What Exactly Is One Planet Living?

Interview with Kirstie Moore, Sustainability Project Manager for Sonoma Mountain Village

One Planet Living Communities, a program of BioRegional Development Group, is a radical sustainability initiative promoting development that fits what proponents consider a socially equitable ecological footprint. As defined, a “one planet” ecological footprint is a consumption pattern in which individuals use, directly or indirectly, no more than their proportionate share of the natural resources that the world can sustainably produce. In North America, using proponents’ assumptions and calculations, that means scaling back overall resource use by 80 percent on average. In the BioRegional framework, it also means achieving zero waste and zero carbon dioxide emissions from building operations, among other metrics.

To BioRegional, “one planet” living is not just a lofty ideal, but a fully-operational design principle. Based in London, the company currently coordinates with a handful of One Planet Living Communities including Masdar City, the “world’s largest eco-city,” under construction 11 miles outside of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. BioRegional’s flagship North American project is Sonoma Mountain Village, a private, for-profit development by Codding Enterprises in Rohnert Park, California.

Codding Enterprises is best known for building some of the first suburban shopping malls in northern California. Local historian Gaye LeBaron has reportedly likened company founder Hugh Codding’s sweeping influence on the area to the 1906 earthquake. (The natural disaster nearly leveled Santa Rosa at the same time that it devastated San Francisco, 50 miles further south.) At first glance, it seems incongruous that building the first “one planet” development in North America has fallen to Codding Enterprises. In reality, the company is doing what it has always done: building and selling the suburban “American dream.” Only, at least in the heartland of progressive northern California where there is already a Prius on every block, the market in suburban ideals is changing.

Rohnert Park (pop. 41,000) is also a storied setting for Sonoma Mountain Village. The city was incorporated in 1962 and modeled after the master-planned and mass-produced postwar “Levittowns,” the archetypal American suburb. One feature of its masterminding is Rohnert Park’s maddeningly circuitous, alphabetically clustered street network. An unwary visitor trying to get across town can easily find themselves at any number of cul-de-sacs dead-ending at neighborhood parks. (Dana Court, Diane Court, Darlene Court and Donna Court near Dorotea Park, to take a random example). There are no cul-de-sacs in the plans for Sonoma Mountain Village. This next-generation master plan utilizes the SmartCode design template, intended to promote forms similar to the organic patterns of development of traditional villages and cities-in essence a reversal of the patterns of development rigidly enforced by conventional zoning laws.

Eventually, 1,900 homes and 500,000 square feet of commercial space will be built at the 200-acre site. The project already boasts of a $7.5-million, 1.14-megawatt solar panel array, biodiesel-powered construction, and an on-site zero-waste steel frame factory. (Project planners find steel framing ideal because it dramatically reduces construction time as compared to wood-frame construction, and because, unlike most wood posts and beams, the steel beams can be recycled into new buildings at a later date.)

The scale of Sonoma Mountain Village and Masdar City make them more than just your average utopian or alternative-living experiments. Those who are not motivated by, for example, social equity for its own sake, may view these projects simply as more green businesses in the booming sustainability industry, albeit ones that are pushing the edge of what is technically and legally possible.

There is plenty of room for disagreement on the merits of the assumptions embedded in the environmental and social ideals that appear to be driving these developments. And life in these communities is clearly not for everybody. But even skeptics and critics of the initiative may find it interesting to see how these developments fare, and wonder if the challenge of their implementation will reveal anything about the environmental and social questions that lie underneath the carefully-calibrated design metrics of “one planet” living.

Reason Foundation’s Skaidra Smith-Heisters recently interviewed Kirstie Moore, Sustainability Project Manager for Sonoma Mountain Village, to get details on what the project entails.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters: Social equity is a fundamental of the One Planet Living initiative, the ecological footprint framework and (along with environment and economy) one of the so-called “Three Es” of sustainability. How does the design of Sonoma Mountain Village accommodate social equity?

Kirstie Moore: Sonoma County has relatively high housing costs compared with wages. And combined with the high percentage of single-family homes in the existing housing stock, there is a shortage of affordable housing. We will build more affordable housing than required by law and without deed restrictions to promote upward economic mobility. We intend to make it easy and affordable for our residents to live and work within Sonoma Mountain Village. Our goal is to create over 4,400 jobs from Sonoma Mountain Village, which will more than replace the 2,500 lost when Agilent, the former owner of the [high tech manufacturing] campus, vacated Rohnert Park. The mixed use plan of the community allows for jobs and people to be within a close proximity to each other, which also reduces the amount of carbon produced from VMTs (vehicle miles traveled). Codding has also invested in a Business Incubator which currently leases approximately 30,000 square feet of office space at Sonoma Mountain Village; the Incubator is available to new business specializing in sustainable resources and socially-relevant technologies. [According to Moore, a “socially-relevant technology” is technology that solves a social problem-Ed.]

Smith-Heisters: So, over the next 50 years as population grows-not only in Sonoma County, but in the world as a whole-you’ll be recalculating how this community fits in?

Moore: We’ll be constantly recalculating and looking at the data that is available to make sure that we keep within the “one planet” footprint. We have our 2020 goals, and various goals along the path, but it is a moving target. We can only base our calculations and our project development on the information that we currently have. We do have to be flexible, that’s kind of the beauty of having BioRegional One Planet Communities overseeing us. It entails continual monitoring.

Smith-Heisters: How does social equity as a design principle at Sonoma Mountain Village sync with bioregional ideas and local environmental considerations? (For example, the differences in natural amenities between northern California and sub-Saharan Africa?)

Moore: BioRegional looks for appropriate ways to create social equity within the context of the specific region. For example, in the Masdar City project in the UAE they paid particular attention to labor practices. In Sonoma County, due to local and state laws, that is not a challenge we face.

Smith-Heisters: What regulatory impediments has the project faced? How do the technological challenges of the development compare to the challenges of “legalizing sustainable development”?

Moore: If you clear a path for technology it is usually created pretty quickly in today’s world. The challenges that we face “legalizing sustainable development” are usually policy-related, which takes a lot longer.

PUC Rule 18 states that it is illegal to cross property lines with privately-metered energy. If PUC Rule 18 gets changed at some point, then we would be able to take central solar systems and supply individual residences with power. If we manage to overcome that at some point, we would actually be able to make it more affordable for people to buy these homes with all this technology on it-it is about a 30-35 percent cost difference.

Water is a huge story in Sonoma County. The fact that it is currently illegal to flush a toilet with anything but drinking water is almost funny, especially when you look at the plight of the rest of the world and the kind of water the rest of the world is drinking. It is really very sad. If that rule can be changed- [State Assemblyman] Jared Huffman has been extremely successful in getting that rule changed in multi-family units, condos and prisons, in everything but single-family-then our homes will be able to reduce water use by probably over 85 percent. Currently, without those kinds of technologies available, we can reduce water use within the individual home by 55-60 percent, which is still pretty good.

Smith-Heisters: Do you have a sense of why there is resistance to changing the PUC requirements?

Moore: I don’t actually think there’s resistance, frankly. PUC Rule 18 was put in to encourage people to reduce energy use. It was put in there for a reason that made sense at the time, it is just outdated and we need to start the process of changing it. One developer can’t do it alone, but a lot of people actually do recognize that it is an issue. It is just a matter of getting it done.

Street widths are another issue for us. With SmartCode, we want to have narrower streets. We don’t want our streets to be set up for drag racing. The City of Rohnert Park is absolutely on board with narrowing the street widths. Most cities are. It is actually the [Office of the] State Fire Marshal that is the roadblock there with concerns about fire truck access. Again, there are sensible reasons why it should be a certain way. However, there are options. Cities (such as Chico) in California have gotten narrower street widths. In Sacramento, a couple of weeks ago, I presented at an Attorney General and local government commission workshop, where a supervisor from Sacramento was talking about the Elverta Specific Plan. They have incentives within that plan to say if a developer will commit to exceeding [California energy efficiency regulatory requirements] by 25 percent, one of the things they’ll be granted is narrower street widths.

If the [neighborhood] electric vehicle speed limit could go up to 35 miles per hour instead of 25 miles per hour, it might encourage people to use electric vehicles. [Neighborhood electric vehicles are light-weight one- to four-person battery-powered vehicles intended for short trips, restricted by law from going over 25 miles per hour and driving on any roadway with a speed limit in excess of 35 miles per hour-Ed.] Trying to encourage people to get out of the car is probably one of the hardest things. Vehicle miles traveled and the effect VMT have on the environment is absolutely huge in relation to land use. Planning your development around something like the SmartCode, and providing residents with options like links to rail, bus routes, really good car sharing, positioning the community so that everybody is within maybe a 10-minute walk to a school and then setting up systems like “walking buses” to actually get children to school (where you’ve got children walking in twos, with adults on either end). You can provide them with safe access to school without 25 parents individually dropping their kids off in the car.

Smith-Heisters: What is the timeframe that you’re using for this particular development-how far out are you looking? How long do you think this community will be functioning in the way you’ve imagined it?

Moore: We are looking for this to be a community that will go on and on and on. As new technologies or different practices come online in 20-, 50-, 100-years’ time, maybe things will change. The houses that are built from steel frame can be truly recycled into different structures that the technology of the future will be able to support. The community will be governed by an HOA [Home Owners’ Association], which for the foreseeable future would need to be part of this. I would hate to see that it exists over time exactly as it does at build-out, because with the way the world is moving and the knowledge that the world is gaining, things will need to change. Hopefully we will set a framework where that will happen, and the “one planet” footprint will go on for as long as people are living here.

Smith-Heisters: What will the HOA require of people that live and work in this community, and what does that allow you to do in terms of design that you wouldn’t be able to do in a more conventional development?

Moore: HOAs are pretty common. With Sonoma Mountain Village, it is imperative that you have some form of HOA. Codding will be part of the HOA until it is large enough to be taken over by the homeowners. With so many common areas on the site-wetlands, a riparian corridor, a retention pond area with natural habitat, community gardens, the town square, underground water storage of around 4 million gallons-all of that infrastructure eventually needs to be adopted by the city, water agency, county, community, and/or HOA. That’s all factored into how we set up the HOA. Eventually, say PUC Rule 18 does get changed. Then, the HOA would most likely be responsible for managing the solar array that provides power to the single-family homes. Maybe they would manage certain greywater systems. In a typical HOA, or what CC&R [covenants, conditions and restrictions] would govern, you see things like: you can’t paint your house pink, can’t leave a car parked outside for more than X amount of time, can’t rent a bed and breakfast room for more than two weeks, things like that.

We don’t want to restrict people from becoming more environmentally conscious. My background is with traditional, very large, mass-producing homebuilders. In the CC&Rs and HOA rules and requirements I’m used to looking at, you would never be allowed to put a solar array on the roof, because “it would be ugly!” You wouldn’t be allowed to grow vegetables in your front yard because it would “take away from the street presence.” You couldn’t have a water collection tank on the side of your home. There are still parameters-we don’t want Sonoma Mountain Village to become wild and crazy, we want it to be appealing, to have people be able to live here in luxury and have all of the amenities you would normally have, and still have an infrastructure set up that is within a “one planet” footprint. The HOA and the CC&Rs will give process for people to manage disputes, how the common land is maintained, govern the wetlands. When the project is built out we envision that there is going to be more wildlife and natural habitat here than there is now-it is pretty barren after Agilent-bee gardens, butterfly gardens, green roofs to encourage the ground-feeding birds to go where the cats can’t get them. We’re really trying to think outside of the box, but all of those scenarios are going to have to be managed eventually. If a roof garden is private, that’s one thing. But if it is part of the community, that would have to be managed by the HOA. Unfortunately, not everybody has the same idea about how things should be used, so you have to have some kind regulation about what those parameters are.

Smith-Heisters: But will you be able to paint your house pink?

Moore: It depends on the shade-probably not, I’m thinking. But that’s no different than any other community out there. There is always going to be that kind of tug-of-war.