Case Study: A new model for the future
Let us imagine what our communities and businesses could look like if we universally adopted this new approach—a stewardship approach—to development. Think about the Sunbelt region, which has been an area of large population growth ever since the 1960s. Its warmer climate and extended summers, matched by relatively mild winters, attract people who seek more temperate climates. Metropolitan areas have flourished as a result, with cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, and San Diego growing at a rapid rate. An analysis of census data from 2000 to 2012 indicated that the top ten fastest growing metropolitan areas are all in Sunbelt states. The region is projected to continue to lead population growth in the United States in the coming decades.
Traditional development in these cities has been characterized by low-density, single-use, energy-intensive building patterns—sprawl. As a result, these communities suffer greater motor vehicle accidents, produce higher per capita greenhouse gas emissions, use more energy, and degrade natural resources including water resources. , They also rely heavily on the importation of food and energy from other places around the world—in large part because land is used solely for buildings and roads. The rural areas have recently experienced declines in both economic activity and population, with most growth occurring in urban metropolises. Stewardship Development can offer a dramatically better outcome.
The Sunbelt has numerous resources to support a prosperous future. Its growing cities attract major corporations and young, college-educated individuals. Its warm climate supports long growing seasons and, in some areas, ample rain for agriculture. And increasingly, its residents are revealing interests in environmental conservation and outdoor resources. If we look just at the Southeast—stretching from the research triangle of Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill, through Charlotte and Atlanta, and on to New Orleans and Houston—much of this area is also characterized by lush forests, rolling hills, and some of the most ecologically diverse riparian areas in the country. These lands were highly productive agricultural areas in our early centuries and a hotbed for manufacturing (textiles, furniture, etc.) in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The region has the resources to grow the majority of its own food, provide a lasting supply of fresh water, and build new communities to be walkable and highly energy efficient. Concentrated buildings, investments in farms, and protection of forest and riparian areas can all be integrated to provide the basic resources for people for generations.
We analyzed the development potential of a 33,000-acre site near Atlanta, most of which is currently rural fields and forests but in the growth path of the city. We assessed local soil patterns, watershed dynamics, and transportation corridors in order to model a development scenario that called for three primary land uses: a vibrant new community of approximately 15,000 residents and 2.3 million square feet of office and retail space; a network of new farms and ranches on roughly 4,000 acres of fields, forests, and pastures; and the stewardship of over 2,000 acres of protected natural spaces for recreation, wildlife, water supply, and other ecological and community purposes.
We designed the density, layout, and architectural standards of the town to reduce solar heat gain on buildings, shade streets where people walk, and to use gravity to aid in water flow. Parks, trails, and streetscapes were strategically located to work in conjunction with rooftop rainwater collection to capture and hold rainwater where it falls and to reuse this resource as landscape irrigation. These greenways help maintain clean, breathable air quality; they also connect people to nearby recreational areas and integrate natural habitat into the fabric of the city. Our modern interpretations of traditional architecture encouraged passive airflow and climate control through roof angles, insulation, louvers, window shades, and shade trees—all of which combine to reduce the overall energy consumption of homes. We planned for rooftop solar water heaters on both houses and commercial to supply much of the community’s hot water needs.
To provide wastewater treatment for the new community, we determined that a system of constructed wetlands with a four million gallon-per-day capacity would have lower infrastructure costs and provide greater environmental and recreational benefits than a traditional treatment facility. We planned to compliment the water treatment system with demand-management controls, including efficient appliances and greywater-reuse systems in homes, buildings, and landscaping.
Surrounding the town, we envisioned a diverse network of farms producing fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, tubers, grains, herbs, meats, dairy, flowers, timber, and other agricultural products. These farms would be grown out of existing agriculture ventures and through direct investments in new operations. We projected that the land could eventually support over 60 acres of intensive fruit and vegetable gardens and greenhouses, 100 acres of orchards, 200 acres of row crops, and 1,600 head of livestock.
[Unlocking new opportunities: value-added products]
The new farms, in addition to existing agriculture in neighboring counties, would increase regional production to levels that support processing and packaging operations. A multi-species abattoir, creameries, and facilities for drying, pickling, freezing, canning, cutting, and packaging would add value to raw products and further diversify the market opportunities. The products would all share a regional brand that reflected their high quality and sustainable land management practices. They would be sold in town and into the growing local food market in nearby Atlanta restaurants and stores, thereby spreading the story of the region’s history, values, products, farms, and community. And the facilities would add manufacturing, marketing, distribution, and sales jobs to the local economy.
[Unlocking new opportunities: energy]
The processing and packaging operations would produce organic wastes, which would open up another business opportunity, this time in energy. We projected that a local biogas power plant, fed off of agricultural waste products, could produce enough electricity for 13,000 homes—more than twice as many as there would be in the community, providing clean power to local businesses and options to sell net power to the region. The generator could provide a stable source to complement solar panels on top of commercial buildings and parking structures.
[Unlocking new opportunities: tourism]
And those 2,000 acres of protected natural spaces? These areas would be actively managed for ecological health and recreation. We would invest in trails, educational signs, and site planning as a backbone for sustainable uses, including hiking, cycling, kayaking, birding, hunting, and fishing. These resources could support a variety of local guiding and retail ventures and would attract visitors and vacationers to the community—opening up new opportunities in the hospitality industry. The tourism industry could spill over into farm tours, farm dinners, and agricultural festivals and events that would further diversify agriculture incomes.
[Market appeal of integrated system]
Stepping back, you can begin to see how each of these discrete investment opportunities complement each other and create an integrated and supportive system. The region grows diverse in the types of activities, job opportunities, housing options, and economic drivers. This type of community—with walkable and tree-lined streets, abundant outdoor opportunities, high-performance buildings and infrastructure, and healthy living options—is attractive to executives, families, and young workers. It is more resilient to economic shifts, and more secure in the core resources of food, energy, and water.
From this foundation, the region and its natural systems can continually grow more vibrant and productive, as compared to development models that gradually strip their underlying resources and create boom–bust cycles. Each activity under this plan regenerates the land and its resources:
- A vibrant town center attracts invested people to help steward the land for their children and grandchildren;
- Sustainable agriculture practices build the soil quality and organic matter over time, annually increasing the potential productivity of the land and the viability of the farms;
- Biogas and solar energy facilities stabilize energy costs, avoid harmful pollutants, and in the case of the biodigester, create rich fertilizer to give back to the land;
- Wise water use, reuse, and treatment meets local needs while also recharging the aquifer and ensuring the long-term supply of vital clean water, even in the face of climate uncertainty and seasonality;
- Conservation of forests, fields, and riparian areas fosters ecological health, including habitat for pollinators and other wildlife that are valuable contributors to the economy and community; and
- Engaged tourists and other visitors inject outside capital and resources for ongoing farming and land stewardship.
Linked together in an integrated system, all these businesses, activities, and developments support each other and generate more value for the region than they reap. The lasting prosperity of the community is ensured through its quality infrastructure and ever-expanding opportunities for new ventures.
A similar approach, spread across the Southeast, would result in denser and revamped urban centers with more efficient buildings, decentralized infrastructure, greater walkability, and new networks of trails, parks, and urban green spaces. Surrounding rural communities would be revitalized with a focus on growing diverse, local, food economies and actively managing natural areas for ecological health and recreation. Low-density patterns of urban sprawl would no longer make financial sense compared to the alternative economic value of diversified and integrated land uses. The Southeast would continue to grow as an economic leader in the country, now providing its own food, energy, and water and renowned for its environmental assets and quality of life.