When a massive ranch in Florida went up for sale 10 years ago, on a piece of land five times the size of Manhattan, the owners had offers from buyers around the world. But instead of selling to the highest bidder, they chose a developer that would preserve most of the land—and turn the rest into what's attempting to be the most sustainable new town in the United States.
"We came to them and we said, look, we want to preserve as much of this as possible, and then create the most sustainable new town that has really ever been attempted," says Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson and Partners, the developer of the new town, called Babcock Ranch.
After a decade of planning, the town is now under construction. Florida Power & Light, the local utility, is building a huge new solar farm on the property—with 350,000 solar panels—which will power the entire community of 50,000 people.
"During the day when the sun is shining, all the power at Babcock Ranch will be solar energy," Kitson says. "Then at night when the sun goes down, the grid will take over and it will be natural gas. The combination of energy will be the greenest in the country."
Houses will be close enough to the downtown area and offices that people won't necessarily need to drive to run errands or commute; the streets are designed for biking and walking as much as driving. If someone needs to work in another city, they should eventually be able to take a driverless electric car there as well.
It's easier, Kitson says, to start from scratch with better infrastructure than to retrofit an existing suburb or city. "How you design your roads—thinking about pedestrian walkways and bike paths, if you're making it walkable and bikeable and pedestrian-friendly—doing that from the beginning is much easier."
The town also plans to be a testing ground for driverless electric cars—and to use those cars, with an Uber-like app, as a public transit system. They're currently working with a company to build out that system, taking advantage of new legislation that makes Florida one of the most autonomous-friendly states in the country.
As driverless cars become more widespread, the design of homes in the town may start to change. "We're really looking closely at parking, the size of the streets, what ultimately that's going to look like when you have driverless cars within the community," he says. "It will change the design parameters. As these things become more commonplace, people may eventually turn to just one car because they know they can use an autonomous vehicle. So what do you do with the garage space eventually?"
The town will act as a living laboratory for other technology. Houses will have tele-health systems built in, and graywater-recycling infrastructure will be standard. They plan to work with several companies to test energy storage technology that other communities may eventually also use. "The holy grail for renewable energy is figuring out how to store it so you don't need to turn to the grid at night," Kitson says. "We're talking to several companies about how we can do that, even at a neighborhood scale, almost like a micro-community of a system."
Buildings and infrastructure will be built to withstand storms, so people can shelter inside without necessarily needing to evacuate during a hurricane. Although Babcock Ranch is on the coast, it's high enough—more than 20 feet above sea level—that the developers say that it's not at risk from the storm surges that imminently threaten other Florida cities.
Outside the small, walkable town, the majority of the land will be restored for wildlife or recreation. Seventy five acres of former farmland will be restored for panther habitat. Over the last decade, wetlands and other waterways have already been partially restored, and crayfish, native birds, and other native plants have returned. In the initial transaction, 90% of the land was sold to the state of Florida, and the county, for preservation.
"We were able to preserve these 73,000 acres forever," says Kitson. "It can never be touched. If you ask me what I'm most proud of, it's that."
The solar plant and city infrastructure are under construction now, and the homes and downtown area will begin construction this summer.