At The Economist magazine’s “Intelligent Infrastructure” conference, a number of developers painted pictures of the bold eco-cities of the near future. However, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global correspondent, wondered if these visionary communities weren’t just a new variation of utopia. Are these communities sustainable, scalable as a business model, and, most importantly, livable?
Syd Kitson, Kitson & Partners, described Babcock Ranch, the world’s first solar-powered city being developed jointly by his development firm and a utility, Florida Power & Light. All the solar panels for the 18,000-acre site will be built and installed by the power company, while Kitson will build 19,000 homes and about 6 million square feet of retail, light industrial, and office space, writes Reuters. The $2 billion project is expected to create 20,000 jobs.
While the site is a greenfield development, meaning it’s being built on undeveloped land, Kitson said 90 percent of the existing site will be preserved. (It’s not clear what state that site, which is near a ranch, is in now). Some 12 miles of trails will connect “hamlets or villages.” Within these villages, only native plants will be planted. In addition, a brand-new “autonomous” transportation system consisting of electric vehicles connected via a smart grid will also be implemented. It’s not clear how people will sustainably get to and from Babcock Ranch though.
Kitson suggested this isn’t another utopia because the technologies already exist. Furthermore, he added, “there’s a commercial reason to show this demonstration project.”
In Portugal, PlanIT Valley offers another cutting-edge model for a sustainable community, a “building technology platform with its own urban operating system.” As explained by Steve Lewis, CEO, Living PlanIT, the community’s urban operating system will get data from sensors built into the buildings’ structures. “Imagine 100 million sensors!” The sensors will send data to network centers. Data can be used to build community applications. Instead of smart phones in your pocket, there will be a smart wall that homeowners can use to access neighborhood apps.
Sensors are already being embedded into test modular, “hexagonal” building structures. Lewis sees enormous environmental value in this because the LEED Gold buildings can then also track and limit their own carbon emissions. “Every building can take care of its own energy, water, data. The buildings can improve themselves.”
The 17 square kilometer PlanIT Valley, which will be marketed to employees of high-tech firms like Cisco, will be the first community designed and developed by a technology company, says Lewis.
If there is market demand for these communities, these developments may prove to be scalable and replicable. Only the early residents who buy in can determine if these places are truly livable. However, it remains to be seen whether these new developments will actually be sustainable when all construction CO2 emissions are factored in on these greenfield sites. How are these developers accounting for those emissions?
In contrast with these bold visions, pragmatic New York City, already one of the world’s most sustainable cities, is focused on improving what it has. The city’s model climate change mitigation and adaptation plan, PlaNYC, is being used to guide smart investments in the environment, and water and energy infrastructure. Cas Holloway, Enviromental Protection Commissioner, NYC Department of Environmental Protection, said the city just passed a “historic” green buildings law, planted 460,000 trees, and turned 100 school yards into playgrounds. “Making the city more sustainable is really about making it more livable,” said Holloway.
Other good uses of funds by the city: a new green infrastructure plan announced last summer that will help alleviate pressure on its 100-year old stormwater pipes, and cost $2.5 billion less than building new underground stormwater managment infrastructure; 835,000 new wireless smart water meters to improve water efficiency in households; and the expansion of the use of bioremediation to clean up decrepit brownfields throughout the city, guided by the first-ever Mayor’s Office of Remediation.
Image credit: Babcock Ranch / Treehugger