Forty miles north of San Francisco, on the site of the former industrial park of Agilent Technologies, work is underway on the ambitious new Sonoma Mountain Village, a 200-acre development that aims to be truly sustainable. Slated for final completion in 2020, the development is America’s first to be certified as a “One Planet Community” by BioRegional, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that helps developers and cities reduce their residents’ ecological footprints. Touted by developer Codding Enterprises, the community is based on the premise that an ordinary resident will be able to live there sustainably with little extra effort.

BioRegional asserts that “every resident is no more than a five-minute walk to groceries, restaurants, day care and other amenities offering local, sustainable, and fair trade products and services.” Construction of the first homes will begin this year, in the face of a waiting list that is already 3,000 people long.

As I drove up to attend the Sustainable Enterprise Conference being held on the campus, I wondered if it will really be possible for one new development to provide an effortlessly sustainable lifestyle. The main hurdle: The site is located in Rohnert Park, a sort of small-but-sprawling suburb where driving is the normal means.

The village center, which was designed around the reuse of existing buildings, will include a year-round farmers’ market, grocery stores, entertainment options and telecommuting desks. Alternative transportation services will be plentiful: free bikes, electric vehicles that connect to the smart grid, a biofuel filling station, plug-in hybrid carshare, carpool concierge services and a nearby Smart Rail station. The commuter rail line linking the suburb to nearby cities, including San Francisco, will be a 10-minute walk from the community.

The community will rely very little on outside resources. A combination of energy-efficiency technologies like passive solar heating will make buildings at Sonoma Mountain Village zero carbon by 2020. California’s energy efficiency policies created 1.5 million jobs in the past 35 years and have lessened the state’s vulnerability to the current economic crisis, according to a study authored by University of California, Berkeley economics professor David Roland-Holst. Between 1972 and 2006, Californians saved more than $56 billion in energy costs. On-site renewable power will supply the rest of the energy required. In 2006, an enormous 1.14MW solar photovoltaic installation was installed on the roof of an existing building, which, among other things, will power the world’s first zero-carbon data center. The existing solar power array will likely be quadrupled in the future.

To make the construction process as green as possible, Codding has built a steel-frame factory on-site to provide 20 percent of the materials required. The factory runs completely on solar power and sends no waste to the landfill: even the steel frames created can be recycled. The use of recycled steel makes it possible to reuse six SUVs to build a 2,000 square foot house rather than cutting down 40 trees. Other materials will be sourced locally, to ensure that they were made in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Codding will also be tracking embodied carbon in materials and services. Finally, the village will also incorporate existing buildings, which have undergone energy-efficiency retrofits.

A myriad of other environmental measures are planned to improve the community’s water, waste and food systems. A plan for zero waste means that by 2020, only two percent of waste will go to landfills. Water conservation and re-use, including the use of greywater and rainwater catchment systems, will be so extensive that no more city water will be required for the site beyond what is already used by the existing buildings, despite adding almost 2000 new homes. Food for the community’s grocery store and restaurants will be locally sourced and residents will have access to community gardens, fruit trees and a year-round farmers’ market. And the development will encourage biodiversity through green roofs and the restoration of local wetlands and other open spaces.

Codding is attempting to get the first-ever LEED Neighborhood Development Platinum Certification for Sonoma Mountain Village. The U.S. Green Building Council confirmed that numbers of both LEED-registered and LEED-certified projects doubled in 2008 — from 10,000 up to about 20,000. But indeed the community is a good example of how developers can go far beyond the highest LEED standards by taking an approach to sustainability that considers the full system.

The development also makes strides to address social sustainability. The village will offer on-site jobs and will provide double the affordable housing units required by law. Codding encourages its retail tenants to source fair trade goods. And a non-profit business incubator for sustainable technology is already running on-site. As the sustainability manager for Codding said, “We’re hoping they develop technologies we’ll be able to use here.” After residents move in, Codding will conduct “happiness” surveys, and gather residents’ input for the continual improvement of the community.

Will residents truly be able to live entirely sustainable lives at Sonoma Mountain Village? That’s a complicated question. Of course, any community with ties to the current outside world can’t be completely sustainable. However, the development will bring a center to an area that currently lacks one, and connecting the surrounding suburban community to both a walkable mixed-use center and a new transit hub is no small accomplishment. While dense, compact urban cores remain the most potent land use strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Sonoma Mountain Village moves in the direction of the type of planning we will need to re-imagine the far-flung suburbs in years to come. Codding CEO Brad Baker states, “We hope it to be a model for future developments in Northern California and the rest of the country.”

Ben Eckold is a business senior, the former president of the Empower Poly Coalition and a Mustang Daily columnist.

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