Better methods are necessary to fully account for anthropogenic impacts on ecosystems and the essential services provided by ecosystems that sustain human life. Current methods for assessing sustainability, such as life cycle assessment (LCA), typically focus on easily quantifiable indicators such as air emissions with no accounting for the essential ecosystem benefits that support human or industrial processes. For this reason, more comprehensive, transparent, and robust methods are necessary for holistic understanding of urban technosphere and ecosphere systems, including their interfaces. Incorporating ecosystem service indicators into LCA is an important step in spanning this knowledge gap.
For urban systems, many built environment processes have been investigated but need to be expanded with life cycle assessment for understanding ecosphere impacts. To pilot these new methods, a material inventory of the building infrastructure of Phoenix, Arizona can be coupled with LCA to gain perspective on the impacts assessment for built structures in Phoenix. This inventory will identify the origins of materials stocks, and the solid and air emissions waste associated with their raw material extraction, processing, and construction and identify key areas of future research necessary to fully account for ecosystem services in urban sustainability assessments. Based on this preliminary study, the ecosystem service impacts of metropolitan Phoenix stretch far beyond the county boundaries. A life cycle accounting of the Phoenix’s embedded building materials will inform policy and decision makers, assist with community education, and inform the urban sustainability community of consequences.
This report is the consolidated work of an interdisciplinary course project in CEE494/598, CON598, and SOS598, Urban Infrastructure Anatomy and Sustainable Development. In Fall 2012, the course at Arizona State University used sustainability research frameworks and life-cycle assessment methods to evaluate the comprehensive benefits and costs when transit-oriented development is infilled along the proposed light rail transit line expansion. In each case, and in every variation of possible future scenarios, there were distinct life-cycle benefits from both developing in more dense urban structures and reducing automobile travel in the process.
Results from the report are superseded by our publication in Environmental Science and Technology.
Study Background: Researchers at ASU have determined that significant energy and environmental benefits are possible in the Phoenix metro area over the next 60 years from transit-oriented development along the current Valley Metro light rail line. The team evaluated infill densification outcomes when vacant lots and some dedicated surface parking lots are repurposed for residential development. Life cycle building (construction, use, and energy production) and transportation (manufacturing, operation, and energy production) changes were included and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions were evaluated in addition to the potential for respiratory impacts and smog formation. All light rail infill scenarios are compared against new single family home construction in outlying areas.
Overview of Results: In the most conservative scenario, the Phoenix area can place 2,200 homes near light rail and achieve 9-15% reductions in energy use and emissions. By allowing multi-family apartments to fill vacant lots, 12,000 new dwelling units can be infilled achieving a 28-42% reduction. When surface lots are developed in addition to vacant lots then multi-family apartment buildings around light rail can deliver 30-46% energy and environmental reductions. These reductions occur even after new trains are put into operation to meet the increased demand.