In California, Building a Town With a Gentle Footprint

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Can a new house reduce your ecological footprint?

An ecological footprint is a way of quantifying human impact on the earth. The originator of the concept, environmentalist Mathis Wackernagel, sees it as a way to help average people wrap their brains around an overwhelming amount of data.

Wackernagel converted all the earth's resources into a single unit of measurement, productive hectares of land. He terms that a global hectare. Then he calculated each person's share. That's the ecological footprint. With 6.6 billion people on the planet, the average stands at 1.8 global hectares per person. (1.8 global hectares equals 2.2 acres.)

The size of an average American's ecological footprint, however, has ballooned to 9.6 global hectares. If everyone on earth lived like we do, we would need five planets, clearly an unsustainable proposition. Scaling down to a "one-planet lifestyle" would require many changes.

When it comes to housing, size might seem to be the main issue. However, it's not as big a factor as you might think. Where you live and the type of transportation you use are just as important. If you have to drive to every activity outside your house, transportation takes up a significant share of your ecological footprint.

Of the choices available to new-home buyers, one of the smallest footprints could belong to a house in a New Urbanist community -- that is, one that follows the planning philosophy that models new suburban developments on older, walkable city neighborhoods. With its mixed-use land planning, shopping areas are within walking distance of most houses, so residents can use their cars less. When such a development adjoins public transportation, many two-car households get rid of one car.

To achieve true one-planet living, however, requires more. Fossil fuels would not be used, so the energy for heating, air conditioning and electricity would be produced by on-site renewable sources. To conserve local water sources, rainwater would be stored, treated and recycled. To the extent possible, building materials would be locally manufactured with recycled content.

Achieving all this community-wide would be considered impossible by most land developers and home builders. But it has been done in England by the BioRegional Development Group, which is now working with a U.S. developer.

That developer, Codding Enterprises, based in Rohnert Park north of San Francisco, is in the final planning stages of what promises to be America's first one-planet-living community, Sonoma Mountain Village. Construction is expected to begin next year and end in 2021. The eventual population is projected at about 5,000.

From a distance, Sonoma Mountain Village will appear to be a typical New Urbanist town, but close up, a visitor will see significant differences, said Geof Syphers, Codding's chief sustainability officer.

At 35 units to the acre, the housing density will be comparable to that in older neighborhoods such as Georgetown. Fifty stores and small businesses will line 10 blocks in the town-square area.

To attract an economically diverse population, more than half of the 1,900 housing units will be multifamily condominiums, senior housing, rental apartments and affordable housing. The 900 single-family houses will range from 500-square-foot cottages to conventional 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom models. The average will be 1,400 square feet.

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