Councils in the Resilient Land Use Cohort, the program recently published Resilient Retrofits: Climate Upgrades for Existing Buildings. The research sheds light on how retrofits can tackle both climate adaptation and mitigation, as well as the many financial benefits of upgrading existing buildings like increased value and reduced insurance premiums and damages following climate hazards. While a promising avenue to enhance climate change preparedness, retrofits remain complex and require robust financial support. Recognizing these associated barriers to equitable implementation of resilient retrofits, the report highlights incentives and financing solutions that can help mitigate financial barriers, including green banks, state and local policy incentives, and federal grant programs.

Learn more about the program at uli.org/resilience, and explore the Developing Urban Resilience online library showcasing best practices in real estate with particular attention to the economic, environmental, and social value created through resilient design interventions.  

A Call to Action to #InvestInOurPlanet

The real estate industry has been making progress toward tackling climate change, but greater investments continue to be necessary. ULI is committed to continuing to invest in our members’ knowledge and capacity so that they can harness their work to advance this Earth Day’s vision of a livable, healthy, resilient, and equitable planet. Visit uli.org/sustainability for opportunities to get involved and receive updates on ULI’s sustainability work, and check out earthday.org for a compiled list of 52 actions to support Earth Day today and beyond.