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A Different World 

How to make a sustainable city

Imagine you live in a place where the mayor publishes a blueprint for a sustainable city, one that nurtures and harvests its urban, economic and environmental resources to live within its means today and pass on a clean, vibrant city to subsequent generations. This city already has plans that enhance economic development in concord with ecological concepts stressing open space conservation, higher-density housing, extensive public transit and walkable neighborhoods, but the mayor's new proposals provide extensive planning guidance on the "sustainable design" requirements for almost all new developments. Imagine also that you have a government that takes energy conservation seriously, and is trying to move its economy away from dependence on volatile (and finite) supplies of foreign oil from unreliable suppliers towards renewable sources like wind, water and solar power. Imagine a nation that's exploring new and innovative "clean" technologies as one of the bases for a restructured national economy.

You realize I'm not talking about America.

But it could be. Keep imagining, if you can, a clean, prosperous future in place of the polluted one that's on the cards. Why shouldn't this be a viable American Dream? Why couldn't somewhere like Charlotte envision this future?

Let's visit this progressive mayor's office. His staff is working with national government to expand the production and use of clean, renewable energy in the city and its buildings. New developments must demonstrate how they meet these sustainable design and construction standards; this assessment accompanies the application for city approval, and if these standards aren't met, the scheme doesn't get built.

For example, new commercial and residential developments are required to demonstrate that they incorporate key design principles and technologies that promote sustainability. Ranked in the mayor's order of preference these are: passive environmental design (that is, designing buildings to maximize natural heating and cooling without using mechanical systems); then solar water heating, photovoltaic panels that produce electricity directly from sunlight, combined heat and power plants (preferably fueled by renewable materials such as wood chips), community heating, heat pumps, and finally, super-efficient systems of gas central heating.

Imagine a nation that's exploring innovative "clean" technologies as one of the bases for a restructured national economy.

The mayor has set up two levels of compliance, an "essential" level that all projects must meet, and a "preferred" level that is expected for most large developments. Developers will have to provide justification wherever they fall short of the mayor's preferred standards. The mayor is also moving forward to implement national standards proposed by the government requiring all major developments to generate on-site part of the energy they use rather than simply drawing power from the national supply systems.

Planning guidance issued last summer allows cities to require a percentage of energy used in new developments to be generated from renewable resources. Already 100 cities in this foreign country have introduced this policy and many more are expected to follow. The mayor is not alone. This shift to on-site generation of power in new developments is expected to be universal across that nation by 2007.

New buildings or refurbishment projects over 10,000 square feet in area, and residential developments of 10 or more dwellings must generate 10 percent of their energy requirement from on-site renewable energy sources. Ten percent is the default level, but some progressive areas require as much as 15 percent of energy used in developments to be generated on-site by means of solar panels, photovoltaic cells and micro wind turbines.

The first buildings that implement the new standards have now been built in the mayor's city. A development of 10 light industrial units uses micro turbines and a small amount of photovoltaics to meet the energy production requirement, and that developer is now planning a second project, having seen the marketing value in environmentally friendly, low emission buildings. A large home improvement store complied with the new standards straight away, and is about to build a "green" retail "big box" with a similar combination of photovoltaics and a wind turbine. (Lowe's please take note!)

This 10 percent renewable energy policy also works as a lever to encourage more energy efficient buildings. Reducing energy requirements generally costs less than installing renewable energy systems, and a 10 percent generation requirement in an energy efficient building is much easier to meet than in a conventional building. "This is the elegance of the policy," says one of the city's planners. "It delivers energy savings as well as renewable energy production, and so has a double impact."

This city isn't imaginary; it's London, England. And the area of England with the most aggressive renewable energy standards for buildings is a set of sleepy small towns in Devon, near my home. With an economy based on farming, fishing and tourism, politicians and planners know their future prosperity depends on a clean environment.

How can these Brits achieve something in their towns and cities that Charlotteans can barely even dream about? Any answers?

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