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What Will The Sustainable Community Look Like In The Future?

Today more than ever planners are recommending— and being urged to recommend —"sustainable" development practices. But what makes a development truly sustainable remains an open question, as there is uncertainty over what the sustainable community may look like as little as one generation in the future.

In interviews that CP&DR recently conducted with planners, academics, developers and advocates, a rough consensus of sustainable development began to emerge: The sustainable community will be compact, have numerous transportation options besides the car, and be far more energy-efficient than today's neighborhoods and cities.

Nearly everyone talks about foot power and solar power. There's also widespread agreement that anything — development patterns, transportation, infrastructure, private enterprise — that relies on large quantities of fossil fuels does not have stable future.

Still, this is only a rough outline. There is no definition of sustainability. "You can really crack your noggin over what will be sustainable for the long-term," said David Goldberg, of the organization Smart Growth America.

"I don't think anybody knows what will be sustainable 50 to 100 years from now," said Stephen Wheeler, a professor at University of California, Davis.

What we do know, added Laura Hall, a San Francisco-based urban designer, is that automobile-dominated suburbs are failing. "It's possible," she said, "that we're all living in a major transition time. It just seems that so many things are coming together."

Those converging factors involve the sharp rise in energy and food costs, the sense that those costs are not going to reverse, and growing interest in halting global climate change. As a result, numerous cities and counties in California are preparing climate change plans and making sustainability a key component of long-term planning documents (see CP&DR, June 2008). With this in mind, CP&DR talked to a number of experienced professionals with a wide variety of viewpoints about just what the sustainable community might look like in the future. Here are some of the most thought-provoking responses.

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Steve Coyle is an architect and urban designer who heads Town Green, an Oakland-based consulting company of "green urbanists."

"The basic smart growth principles of compact development, diversity of uses and making it as walkable as possible apply," Coyle said of the sustainable community. "Increase mobility through non-polluting modes, which would be walking, biking, skateboarding or even electric vehicles. It's creating more choice, and less dependence on the automobile."

"We know how to do all of this stuff — all of the planners and good urban designers do." But, Coyle warned, "solving the economic part of it is really tough." Coyle is helping the cities of Martinez, Hayward and Salinas put together climate change action plans, and, he said, "The one feature that keeps rising to the top of the heap is the economic impact."

The sustainable community, he insisted, will need an economy that is more locally based, less-dependent on fossil fuel, and more environmentally beneficial. Technology may be helpful in the transition to this localized, green economy, but Coyle emphasizes employment of "time-tested" solutions, some of which may be thousands of years old. These solutions include concepts such as incorporating agriculture and food production into urban regions, he said. Farmers may also need to reconsider what they grow. Using all of a region's farmland for commodity crops such as corn, soybeans or rice is not sustainable if it means the region must import most of what the residents eat, he said.

Coyle also pressed the need for workforce education and retraining, and flexibility that accommodates new science and technology. For example, he said, the mass production of stand-alone solar power systems appears to be only a few years off. Urban planners need to "make sure we include the possibility of retrofit with that item later on," he said.

"If there's a sort of tagline for our approach to sustainability, it's what works best for the long-term
that will sustain us in the short term?" Coyle posited.

As a leader of the National Charrette Institute, Coyle is helping to design a template for sustainability. "The question," he said, "is not just how can we reduce our carbon footprint, but how can we be economically sustainable and improve the environment and reduce our use of non-renewables?"

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Dawn Weisz is the coordinator of the Sustainability Team for the Marin County Community Development Agency.

"There are some key components," Weisz said of the sustainable community. "First of all, it's powered by renewable resources, and power is generated locally.

"Localized food production and sources of water are important," she continued, citing the potential for underground water storage. "As far as transportation, obviously, we would need to unhook off of any dependence on fossil fuels." That means electric vehicles and many options for travel, which itself requires compact cities. In the sustainable community, she said, "there is not such a big need to travel on a day-to-day basis."

"There is less cement, and less smoke going into the air," Weisz said of the sustainable community. "It's probably quieter because there are fewer cars. As the scale comes down to walking and biking, it becomes more of a community feel with people out of their cars and interacting."

Weisz also called social equity an essential component of the sustainable community. Money and other resources need to remain in the community, not get shipped elsewhere, she said.

The Marin County general plan that was adopted less than one year ago (see CP&DR Local Watch, January 2008) addresses social equity by encouraging access to lifelong educational opportunities, making child care facilities easy to site, incorporating affordable housing into new developments, ensuring compact development, and offering transportation choices, she said.

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Stephen Wheeler is an assistant professor in the landscape architecture program at University of California, Davis, and is the author of Planning for Sustainability: Towards Livable, Equitable, and Ecological Communities, and the co-editor of The Sustainable Urban Development Reader. His book Learning from Climate Change is due out later this year.

"We are going to have to re-invent our entire society in this century," contended Wheeler, a former lobbyist for environmental organizations.

For Wheeler, a critical component of sustainability is ending the unlimited mobility of people and goods that evolved during the 20th Century. "There is no alternative set of technologies that is not going to have huge greenhouse gas impacts on the planet, and other impacts," Wheeler said. That means the sustainable community "is going to be much more of a village-like model, even if it's a fairly large village," he said.

This sustainable village will have a fine-grained, organic mix of uses, extensive open space and greenways, and community food systems. There will be "a lot fewer motor vehicles, and more people."

"It's going to involve a hell of a lot less mobility than we have right now. It's going to be much more place-oriented," he said. What Wheeler envisions looks a lot like old European cities that were designed prior to the automobile and where people are able to meet many needs within a short walk from home.

Buildings, he said, should be carbon-neutral, meaning they only use as much energy as they can generate through nonpolluting means. Locating buildings to take advantage of passive solar light and heat, and installing solar heating or photovoltaic systems and even vegetated rooftops are concepts we know how to implement, he said. The issue of implementation is more political than technical because of the costs involved, he said.

Wheeler sees large-scale commercial and office developments as essentially "land banks" that are relatively easily retrofitted into sustainable new communities. "We will make the transition, but it's going to take a long time, and it's going to be painful," he predicted.

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Laura Hall is a principal with Hall Alminana, Inc., of San Francisco and an advocate of form-based zoning codes.

Hall sees reform of transportation as essential to sustainability. "What we all need to do as planners is build as though the car is going to get less important over time, as if the car is not as prominent as it is today," she said.

"It's not necessarily about us completely getting small and living in a small world, but being able to cover distances in the most efficient manner," said Hall. Thus, the sustainable community provides for many needs at the neighborhood level, but also offers easy access to transit for travel beyond the neighborhood, she explained.

For Hall, sustainability is similar to the precepts of new urbanism and form-based codes, or "smart codes," that emphasize the public realm and connectivity. Urban planners have been perfecting these tools over the last 15 years. Now, she said, they need to employ the tools, especially when reworking suburbia into a form that involves an organic mix of uses such as home businesses and small shops, transforming malls into walkable downtowns, and forging links between single-family neighborhoods and these new downtowns.

"So much of California is suburban-oriented, it's going to take a big push," said Hall, who insisted that she is optimistic.

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Gary Binger is lecturer in city and regional planning at University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Urban Land Institute's Smart Growth Initiative.

Binger equates smart growth, especially its heavy reliance on transit, with sustainability. "Smart growth is just good planning. It's woven into the new urbanist approach. I see all of it sort of the same way," Binger said. What's important, he added, is to maintain a state and regional perspective.

State and regional entities need to spend infrastructure dollars in a way that encourages smart growth, he said. This works as both a carrot and a stick: If a city plans for high housing densities, it receives money for transportation projects, especially transit. But if a jurisdiction insists on the low-density suburban model, it is on its own for transportation funding.

In implementing the greenhouse gas emissions reduction law (AB 32) it is "crucial for the state to do a lot more to reward cities, and to discourage cities from not reducing VMT [vehicle miles traveled]," he said.

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Michael Dieden is president of Creative Housing Associates, a Culver City-based developer of transit-oriented developments.

The sustainable community, Dieden said, will place an "emphasis on the pedestrian and the bicycle and transit." To do so, shopping, entertainment, parks and open space will all be within walking distance of homes or easily accessible by transit.

In addition, the sustainable community will feature use of photovoltaic and other alternative energy sources, green building materials and recycled products, buildings with more insulation, and drought-resistant landscaping, he forecasted.

"After World War II, the development community went brain dead," argued Dieden, who credits the Congress for New Urbanism as a positive influence on development values. "The emphasis should be on the human being, and not on the automobile. You'll come up with a much more livable community."

Not surprisingly, Dieden sees transit-oriented developments — such as his 67-unit housing project on the Gold Line in South Pasadena — as sustainable because the close proximity of a variety of housing units to transit and shopping greatly reduces the carbon footprint from the typical suburban, segregated-use development.

"The epicenter of South Pasadena moved from the corner of Fair Oaks and Mission down half a mile to Meridian and Mission," he said of redevelopment around the Mission Meridian Village project. "It changed the whole dynamic of the city from an auto-oriented neighborhood to a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. It's Norman Rockwell. You'll see mothers with kids literally pulling red wagons down to the farmers market."

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David Goldberg is communications director for Smart Growth America based in Washington, D.C., and author of two books, Choosing Our Community's Future: A citizen's guide to getting the most from development, and Rethinking the American Dream.

"The only thing that is likely to be sustainable for human society is neighborhoods that are first-rate human habitat — neighborhoods that people cherish and are able to use and re-use over generations," Goldberg said. These neighborhoods are aesthetically pleasing, safe, provide for people's daily needs and are easy to navigate, he explained.

Goldberg said the notion of sustainable communities "fuses several different trains of thought that have been out there for several years." These include new urbanism, the green building movement, and interest in ecosystem restoration.

Rather than struggling for elusive sustainability, Goldberg said, "I like the term ‘green neighborhood.' Green is sort of aspirational." The green neighborhood, he said, uses both land and energy efficiently and is "literally green."

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