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 and environmentally responsible way. Codding will also be tracking embodied carbon in materials and services. 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.
Adele Peters is currently earning her Master's in Sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden.
All images courtesy of flickr/One Planet Communities.
At the Ecocity world summit I checked out the SMV master plan and while SMV is very progressive in many respects what's with the grid plan? Here is a great permaculture principal opportunity: Create more edge! Follow the natural contours and if there isn't any make some. I endeavor to boycott strait lines and strait thinking.
Find more inspiration here at www.punkrockpermaculture.wordprss.com
Rock on! this is such a great step in the right direction. So glad to see that this sort of community is springing up in the urban setting. There is a big movement towards it in the rural setting, namely in the development of "ecovillages" but very few examples in the urban setting.
Thanks for the article.
Compared to where I live, it sounds like the 'city of the future' from the days of world's fairs. But one wonders if that waiting list for residents represents pre-recession or post-recession numbers. It will be part of the ongoing discovery process whether the future we can imagine is able to get off the ground in the ever-changing present. Perhaps with the spirit of San Francisco...
Great start...congratualtions, great spin just like that of foster's Masdar. It is difficult to see the realdetail of this design but the graphics do not support how far we really need to go. Where is all the food and consumerables coming from. Is it all grown and produced locally ? Where is the social Architecture ? Do all the investors have a share holding in all the utilities and are they members of the co-operatives that should allow this community to function...seems to me we still have a long way to go on our "Sustainability" journey...but hey, a great start..look forward to the next one..Steve Hart
It sounds like a very ambitious plan; I hope that the residents' behavior ends up matching the goals.
What are the parking constraints / rules? Are there minimum / maximum parking restrictions?
What about zoning? Is it traditional, mixed-use, or what? Any special case zoning, such as forbidding gas stations?
Great post Adele, thanks for enabling the rest of us to take a peek at these new digs in Rohnert Park. I can attest to annoying amounts of required driving in Marin County on 101 to get around, but the new SMART light rail system will alleviate that if/when built. Some bicycle commuting along rivers and the bay is also possible, which links with the SF Ferry at Larkspur Landing.
Fremont, CA has tried developing a downtown near its main BART station, Washington Hospital, and malls as well, with mostly pre-green styles of gated 4 story housing. A worthy attempt at the time and it surely will continue gaining impetus.
One Union City councilmember I spoke with almost three years ago wanted to amend the city's building code to allow 20 story condos. That may seem extreme for a town with only 2-3 story buildings (max) but with new 5-6 story condo complex being built next to the city's BART station (Avalon Union City) this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Newark is a bit screwed in that the planned commuter line between Union City BART and San Francisco via the Dumbarton Rail bridge looks like it won't happen. Housing values in Newark have dropped more than anywhere in Alameda County. I suspect that's due to having poor transit connectivity and no downtown. (Old Town is picking up though.)
It is great to see a developer in the north bay (codding) making nice with SB375 before it ever went into effect.
@Steve: Marin grows a lot of its own food and many people there are CSA customers - a community of grocery purchasers with year-round relationships with a local farm. I've visited several of these farms. Marin County also subsidizes a local dairy operation, Straus Family Creamery, so the area is ahead of the curve on local food issues.
Not to overpost here, but I live in a new LEED Silver apartment complex in downtown Oakland. I haven't owned a car since 2006 but am continuing to ride the BART train and my bike as I did when living in North Oakland.
Many residents there still drive -- we are still part of a larger REGION which lacks draconian, er comprehensive, land use and transportation realities as Portland has. Change can't happen overnight and I believe Codding Enterprises is doing the best they can, without overthrowing the whole "system."
Good post, thank you!
It should be noted that this project had strong support from the political leadership of Rohnert Park; the mayor, Jake McKenzie (besides the high honor of being a Scot), is one of California's leading advocates for local sustainability.
One quibble with the article in general: I don't see that total self-sufficiency will ever be - nor should it be - a definition of sustainability, as is implied here. There will always be goods, people, and ideas flowing from place to place; sustainability will be decoupling that flow from environmental destruction, but not eliminating or even shrinking it.
After all, it's not possible for any one project to be totally sustainable on its own. The value here is to demonstrate how much further than business-as-usual we can go with today's technologies, if we have the will. This project represents real steps forward, not the baby steps we're used to seeing.
There already is a zero-carbon data center that exists, its called aiso.net and they are 100% solar powered. So this claim in the article for them to be the worlds first is false, since aiso.net is already a zero-carbon data center.
I live in Sonoma County, the location of this project. Some of the grid design is based on existing conditions but not completely.
Additionally, I want to second the idea of sustainability. There will always be this flow of goods in and out. There is even some research that is showing that the bulk moving of food stuff is more efficient, and less polluting, that locally grown food stuffs that are shipped in in small quantities.
Also, while I live about 5 blocks from my office, I do drive as I need my car through out the day. I have gotten alot of raised eyebrows at this but then again, I am only driving 10 blocks. Not 20 or 30 MILES to work, but blocks.
So while Sonoma Mountain Village is not a perfect world, it is a better world. Though I am not sure what perfect even means.
Finally, Codding Enterprises has alot to make up to Sonoma County. Alot. They have not always had the most community centric practices. One only has to look at much of the companies history in the 70's and 80's to see this. It is however nice to see them making an effort to do good.
Though I am left to wonder if this is just more of their money making practices, green washed ... only time will tell.
I would love to see a similar development here in Santa Clara. The future demands big changes! .One being, reducing the use of the automobile. Being able to walk or bike to work and shopping, in an environment designed for such. would be great.
No such thing as green!!
One of the most important components of green suburbia should be the availability for workers to work remotely whenever possible. It doesn't do any good for workers to live in a green community and then drive 2 hours a day to get to work and back.
Green suburbanites should have the option to work at a Remote Office Center rather than have to drive across town every day.
ROCs lease individual offices, internet and phone systems to workers from different companies in shared centers located around the surburbs.
Home telecommuting works very well for some people, but many home environments are not conducive for a home office. Remote offices are great for these workers and for people who are afraid they will feel isolated if they work alone in their own home each day.
Remote Office Center are just one more option for a population that wants to be green.
I haven't yet found another neighborhood project in the USA which has set such ambitious targets across the board for energy, waste, materials, transport, food, water and social sustainability. (If you know of one, let me know!)
As a representative of BioRegional (the environmental organization that endorsed Sonoma Mountain Village), I've spent a fair bit of time on-site working with the developer and design team, and I'll try to answer some of the questions raised above.
1. The street grid, with its many narrow pedestrian-friendly streets, is a hallmark of the New Urbanist movement in town planning. This layout is balanced with an abundance of edible landscaping and on-site gardens, as well as non-linear bike-paths and biodiversity zones.
2. The project is mixed-use. The downtown core is especially rich with a diversity of uses.
3. There will be a biodiesel gas station onsite.
4. Food will be grown on-site in community gardens, in edible landscaping, and on nearby farms. The emphasis is being placed on organic, low-animal-protein diets.
5. Jobs onsite. The developer expects there to be 4,000+ jobs available on-site - a jobs:resident ration of 4:5. As for a Remote Office Center, the project already has an on-site cleantech incubator space, which could probably expanded to include hot-desking if there was demand.
6. It's true that Codding was a "business as usual" developer until recently. The CEO says that Sonoma Mountain Village is a template for the future of Codding's business, and their internal practices seem to support this. I have attended some of the bi-monthly sustainability workshops for all Codding staff as they go about the process of transforming their corporate culture. Not to mention that their office is powered by the rooftop PV array.
One last thing -- keeners can download a detailed summary of the sustainability plan for this project at http://www.bioregional.com/sonoma/ or review a less detailed summary at http://www.bioregional.com/oneplanet/Sonoma/sustainability.html
As a long time Worldchanging reader, I was somewhat shocked to see an article talking about my home town! What's more, I knew nothing about this development, despite it being 7 blocks away from my parents' house. It turns out my old neighbor is one of the 3000 people on that list to move in to this community.
I do have to point out one thing about the sprawling Rohnert Park - as I understand it, Rohnert Park started out as a planned community designed to allow people to live without cars. The town is divided into lettered sections - A section, B section, C section, etc (the streets in each section all start with that letter - you can see it on google maps). Usually each section has a park, and there's a shopping center for every four sections or so. Creeks wind through the town, with paved walkways alongside them as pedestrian / bike ways. The large streets have bike lanes, some of which are even protected by their own curb to keep them separate from the cars. The goal was to create a community where people would not need cars, at least not around town. At least, that was what I was told growing up there.
The reality, currently, is that the cars persisted because they are terribly useful. Shopping centers opened up on the other side of the 101, including the Target and the good movie theater, and the Safeway is in that direction too. The grocery stores within those shopping centers either are specialty stores (Oliver's Market, which is fantastic) or change hands somewhat frequently.
However, I still think it was a good design. Growing up, I could ride my bike down the creek paths to friends' houses or to the store without my mom having to worry about cars hitting me. I rarely needed my parents to drive me anywhere. I walked or rode my bike to school every day. So, I'm not at all surprised that this ambitious project is in Rohnert Park - the people there are already somewhat more conscientious regarding sustainability than may be expected. While Rohnert Park may now be approaching a car-centered suburban sprawl, that was not always the case.
As someone who lives someone close to it (Sausalito) and who is drawn to the notion of living and work there i wonder if the big attempts to be sustainable will extend to "healthy" - such as including an air cleaning system in the homes' hvac system
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Thanks for all the comments! @Ken: thanks for the details on other parts of the Bay Area. I'm wondering how much influence SMV will have on new development in the future. @Justus, Ken, and Bud: I completely agree that the project is a major step forward. While I don't think total self-sufficiency is necessary for sustainability (if transportation, energy, and other sectors one day become sustainable, a community connected to those outside flows can be sustainable too) it's cool to see how far SMV has pushed self-sufficiency in today's world, and interesting to consider the gaps that are left. @Ryan: thanks for sharing some of the history of Rohnert Park's original design.