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Cities of the Future, Today
Alex Steffen, 2 May 08

As cool as ultra high-performance green buildings are individually, the real action is all with districts. Individual buildings may blaze paths, and as we engage in acupunctural infill (changing sprawling or underused areas into walkable, compact mixed-use communities by adding new buildings and redeveloping older properties -- something we'll be writing more about soon) we're going to need a lot of small-scale, even individual architectural solutions.

But if we want to really push the environmental performance of urban areas down to zero-impact levels, we need to think in terms of districts; we need to look at settings where a number of buildings can be built afresh or creatively re-used, and where the infrastructure and public space they share can be recreated in ways no piecemeal agglomeration of individual projects can usually match.

The ideal sites for new districts are abandoned urban and inner-ring brownfields. The EPA estimates that there are over 450,000 brownfield sites in the U.S. alone. Some are extremely heavily polluted. Most are just polluted or problematic enough that in a regional economy where greenfield development on the suburban fringe is allowed, even subsidized, it makes no economic sense to invest in their redevelopment.

But the economic equations of urban development are shifting quickly. As energy prices rise, the suburban real estate market collapses and cities see the advantage of turning liabilities (abandoned industrial areas) into assets (newly developed housing, offices and stores), brownfields start to look like better and better deals.

What's possible, when you have a clean slate on which to work? Big leaps.

Take Dockside Green. In terms of North American development, Dockside Green is the gold standard.

On 15 acres of former industrial land in Victoria, British Columbia, Dockside Green's developers are building 1.3 million square feet of residential, office, retail and light industrial space, aimed at being a global showcase of new techniques for bright green development.

The innovations are truly impressive. Not only do the builders say they hope to certify the entire project LEED-ND (neighborhood development) and all 24 buildings in it LEED Platinum (there are currently just 65 in the world), they're planning to exceed almost all the current environmental performance standards for green buildings in Canada.

All the buildings will use use 50% less energy than even the Canadian Model Building code suggests, primarily by bundling the buildings in R17 wall insulation and R22 roof insulation, installing Low E double-glazed windows, and deploying some cool heat recovery technology, using the heat in air being exhausted from the buildings to warm fresh air being brought in through the ventilation system. LED lighting, energy-efficient appliances, motion sensors and home energy dashboards in all the homes will complete the package.

Power will be created by onsite by a waste wood biomass gassification plant and district energy systems.

They've thought the water through, too: through cisterns, green roofs, swales and a large central green space, the buildings will harvest rainwater and slow run-off.
The project won't even be hooked up to the municipal stormwater system. A suite of water-saving technologies will help residents will use 2/3 less water than their average neighbors.

The homes are designed with flexible living spaces, allowing easy reconfiguration without remodeling and the heaps of waste it generates. Interior design follows suit, using renewable/ low-impact materials like bamboo flooring, wheat board substrates in cabinets, wool carpets and cork paneling.

They're also planning to adapt and have already begun the process of "commissioning" the buildings once they're completed, making sure that they perform as expected, tweaking problems and fine-tuning the component systems. This is incredibly important, as numerous studies have shown that buildings commissioned by professionals get substantially better performance over their lifetimes.

Treasure Island -- where it's proposed 13,500 people will live in a self-contained sustainable community in the middle of the Bay, and commute by ferry to San Francisco's Embarcadero -- intrigues me even more.

Part of the reason for my fascination is the willingness of those involved with the Treasure Island project to push cultural boundaries about density and car ownership. Reports claim that plans currently radically de-emphasize car ownership on the island, and that housing is concentrated at 75 units per acre in order to create open space and make infrastructure efficient. There's also a 1 million square foot rooftop solar farm planned, making the whole community zero energy.

But we haven't maxed out the curve yet, not even close. There are a slew of other innovations we can mix in to new districts, from new delivery-based retail models to tools for making our household choices more transparent (like Michelle Kaufman's home sustainability label, which riffs nicely off Jer's ecological nutrition label concept).

And Treasure Island's dense pedestrian focus pales beside Helsinki's planned Jätkäsaari community (pictured at the top of this article), where cars will be banned outright from most city streets, and dense green housing for 15,000 people built along three tram lines. Garbage removal will even be underground, in order to keep trucks off the streets.

We're going to need huge amounts of urban development in the next 20 years. The innovation challenge we face in making sure that the new cities we create in the process will be bright and green is a difficult one: these kind of innovations give me hope.

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Is any eco cement or carbon dioxide absorbing concrete used in these building projects?

There may be numerous opportunities for use of carbon neutral cement in non-load bearing roles, yet surprisingly many past LEED showcase projects are unaware of this building material (though subsequently interested). With our old fashioned 19th century cement contributing 7 to 10% of global CO2 emissions, should certifying a building as "LEED Platinum" include use of eco cement?

Posted by: thatphil on 3 May 08

What about the polar cities idea? Look, we are going to fry or not. Even if some of the science is still wonky. I’ll play it safe thanks. But what about a few ideas on what to do if it heats up beyond what we can handle? Can something like the polar cities idea work?

Posted by: Angry African on 7 May 08

At this past year's Greenbuild, I heard the developers of Dockside Green present their ideas on the project. It was absolutely incredible and inspiring to see the dedication they had towards a holistic green effort. I believe they said that if they don't get the Platinum rating, they would give a million dollars back to the community. Anyway, thanks for the great post and for all the good work you are doing.

Posted by: metro hippie on 8 May 08

As always, a change on such a scale has to start somewhere. The first place is in individual buildings making others sit up and take notice. The movement gradually expands to incorporate neighbourhoods such as the ones mentioned. Eventually, the governments get more involved by providing subsidies to homeowners to retrofit existing homes to meet LEED standards.

At some point, the utility companies, and governments will realise that it is in their interest to provide these subsidies and manage the change on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis. Not only for energy consumption, but for a better lifestyle that will reduce other costs.

As it stands now, there is little to justify a homeowner going through the expense of retrofitting a house. The return on the investment is too long to justify the work. We are not talking about the health and environmental benefits, just the pure return on investment. Why would I take my house off the grid, or even partway off the grid and still pay the same amount of taxes?

Posted by: Farokh Monajem on 15 May 08

Alex, you've overlooked another terrific North American example of bright green neighborhood development - Sonoma Mountain Village in California.

By 2020, this Zero Carbon, Zero Waste suburban neighborhood of almost 1900 homes will have slashed total direct emissions by 83% (down to just 2.6 tons CO2 per year per household). And we’re not just talking about emissions from buildings, but from transport, food, waste, goods and services.

A detailed Sustainability Action Plan Report for the project is available at

Posted by: Greg Searle on 19 May 08



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