We are all familiar with those signs by freeways that say 'If you lived here, you could be home by now.' Usually you've already been sweltering in the late afternoon commute for half an hour before you see one, and your reaction tends to be -- after all that, so what?
Well, if you worked anywhere at all within Sonoma Mountain Village in California --here, for example, at this solar powered steel prefab factory currently building the town -- you would have no worries about long commutes.
A five minute walk and you'd be back home!
The five minute commute is central to the utopian vision of only the fifth One Planet, zero carbon, sustainable town in the world, that is being completely recycled right here in my own neighborhood of Northern California, out of a 200 acre industrial park.
And I do mean completely recycled, because every last acre of the current industrial park's old parking lots will be crushed and re-used to build the new town's sidewalks to lower CO2 emissions, because making new concrete is a carbon intensive process.
Originally the industrial park had housed 2,500 Agilent workers before all their jobs went overseas.
Once the site became available, the local environmentally active Codding family was the only bidder to offer a vision for its future development as a sustainable community, and the eco minded City of Rohnert Park (this is Northern California, after all!) jumped at the chance.
To realize this dream, the Coddings reached out to a panel of sustainability experts ranging from the international Bioregional OnePlanet team that certified Abu Dhabi's MasDar City, to wetlands protection scientists and leading architects and town planners, among them, (pictured) Laura Hall with Hall Alminana, the leading US New Urbanist town planning firm, and developer of the Smart Code, which turns the suburban zoning model of compartmentalised bedroom communities with separate industrial parks on its head.
Thus the town is fully integrated: all will be mixed use, both home and work, with a completely new range of housing types: ranging from an urban core of up to 8 stories of lofts above shopfronts and galleries in town, (think SoHo in the 70's) to 2-story townhouses with stoops on tree shaded streets (think the Upper East Side of Manhattan) -- all the way out through big and small suburban houses and small duplexes -- to typical Sonoma farmhouses in completely rural settings with yards with chicken coops and beehives, that can supply fresh eggs and honey to the stores at the center!
All within a ten minute walk across the entire community! Throughout the zones, housing sizes (and consequently; income levels) are similarly diverse. The complete opposite of current community planning.
Recycling the business park into the town will take 10 to 15 years to finish. The framing will be prefabbed right there at the steel panel factory already on-site.
The housing is built from local recycled steel. 6 SUVs worth of recyled steel goes into every 2000 sq ft of housing. Steel is lightweight: reducing the amount of concrete needed underneath it in foundations, which cuts down on carbon emissions.
The plans include green roofs, ground-source heat pumps, ultra efficient lighting and appliances, super insulated walls, floors and roofs, solar hot water systems and solar photovoltaic power integrated into the roof design.
The building process will bring 4,400 construction jobs to local workers, and the Codding family is proud that this is already twice the number that left with Agilent.
This commitment to creating a fully fledged local economy will go on even after it is built.
As Kirstie Moore , the project's Sustainability Manager told me "the Coddings learnt from the first certified OnePlanet community, in England, where they found that once people left the town they became in effect '3 1/2 planet people' again, like everyone else in England. So for us, self-sufficient design is even more crucial, because once we leave this One Planet town, we are in the American economy --needing even more planets than that!'
So, emphasis is put on making the town as fully self sufficient as possible, while as open to the outside as any other town: a remote high-tech telecommute center is envisioned to help reduce outside commutes, as well as a car sharing and bike sharing program, and will include electric car fast recharging centers as well as the Smart rail connection to the rest of Sonoma and into Marin.
Additionally, preference for local workers is to be codified into the towns charter. The restaurants, stores, offices, the theater, all will be required to hire local first. A certain percentage of the space within stores will be set aside for local produce and preserves, not only recycling income within the local economy, but also greatly reducing food miles.
A farmers market will be held not just weekly, but every day in the public square at the center of town, which will also be adding to the local economy. For rainy days, the giant community center market hall will house the farmers market inside.
Imagine just five minutes to walk or bike home with those groceries. That is hardly more time than it takes to traipse across that hot tarmac of the huge Costco parking lot! The walkability of the entire project is a key aspect of making our habitat human again.
The radical concept behind this town is that we really can develop our towns in a kind and equitable way that honors the contributions of all us, taking sustainability far further than just green design, but to promote an entirely new green lifestyle in a respectful way.
Laura Hall is "thrilled that the green movement is moving into the human habitat and away from gadgets only," and clearly happy that the Codding's family vision in developing an almost utopian world intersects so well with her own.
Laura mentioned to me that she herself has been living in a remodeling project at home for 12 years, and I think she appreciates one aspect of the gentle pace of the project: that even the funding mechanism for this longterm project is a sustainable one: surely reducing uncertainty of depending on the ups and downs of the extraneous credit market to sustain long term large projects.
As Laura points out, this is key, "the positive is that some buildings can be used while the planning is going on." This will keep the project funded with rents from current tenants even as the new town gets its permits and the recycling of the old into the new takes shape around them.
Because this kind of radical development is so completely new in this country: this is actually the R&D prototype for the US, so, like all R&D, it will be very expensive, says Kirstie Moore, the Sustainability Project Manager for Coddings, of the billion dollar project. "So much of what we are doing has never been done in this country" So taking it slow -- building as income comes in, literally recycling rents into buildings, is also a sustainable funding mechanism.
Current tenants Comcast and local caterer Sally Tomatoes are entirely on board. And who wouldn't be! Like the extremely fast-growing small business incubator housed in the original buildings, all the current tenants get a complete sustainable revamp to zero carbon.
There's already two acres of solar panels atop the new theater building, and if the boundlessly optimistic Codding Sustanability Officer, Kirstie Moore does succeed in changing the law (PUC rule 13) that currently prevent net metering (what? In California? We better get onto that!) which would allow large buildings to have solar farms on them to power the neighbors, there will also be additional acres of solar atop the gigantic market hall, that would power the entire community much more economically than on individual houses, as currently planned.
The town has both a highly urban core and yet within just a five minute walk, becomes as completely rural as the surrounding farms of Marin. The landscaping will be by Allen Land Design.
Town-wide composting will create new fresh soil to naturally nuture vegetable gardens, small parks (2 minutes from every house) community gardens and even fruit trees for snacks along nature walks into the preserved habitat at the outskirts.
There will be habitat protected bioswales that act as wetlands, conserving water in a 4 million gallon reservoir underground that will recycle water for irrigation, engineered by X.
Since an astounding 19 percent of California's energy use goes to moving water around, trapping and keeping water within ponds and stormwater runoffs on greenroofs and bioswales to slow and remediate water within the the community is yet another part of creating the zero carbon development.
So yet another law that the Coddings are boldly trying to change is the one restricting grey water use as well, so they can recyle water throughout the town, from the low-flow showers to irrigation.
In many ways, this profoundly lovely vision of radical utopian development is likely to have a huge effect on future city plans in the US. Hopefully we can completely change direction from our profligate past as typified by the acres of Levittown-style bedroom communities and industrial parks.
This is the way to end the Age of Oil.
For Matter Network