Tomorrowland

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


| September-October 2008



Tomorrow Land

image by Jude Buffum

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.