Living green: A ‘one planet’ ethic
If any organization has a truly global vision of sustainability, it’s Bioregional.
The United Kingdom-based company has created an initiative called One Planet Communities. Those communities, now in place in several countries, are committed to reducing the ecological footprint of their residents to a truly sustainable level by 2020.
“The point of the One Planet program is to try to achieve true sustainability instead of just a reduction in emissions relative to something abstract like building codes or 1990 levels,” says Greg Searle, executive director of BioRegional’s North America office.
“The only real absolute that we know is that we have one planet and that there are nearly seven billion of us on a limited amount of bio-productive land. It’s a kind of global speed limit that we’re exceeding unsafely.”
The One Planet initiative was inspired by BedZED, an urban eco-village Bioregional helped create in 2002 in the U.K. BedZED ended up being a living laboratory for ecological living, inspiring a new generation of design and public policy, Searle says.
“The One Planet program grew out of the observation that if we could create that much change in one country, just by building a small demonstration project, that we ought to challenge conventional ideas about sustainability with larger, more ambitious demonstration projects around the world.”
Searle, a Canadian and an Ottawa resident, is One Planet’s North American manager and a member of the organization’s international steering committee.
There are now One Planet communities in Portugal, China, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, and most recently in the U.S.: the Sonoma Mountain Village, or SOMO, in Rohnert Park, Calif., just north of San Francisco.
The SOMO project has all-encompassing sustainability as its goal. Sonoma Mountain Village is a 200-acre, mixed-use, solar-powered zero-waste community, of almost 1,700 homes that aims to have every resident no more than a five-minute walk to groceries, restaurants, day-care and other amenities offering local and sustainable products and services.
When asked how the initiative differs from green-building programs such as LEED, and in particular LEED for Neighbourhood Development, Searle says One Planet is goal-driven rather than point-driven, but also works to inject sustainability into every aspect of the project. For example, one development in the U.K. not only ran a sustainable canteen for construction workers, it also encouraged them to bike to work.
“Just going to the highest level of a greenbuilding rating system like LEED doesn’t get you out of trouble [with carbon emissions] in the building category, and does very little to help the waste and transportation contributions that are often very significant,” he says. At last year’s Living Futures Conference, Bioregional and SOMO developer Codding Enterprises presented a study on the total carbon footprint of households in various green-building scenarios.
To live truly sustainably, the report said, U.S. households would have to achieve a 75per-cent reduction in their total carbon footprint.
The study found that even households in an LEED for Neighbourhood Development platinum project - the highest ranking possible - achieved only an 18-per-cent reduction. Green buildings and smart-growth planning are important steps, says Searle, noting that while LEED works nicely with the One Planet program, green buildings alone are not nearly enough.
Rising to the challenge
Already frustrated by the process and results he was seeing in his own LEED projects, Geof Syphers of Codding Enterprises welcomed the challenge One Planet Com- munities offered when developing the Sonoma Mountain Village.
“Even in the very best-case scenario, under an LEED Platinum project, we were only reducing CO2 emissions by 15 to 20 per cent relative to the status quo,” says Syphers. “Even if we were beating stringent codes by 40 per cent, and we’re supplying half of the power with renewable energy, we’re still providing the other half with fossil fuels and causing a net detriment to the planet.”
Syphers says the One Planet framework was attractive, in part, because it lays out exactly what is needed to achieve sustainability. “It makes no claim that you’ll succeed,” he says, “but if you fall short, you’ll know exactly what the gap is and why, and then they publish that widely.
An important tool in the One Planet program is a publicly available annual audit. Searle
describes this aspect as particularly timely in light of recent negative press over green buildings found to be underperforming. “Monitoring is generally a huge gap and it’s rare to find a real estate developer that’s willing to take risk over a 10-year period to have their progress reviewed. I think it makes a much better product for the consumer and raises the integrity and credibility of a project enormously.”
Both Searle and Syphers acknowledge that they cannot control the environmental impact residents have when the developer leaves the SOMO development, but when they consider the BedZED experience and others, they estimate that the design, planning and services of the development with help residents reduce their total direct carbon emissions by 83 per cent.
“My main motivation is to first legalize this and enable it,” says Syphers. From variances needed to narrow streets, to the three bills now pending to expand solar applications, Sonoma Mountain Village’s greatest impact, like BedZED’s, could well be in forging the way for others.
An artist's rendering of a single family home at Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park, Calif., north of San Francisco. The development is a 200-acre, mixed-use, solar-powered zero-waste community of almost 1,700 homes that aims to locate every household no more than a five-minute walk away from groceries, restaurants, daycare and other amenities offering local and sustainable products and services.