Tomorrowland

An eco-smart urban design competition turns “what ifs” into “what is”

Tomorrow Land

image by Jude Buffum

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This article is part of a package brushing off the gloom and doom with good green news. Also included are:
Hiring Mother Earth To Do Her Thing : Are capitalists the new conservationists?
Green All the Lawyers : Legal expert Mary Wood on how Lady Justice could tip the scales  
In Praise Of Economic Pain : The threat of recession could lead to an environmental boon
Environmental Innovations to Give You Hope
Special Online Project: Mother Earth’s Big Comeback

Imagine a city where renewable energy is generated by helium-filled “solar balloons” floating hundreds of feet above the rooftops. Imagine a city where public transportation doesn’t follow regular routes, but is efficiently directed on demand, via cell phone and GPS technology. A city where walls and fences are replaced with structures, such as shared kitchen gardens or child care centers, that bring neighbors together. A city where commercial systems are designed to generate social capital as well as cold hard cash.

It sounds pie-in-the-sky, but the folks at Urban Re:Vision think that asking people to reimagine the way urban spaces are designed is the key to finding real-world solutions that make city life healthier, for humans and for the environment. The San Francisco organization is using a series of design competitions to solicit new ideas, both viable and futuristic, for overhauling specific components of city living: energy, transportation, construction, commercial and community systems.

The final competition, slated for early next year, will challenge entrants to transform a city block into a more sustainable system. The organization then aspires to implement the winning blueprint as a showcase project in a select U.S. city, which they hope will become a proto­type replicated around the world.

It’s a heady goal, given that development costs of just one block are likely to run into tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars. But the project’s creator, Stacey Frost, a former real estate developer who used to butt heads with builders over the toxic materials involved in construction, is optimistic. “I’m hoping that the design we come up with will be able to be communicated in such a way that, on paper, it wouldn’t make sense to say no,” she says.

Sustainable design and green building are burgeoning and energetic, though ultimately scattered, fields. Designers and entrepreneurs tend to tackle individual pieces of the puzzle—building practices, new ways of creating energy, alternatives to toxic materials—but few are thinking systemically about how all the parts fit together. Frost hopes Urban Re:Vision will help stimulate more organic thinking and produce solutions that could be applied holistically.

Competitions for energy, transportation, commerce, and community have already wrapped up, with just two contests remaining: one for sustainable building, and the final city-block competition. Eric Corey Freed, the principal of San Francisco–based OrganicArchitect and a key adviser to Re:Vision, says he was surprised and encouraged by the breadth of ideas submitted: everything from using playgrounds and sidewalks to generate energy, to city-wide delivery networks for groceries and other purchases, to social networking systems that connect users to commuters with similar interests.

“I went into it thinking we would get 400 designs for solar-powered skateboards,” Freed says. Instead, the variety of ideas that were submitted give him hope that the ingenuity exists out there to solve the many daunting challenges in making city life healthy and sustainable. Freed says he was further buoyed by the absence of entries focused on fossil fuels. It was, he says, a telling development: “I didn’t see one proposal for a new use for oil,” he says. “We’re done with that.”

About 70 percent of entries for the conceptual competitions have come from students, says Urban Re:Vision’s competitions director Nicole Cassani, and 30 percent from working professionals. The organization hopes that the remaining contests will attract entries from people who don’t necessarily have specific design, environmental, or urban planning experience—people who simply have great ideas. “There are a lot of people out there who desperately want to do something about global warming,” Cassani says. “But they don’t know what, and they don’t know how. We provide hope that there’s going to be a way to make that change.”

The competition has already started to have ripple effects in the real world. Working on an entry with fellow graduate students at the Presidio School of Management inspired Adam Cornelius when he received a notice from the city of San Francisco telling him to fix the broken sidewalk in front of his home. Instead of simply laying down more concrete, Cornelius filled in most of the space with plants and permeable paving stones. He was so delighted with his results that he’s started lobbying neighbors to do the same. If he hadn’t participated in Urban Re:Vision, he says, “I don’t know if I would have approached it in the same way.”

The entries that have won thus far won’t necessarily be integrated into the final city block competition. But Re:Vision hopes they will inspire future competition participants—as well as real-world designers and sustainability practitioners—to think about new ways to make city life healthier and more sustainable.

To read about Urban Re:Vision’s winning entries,  click here .

E.B. Boyd is a San Francisco writer. Excerpted from Conscious Choice (Jan. 2008), the Chicago and Seattle edition of a family of regional conscientious living magazines published by Conscious Enlightenment;  www.cemagazines.com .