Environmentally-conscious Americans have long lamented how few green cities there are in this nation — urban or suburban communities that are walkable and bikable, generating minimal pollution, and not reliant upon outside energy sources. Some cities, such as Portland, Oregon, may have acquired aspects of eco-sustainability over time, and all those efforts are certainly laudable. But aside from the handful of small communes and Amish communities that are "off the grid", there are no US cities built from the ground up to be as green as possible.
That sad record is about to change, with the planned creation of Babcock Ranch, to be located near Fort Myers, in Charlotte County, Florida. Collaborating on this project are real estate developer Kitson & Partners and Florida Power & Light. This new city will occupy roughly 17,000 of the original 91,000-acre ranch, and the other 81 percent of the land will remain in its natural state, protected in perpetuity as The Babcock Ranch Preserve, containing all of the most environmentally sensitive lands. Also, more than half of the city area will be dedicated to parks, lakes, and natural greenways.
Babcock Ranch will be the world's first solar-powered city, deriving all of its energy needs from a 75-megawatt, $300-million, emission-free, photovoltaic (PV) facility — the largest in the United States, and the largest on-site solar plant powering any city in the world. Most of the photovoltaic panels will be placed on a 400-acre area outside of the city, as well as on top of numerous commercial buildings within the city. Electrical needs should be lower than those of typical American cities, because all residential, commercial, and government buildings are planned to be engineered using state-of-the-art energy-efficient methods and materials. All of the buildings will utilize smart-grid technology, allowing owners to perform real-time monitoring of their power consumption for maximum efficiency, to use high-load appliances during off-peak hours (when rates are lower), and even to do remote programming of every electrical outlet. Residents generating some of their own power will enjoy additional savings when they feed any excess power back into the electric grid.
Transportation consumes the bulk of liquid energy in the United States, and Babcock Ranch will avoid this addiction to petroleum fuel by using 100-percent electric vehicles, which will be powered up as needed at recharging stations located throughout the community. In addition, Babcock Ranch is planned to be America's most walkable and bikable city, with miles of trails — even at night, utilizing solar-powered streetlights. Yet unlike what is found in most American cities, light pollution will be minimized, using fully-shielded "dark sky" fixtures that light up the ground but not the sky, thereby saving energy, improving nighttime viewing of the stars, and preserving the natural cycle of night and day for the local wildlife (the non-human kind, that is).
Internet access is now such an essential part of modern life and commerce, that it is difficult to imagine families and businesses functioning without it. Babcock Ranch is scheduled to have an open, high-performance wireless network providing coverage for the entire community — allowing people to work and surf the Web from any location in the city, without being tethered to a DSL or cable Internet wired connection, and paying the costs of that Internet connectivity.
The Sunshine State is known for the occasional devastating tropical storm just as much as its balmy weather, and the city's planners point to Babcock Ranch's advantages for hurricane preparedness: The city will be located on high ground, away from the coast. Its stringent building codes specify that structures can withstand winds up to 120 miles per hour. Native vegetation will minimize the risk of branches and other components of landscaping becoming airborne and damaging buildings. The two-way communications capability of the electrical smart grid will facilitate rapid recovery after a major storm. Furthermore, the "self-healing" system will be equipped with multiple distribution paths, and will automatically reroute to keep power flowing.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the developers, is how to entice families and businesses to move into a brand-new, unestablished city. Will the planners be able to fill the residential and commercial buildings fast enough to offset the investment — especially given the current economic slowdown, particularly in real estate? After all, why build a new city from scratch when countless unsold or foreclosed houses currently stand empty throughout the state?
Families will be attracted by the 19,500 energy-efficient homes, the city's long-range urban planning, and the estimated 20,000 permanent jobs, as well as the planned magnet schools, parks, trails, shops, restaurants, 240-acre lake, and state-of-the-art fitness center — all within walking distance of downtown. Businesses will be attracted by the modern infrastructure, high quality of life for employees, 6 million square feet of retail and light industrial space, and promised assistance for companies trying to move from R&D to implementation, using clean energy.
Babcock Ranch may prove appealing to any American who wishes to live in the greenest city in America.