Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A sustainable Suburb?

Reposted from Worldchanging:

Is green suburbia possible?

Forty miles north of San Francisco, on the site of a former industrial park, work is underway on the ambitious new Sonoma Mountain Village, a 200-acre development that aims to be truly sustainable. The development is America’s first to be certified as a “One Planet Community,” part of an effort to build healthy and sustainable neighborhoods in the UK, US and Canada. Built through a partnership between sustainability experts BioRegional and the developer Codding Enterprises, the community is based on the premise that an ordinary resident will be able to live there sustainably with little extra effort. Construction of the first homes will begin this year, in the face of a waiting list that is already 3000 people long.

As I drove up on a recent visit, I wondered if it will really be possible for one new development to achieve the goal of providing an effortlessly sustainable lifestyle. The main hurdle: the site is located in Rohnert Park, the sort of small-but-sprawling suburb where driving everywhere is the norm.

Greg Searle, executive director of BioRegional North America, admits that they can’t control the environmental impact residents will have when they leave the development. But the development company has done an enormous amount to improve the efficiency of the systems within the Sonoma Mountain Village, meeting the small community's water, energy and transportation needs with state-of-the-art green features like on-site renewable energy. BioRegional asserts that "every resident is no more than a five-minute walk to groceries, restaurants, day care and other amenities offering local, sustainable, and fair trade products and services."

The village center, which was designed around the reuse of existing buildings, will include a year-round farmers market, grocery stores and other businesses, entertainment options, and telecommuting desks. Alternative transportation services will be plentiful: free bikes, electric vehicles that connect to the smart grid, a biofuel filling station, plug-in hybrid carshare, and carpool concierge services. Thanks in part to lobbying by Codding, a commuter rail line linking the suburb to nearby cities has also been approved, and will be a ten-minute walk from the community.

The community will rely very little on outside resources. A combination of energy-efficiency technologies like passive solar heating will make buildings at Sonoma Mountain Village zero carbon by 2020. On-site renewable power will supply the rest of the energy required. In 2006, an enormous 1.14MW solar photovoltaic installation was installed on the roof of an existing building, which, among other things, will power the world’s first zero-carbon data center. The existing solar power array will likely be quadrupled in the future.

A myriad of other environmental measures are planned to improve the community's water, waste and food systems. A plan for ‘zero waste’ means that by 2020, only 2 percent of waste will go to landfills. Water conservation and re-use, including the use of greywater and rainwater catchment systems, will be so extensive that no more city water will be required for the site beyond what is already used by the existing buildings, despite adding almost 2000 new homes. Food for the community's grocery store and restaurants will be locally sourced, and residents will have access to community gardens, fruit trees, and a year-round farmers’ market. And the development will encourage biodiversity through green roofs and the restoration of local wetlands and other open spaces.

The development also makes strides to address social sustainability. The village will offer on-site jobs and will provide double the amount of affordable housing units required by law. Codding encourages its retail tenants to source fairly traded goods. And a non-profit business incubator for sustainable technology is already running on-site. As the sustainability manager for Codding said, “We’re hoping they develop technologies we’ll be able to use here.” After residents move in, Codding will conduct “happiness” surveys, and gather residents' input for the continual improvement of the community.

To make the construction process as green as possible, Codding has built a steel-frame factory on-site to provide 20 percent of the materials required. The factory runs completely on solar power and sends no waste to the landfill: even the steel frames created can be recycled at the end-of-life. Other materials will be sourced locally, with an eye to ensuring that they were made in a socially andenvironmentally responsible way. Codding will also be tracking embodied carbon in materials andservices. Finally, the village will also incorporate existing buildings, which have undergone energy-efficiency retrofits.Will residents truly be able to live entirely sustainable lives at Sonoma Mountain Village? That's a complicated question. Of course, any community with ties to the current outside world can’t be completely sustainable. Still, just as it’s easy to imagine possible negative consequences — for example, that many residents will move in with conventional cars, and will inevitably end up driving them at least some of the time -- it’s also easy to imagine that residents of surrounding neighborhoods will begin to walk more.

The development will bring a center to an area that currently lacks one, and connecting the surrounding suburban community to both a walkable mixed-use center and a new transit hub is no small accomplishment. While dense, compact urban cores remain the most potent land use strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Sonoma Mountain Village moves in the direction of the type of planning we will need to re-imagine the far-flung suburbs in years to come.

I also think that when they are surrounded by sustainability and conservation at home, residents of the community will undoubtedly think more about sustainability issues in the outside world. New commercial tenant Comcast, for example, has become more interested in sustainable business practices since becoming involved with Codding's project, and is considering adding hybrid cars to its company fleet. The community is a good example of how developers can go far beyond the highest LEED standards by taking an approach to sustainability that considers the full system.

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