Will the Eco-Cities of the Near Future Be Livable?

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

5 thoughts on “Will the Eco-Cities of the Near Future Be Livable?

  1. Charles Peterson, Landscape Architect 03/02/2011 / 10:26 am

    It seems counter productive to tear up more land to build cities when we have existing cities that are deteriorating daily. It would make more sense to use technology to rebuild the cities we have and leave the fast diminishing undeveloped land alone.

  2. Owen Dell 03/02/2011 / 1:29 pm

    It is delusional to say that New York City is sustainable. It is not. All the things needed to support it are brought in from elsewhere, and all waste is disposed of elsewhere. NYC, like all places, is part of a larger community called Planet Earth. Large, densely populated cities are totally dependent for their survival on the exploitation and pillaging of other places on a massive and unsupportable scale. The fact that New Yorkers can more easily walk to work doesn’t change that. When are land use professionals going to start looking at the big picture? Show us one single product of the design professions that has been proven to be truly sustainable when all variables have been accounted for.

    • Dani 03/03/2011 / 12:48 pm

      Agreed that this statement is completely delusional. By what metrics? Perhaps with regard to energy use as a result of transportation effiencies and dense housing… but how about total per capita consumption? what is the per capita ecological footprint of a new yorker versus someone elsewhere, accounting for all factors (not just energy in homes and daily trips, but also energy used to travel on vacation and business all over the world… and of course: clothes, second vacation homes, electronics, wigits of every sort and food from afar… a culture of shiny and new and consume whatever you want and keep up with the joneses is not sustainable.

  3. Julie Z 03/04/2011 / 4:07 pm

    The most sustainable building is one that is already built. You still have to produce all the building materials and then how do you account for all the trash created from the deconstruction of the older buildings. I think these sustainable cities sound great and I wish I had the money to be one of the first residents, but as we move forward with new technologies we cannot ignore the trash we are leaving behind in old buildings. Why not take the new technologies and update what we can on the older buildings.

  4. Perry Stahlsis 03/13/2011 / 11:30 pm

    What exactly does “one of the most sustainable” mean? Is there a gradient of sustainability, i.e., “somewhat sustainable, quasi-sustainable, kind of sustainable”.

    Sustainability is an absolute. Something either is or it isn’t. Cities are not for innumerable reasons, e.g., a centralized concentration of population requiring massive importation of resources appropriated/expropriated from outlying regions. If cities had to depend on the land and resource base on which they were originally settled to sustain themselves, they wouldn’t be cities, they would towns or villages or temporary encampments.

    That said, cities cannot guarantee their continued viability in the face of unpredictable threats from forces over which they have no control, whether it be a tsunami, a rampaging horde of Visigoths, or in the case of NYC, perhaps the extensive hydro-fracking of the Marcellus Shale in its upstate watershed.

    Steven W. Lawitts, the acting commissioner of the city’s environmental agency, said drilling on the scale now envisioned posed “great risks” and could hamper his department’s ability to keep the water clean.

    One major concern is the use of benzene and other chemicals used in drilling that have contaminated groundwater in other states. The state environmental commissioner, Alexander B. Grannis, has said that applicants for permits would have to disclose all components in drilling fluids.

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