Based in Southwest Florida, Babcock Ranch is a planned community that aims to be the first city in the United States powered almost entirely by solar energy. Homeowners just started moving into the community earlier this year.
If you are curious about sustainable communities that blend cutting-edge technology, renewable energy sources and careful planning to create ‘smart,’ liveable, low-carbon footprint municipalities, check out Babcock Ranch.
Babcock Ranch is one of the more visible examples of a growing trend towards green construction methods. Green or sustainable construction emphasizes water and energy conservation, using recycled construction materials and avoiding toxic chemicals in paint and other substances. Sustainable communities, meanwhile, feature lots of green space, affordable housing, renewable energy sources, efficient waste and water management and comprehensive public transit. Such eco-friendly initiatives are often complemented by technological measures such as widespread broadband Internet connectivity. In so-called smart communities, businesses, residents and local government are receptive to Information Technology (IT) initiatives.
Sustainability is a trend worth paying attention to and not just to save the planet; green construction is rapidly becoming an area that generates a great deal of revenue. Between 2011 and 2014, the green construction sector generated $167.4 billion in the United States and supported over 2.1 million jobs, states a study released September 2015 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Between 2015 and 2018, the study predicts green construction will generate another $303.4 billion in GDP and support 3.9 million jobs.
Given such impressive figures, it is no surprise that Babcock Ranch is a well-planned, well-funded project. The concept originated with Kitson & Partners, a real-estate development company. Kitson & Partners acquired a vast amount of land to kick-start the project. In 2006, the company sold 73,000 acres of this property to the state of Florida for preservation while earmarking 18,000 acres for what was to become Babcock Ranch. In 2009, Kitson & Partners teamed with Florida Power & Light to make Babcock Ranch a solar power showcase.
Sun energy in Babcock Ranch is gathered through solar panels on the rooftops of commercial buildings and at a solar energy centre, which is situated near the town and contains more than 300,000 solar panels. The community also features ‘solar tree’ installations that can be used to charge phones and other handheld devices.
When the sun is shining during the day, electricity is generated at a solar plant. At night, the town draws energy from a natural gas power plant. Individual homeowners in Babcock Ranch are encouraged to install their own solar panels to reduce their energy bills further. The power system in Babcock Ranch went online in early 2017, even before anyone lived in the community.
Property guidelines in Babcock Ranch compel homeowners to plant native trees and shrubs –which do not require much water – for most of their landscaping. The town has rain gardens, community gardens, lots of green space and a walkable layout to reduce the use of cars. Homes are built according to Florida Green Building Coalition code standards.
Babcock Ranch is also a ‘smart’ community; each home and business in the place has a gigabyte worth of fibre-optic connectivity. A ‘smart grid’ electrical distribution system is designed to maximize energy efficiency. There is also a transit system based around autonomous, electric-powered shuttles.
Construction on the first private homes and commercial buildings in Babcock Ranch commenced September 2016, with the first homeowners moving in January 2018. There are newly-opened restaurants, retail outlets and a school in the community, and the area is crisscrossed with biking and hiking trails and lakes.
Babcock Ranch is designed for thousands of residents, not millions. Still, this smallish community highlights measures big cities can implement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy costs and reliance on fossil fuels while creating more liveable, IT-friendly environments.
One simple measure that cities can adopt is to encourage contractors to participate in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED sets criteria to conserve energy and water use in buildings, reduce waste sent to landfill sites and facilitate clean air flow and natural light, among other measures. Buildings that pass muster can be promoted as LEED certified or LEED Silver, Gold or Platinum.
According to the USGBC, more than 90,000 projects around the world, in over 160 countries, have followed LEED building practises. The council estimates that “nearly five million people experience a LEED building on a daily basis.”
One alluring goal is to create a ‘zero-energy’ or near-zero building, which is defined as a building that consumes the same amount of energy per year that it creates on-site, through solar panels, wind turbines or other methods. This is a pretty high bar to obtain, so a simple green roof – having a garden on the rooftop of a commercial or residential building – might be a more realistic goal. A green roof can improve air quality, absorb heat in summer and soak up rain-water, so it is less likely to leak through the roof or overwhelm a runoff system.
LEED is also growing in popularity as part of the larger green construction trend. The 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study from the USGBC estimates that by 2018, LEED-related construction projects will support some 1.4 million jobs in the United States, while providing $95.7 billion in labour earnings.
It is not hard to figure out why LEED standards and green buildings are popular; people like living and working in them. Productivity and workforce retention increase in healthy buildings. Owners appreciate the reduced maintenance costs, and real-estate agents can use the green angle for promotion. Plus, federal, state and local loans or tax credits are often available for contractors who follow green standards.
LEED is not just for individual buildings anymore. Last year, the USGBC launched a pilot “LEED for Cities and Communities” certification program. Participating municipalities could be rated on measures such as water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste and stormwater management, crime, education, transportation infrastructure, affordable housing and air quality index. Cities could earn points by submitting plans for carbon reduction, disaster preparedness or maintaining healthy communities.
In December 2017, Arlington County, Virginia was recognized as the first Platinum level community under the LEED for Communities program, run by the USGBC. Arlington County has a population of around 230,000 people. In the past few years, Arlington launched several municipal initiatives to boost energy efficiency in county government buildings and in county vehicles and infrastructure. A County Community Energy Plan (CEP), approved in 2013, is designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions in building construction through water and energy efficiency.
The same month that Arlington County earned its honours, the City of Phoenix, with a population of 1.6 million people, attained ‘LEED for Cities’ Platinum certification.
“Phoenix has earned a national reputation for leadership on sustainability, and this prominent certification validates our incredible progress. We’ve set ambitious goals, and Phoenix will continue to take more steps to divert waste, increase water efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, which benefits us, our environment and our economy,” stated Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, in a December 15, 2017 USGBC press release.
Such measures would surely please the USGBC. One of the council’s goals, as stated in its 2017-2019 strategic plan, is to increase the number of sustainable and healthy communities and cities in the United States.
Such thinking has come to Canada as well. Last year, the Canadian government launched something called the Smart Cities Challenge. The idea is to encourage communities to embrace connected technology and innovation, with the goal of improving the lives of residents. Money is involved; there is one prize up to $50 million for communities of any size, two prizes up to $10 million for communities under half-a-million people and one prize of up to $5 million for cities under 30,000 people. The challenge is further proof that, in 2018, being a smart, sustainable community can be good for the bottom line as well as the environment.