Emerald cities

Would you like to move to an eco-township? An eco-township is essentially a sustainable planned community where people live and work, much like a college campus. The developers of these communities are setting out to attract environmentally conscious workers to move in and live the sustainable dream. Will people relocate to be green, or is there a better approach?

Masdar City is an eco-community near Abu Dhabi. According to a  September 2014 Fast Company (www.fastcoexist.com) article, “Masdar City is the embodiment of an economic dream, an ambition on the scale of a planned investment close to $18 billion: a zero-carbon city—a challenge for a country with the third-largest global ecological footprint per capita—supposed to attract more than 50,000 people and almost as many commuters, employees of large international companies and young high-tech startups.”  

What is the downside? According to this article, barely a hundred students were living there last year, a far cry from the 50,000 full-time resident capacity.  

Masdar City has a rolling opening date with multiple phases, so it is hard to tell when people should be filling in. Maybe the downturn in the local luxury housing market is the issue. It could be that the location is too far from the city. Maybe the majority of adults just don’t want to live where they work. Whatever the issue, this walled green city of the future would be a better business case for eco-townships if there were a line of people for miles across the desert waiting to move in.  

Townland Consultant LTD (www.townland.com) is developing the Nav Surat eco-township in India. Their website shows an incredible World’s Fair-looking city that claims to cater to all income groups. At over nine square miles of proposed development, it is a very ambitious project. It is located near the ninth largest city in India, but I can’t find any evidence that people have actually moved there. Outside of Times of India article mentions stating that eco-developments and tech-cities are being developed, I can’t find actual journalistic confirmation of a booming city that was supposed to be completed in 2010. Like Masdar City, it may be too early to know if this was a success or not. It may be another example of an eco-township that is just not as popular as expected. To be fair, these are just two examples I found, not a survey of every eco-township in the world. 

I think these planned, sustainable cities are really cool. It makes a lot of sense to have a new city designed from top to bottom with energy efficiency, easy transportation, and sustainability in mind. Small energy independent, or near independent, towns like Nav Surat and Masdar City, could be a great way for people to live with little worry of international energy supplies and prices. One of the biggest advantages is the fact that a long commute isn’t needed to get to work or anything else you might need for eco-township residents. They are designed around walking, biking, and taking mass transit, not super highways. 

Transportation is the least productive part of my workweek. While I can make phone calls in the car, I can’t safely do much else. For most Americans, a long daily commute is a necessity. The more we physically have to travel as a country to do work, the less productive we are.  

If oil shot to $10/gallon next week, millions of people in commuter cities would have to alter their daily routines. In May, Fortune (http://fortune.com) reported that a 2013 University of Michigan study on transportation found that the average commute to work in the 30 largest cites in the U.S. was 28.5 minutes. New York City has a 39.7-minute per commute average, but only a small percentage of those people drive alone in a car to work. In Louisville, Ky., 82.9 percent of working-age adults drive a car alone to work. Overall, the average American is wasting a lot of productive time getting to and from their jobs.

I mention the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo a lot in my articles, because that sudden oil shortage caught us off-guard and it wasn’t a bright spot in our nation’s history. Of all the things that aren’t productive or good for America, waiting in line at a gas station for expensive and limited gasoline instead of doing literally anything else is right up at the top of the list. I’d like to think another shortage of oil wouldn’t result in a similar scenario, but I imagine our response would be very similar if it happened again. 

The walled city, college campus style eco-township model in my examples may not be attracting the masses expected, but it does alleviate the transportation woes most of us face. However, we can’t just abandon all our cities and move to new developments to save energy.  

When I lived in Chicago, a new “sustainable business community” building was just opening around the corner from where I lived. The Green Exchange is an old warehouse that was converted into retail and commercial space. The LEED Platinum building rents space to companies in the field of sustainability and has an eco-city atmosphere.  You can walk around the building and collaborate with other companies with no need for transportation.   

When the Green Exchange was finishing construction, there were condos available on the upper floors. Now, those spaces are all commercial, with an event space on the top floor. This could be another example of people not necessarily wanting to live and work all in one structure. The difference with the Green Exchange compared to Masdar City is that it is in a northwest neighborhood of Chicago with easy access to buses and an elevated train line; it isn’t a destination in the middle of a desert. If the business tenants want to live right next door, they have that option. If they want to live by their friends and family in a different neighborhood, there are plenty of easy ways to get to work.  

The Merchandise Mart in Chicago was built on this model back in the 1930s. When it opened, it was the largest building in the world. Today, it is still a commercial structure where the design community can take an elevator to another floor and meet with industry contemporaries and then hop on the train and head home.     

At some point, eco-townships may become the preferred option living and working. There is a lot of value in being able to get to work without the need for a long car commute. For the time being, collaborative multi-tenant workspaces could be the best of both worlds.  Unless, you want to move to Masdar City right now. I bet they would make you a deal on a small apartment near an electric pod bus stop. 

Max Rohr has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and is Radiant Professional Alliance’s (RPA) Education Committee Chairman. He can be reached at max.rohr@mac.com and @maxjrohr.com.

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