We recently released a report titled “What Does it Take to Embed a Racial Equity & Inclusion Lens?” that captures themes from internal interviews, a field scan, and learnings from our grantmaking and investments in cities across the country. In the third piece in this four-part series, we share the next three themes that emerged from our research. To read the previous post, click here
8. Addressing systemic racism requires talking about white supremacy and white institutional culture.
White supremacy is not just about Nazis marching with tiki torches. It is a force that is engrained in our culture and operating modes. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. Paying attention to how white supremacy manifests in our lives helps us to push against it.
The characteristics of white supremacist culture listed in this document are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.
Engage in an honest, facilitated, conversation about how white supremacy culture currently manifests at Living Cities and potential antidotes.
Develop/refine/continuously revisit and lift up our working norms with a racial equity and inclusion lens.
Ensure that senior leadership receive coaching such that they can consider how to counter white supremacy culture in their work.
9. To talk about race, we have to talk about inherent power dynamics.
In America, we often talk about racism in a hate vs. love frame, but if we are truly to address racial inequity, we must understand it in terms of power. This is necessary because racism is, at its core, a tool to establish and maintain power structures that are centered around whiteness. When we don’t talk about power and power dynamics at all levels (interpersonal, institutional, and systemic), we perpetuate inequity.
Take truthful stock of power dynamics within our own institution: Start paying attention to who speaks at meetings, in conversations, etc. What are the racial and in some cases gender dynamics? How is the idea of “appropriateness” used; and when and by whom? How do people disengage from conversations about race? Who is disengaging? How does that disengagement relate to power?
Consider power dynamics in our work: Do community members and people of color have decision-making control in efforts we support? What are the narratives we use to explain why or why not? How are these narratives related to power?
Use a power analysis in our communications about racial equity and in our programmatic work.
Hafizah Omar & Nadia Owusu
on Apr 5, 2018
Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Contextualizing Systems, Data, and Place
What did Living Cities find in our scan of practices being used by organizations to operationalize racial equity? This series highlights the twelve themes we uncovered.
Hafizah Omar & Nadia Owusu
on Apr 19, 2018
Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Transforming Organizations and Beyond
What did Living Cities find in our scan of practices being used by organizations to operationalize racial equity? This series highlights the twelve themes we uncovered.
10. We cannot advance racial equity until we focus on anti-black racism and intersectionality.
“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates
It is important for those working on economic inequality and other social issues to focus on anti-Black racism because it is the root cause for the inequity we see today. Indeed, it is clear that we will not achieve economic equity for all people without addressing it. In other words, in America, Anti-Black racism is the foundational architecture for the strategies, tactics, tools, and cultural worldviews that created and maintain racial oppression, repression, and exclusion. It is also true that these same strategies, tactics, tools, and cultural worldviews are being used against other communities, including Latinx communities, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, LGBTQ communities, and women. So, it is important to start with an understanding of anti-Blackness, and to then apply an intersectional analysis and lens to ensure that the unique experiences of other communities, and of individuals all of us whom necessarily sit at the intersection of ,multiple identities, are not being erased.
Include in its racial equity and inclusion learning curriculum, readings, speakers, and media about why considering anti-Black racism is fundamental to achieving racial equity and inclusion, and about intersectionality.
Engage in conversation with our sites, such as New Orleans, San Francisco and Baltimore, that are centering anti-Black racism in their work to understand what that looks like in local efforts.
Invest in Black-led social change efforts and partner with Black-led organizations.
Tools and Resources:
Code 2040 on their approach to Race Equity Work and focusing on Black and Latinx People
In April, ILSR submitted comments in support of affordable residential access to community solar for review by Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission. These comments concerned a proposed residential adder framework outlined as part of the state’s community solar program and Minnesota Department of Commerce Value of Solar calculation. We argue that, in a recent analysis submitted to the Commission by Xcel Energy, the utility exaggerated costs likely to be incurred under this new framework. Our comments support those made by allies such as Cooperative Energy Futures and advocate for adder calculations that ensure financeability and broad participation among residential subscribers to the state’s community solar program.… Read More
On May 3rd, 2018 Amazon released a report detailing what it does for small businesses. What they missed, however, is just how much they harm local economies and destroy the fundamental infrastructure of our small business communities due to their shark-like tactics.… Read More
In this episode of the Building Local Power podcast, ILSR co-director and Community-Scaled Economy initiative director Stacy Mitchell sits down with Laura Flanders to discuss the disturbing trend toward a calcified and monopolistic media landscape.… Read More
In celebration of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s birthday, we are giving a little history on Mayday, the celebration of new life that has taken on a “new” prominence as a prominent labor rights’ day celebration.… Read More
A park blooms on the concrete floor: green carpets, a bench painted in warm hues, a wooden chair with a squat, vibrant pillow. Plush green cushions sit atop milk crates like inviting toadstools. The park is a part of New Davonhaime, the conceptual city created by artist Azikiwe Mohammed.
New Davonhaime’s moniker was stitched together using names of some of the American cities with the highest density of African-American residents: New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and Savannah, Georgia. Different versions of the installation have popped up across the country, but from May 4 to 6, New Davonhaime will be in New York City as a representation of an outdoor space at the 154 Contemporary African Art Fair, a showcase of art from Africa and its diaspora.
“America is great for a lot of people,” said Mohammed. However, he continued, given his identity as a black man, “I just happen to not be one of them. So I made a different place.” He aimed to create a space where black Americans could feel both safe and acknowledged.
Five different cities give New Davonhaime its name, but don’t expect to find a miniature version of New Orleans’ French Quarter or Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge in sight. Mohammed purposely wanted to create a sense of spatial ambiguity, so visitors could settle in and project their own memories and needs onto the installation. The point, he said, was to “leave it open—make it just black enough that black people can be like yup, got it.”
As he developed the project, Mohammed distributed postcards across the country and asked people to mail them back to him, requesting that they write—in the form of a memory—about something they were not getting in their own cities and would like to get elsewhere. He sorted through the memories to decide the needs and feel of New Davonhaime, seeing it as a place that could stitch together what worked in other cities and fill the gaps that they left behind.
“New Davonhaime is a town,” he said, “and towns aren’t defined by any one story. If I made a place that was just based on my own ideas and concerns, people would visit—but it wouldn’t turn a personal corner for them.”
One person mailed a postcard saying they wanted their dad back. That, Mohammed said, “points to me that he was taken by an entity—that you feel like you could retrieve [him], likely [from] some kind of governmental intervention. That speaks to you not having agency to prevent giant losses in your life. You don’t have the means, the opportunity, the time.” So he decided to create photo albums, where visitors could come in and leave photos of their relatives. “If your family isn’t as robust as you would wish it to be for a variety of reasons, we have black community family albums,” he said. “Here’s a loaner family.”
New Davonhaime’s emphasis on black community, safety, and belonging, might bring to mind Wakanda: Black Panther’s thriving African nation untouched by colonialism, which was created by weaving together different cultural threads from across the continent. But Mohammed shies away from calling New Davonhaime a utopia, and wants viewers to draw their comparisons to other, real-life examples.
“Wakanda is amazing—the idea of it, the way it was visualized. But it’s not realistic for a million reasons,” he said. “To find a self-sustaining black magic land you don’t have to look too far. Haiti has a lot of issues, but they won their slave rebellion and then made a country. That’s insane. The entire history of Egypt: there are examples of these things that have worked. A utopia is something that can’t exist and never really intended to exist. And, because of this lack of intention, you put all your hopes and wishes there—but not any of your goals. You don’t work towards making that happen. You just keep it as a mental safeguard against the horrible realities we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
So while previous versions of New Davonhaime have focused on interiors, this new iteration provided Mohammed the chance to play with public space. The installation at 154 doesn’t have many of the pieces previously seen in Mohammed’s other renditions of New Davonhaime: photo albums, painted mirrors, bright neon signs. Instead, it focuses on rest and relaxation rather than remembrance.
The park has allowances for the three different levels of what Mohammed termed “bodily activation”—walking, short-term resting, and longer-term leisure (like having a picnic). “If you can design a space that encourages those three options, then you’ve designed a good, functioning public space,” he said.
There is a neon cooler in the corner to symbolize picnicking, and the way food goes hand in hand with leisure and outdoor space. A floral tapestry hangs on a wall to be used later in the show as a photo backdrop where Mohammed will photograph visitors. This, he said, is “a way to have yourself seen—to include yourself in the circumstances at a ground level.” He plans to subtly alter the show throughout the weekend, observing visitors’ traffic patterns and seeing how best to arrange the environment he has created.
“If you’re comfortable and physically relaxed, you can take in the ideas that are around the place and spend more time with it,” Mohammed said. “If I could make the space comfortable enough for you to spend the time you want to spend, it starts to become yours. And if something is yours, you’re safe there.”
Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletterAn aerial view of Babcock Ranch near Fort Myers, which is projected to have 50,000 residents by the time it’s completed. (Babcock Ranch)
Sunshine state of mind: On first glance, Babcock Ranch doesn’t look much different from other planned communities in Florida, but the suburban development has high hopes. As the first solar-powered city in the United States, solar panels on public and commercial buildings power all the downtown amenities you could dream of, from gastropubs to swimming pools. Self-driving shuttles roam the streets. “Solar trees” provide phone-charging spots in public spaces.
The first 20 residents moved in this January, and the 440 acres of solar panels provide more than enough power for all their utilities. But the sustainable community is still in its infancy. Over the next 20 years, its developer hopes to offer 19,500 homes outfitted with high-tech and environmentally friendly features to draw in 50,000 residents.
Rebecca Palacios began teaching soon after a landmark court case mandated integration of Latino schools—and watched the case’s effects weaken over decades.
The Hunger Belt
This map from Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief organization, shows U.S. food insecurity in 2016. About 12 percent of households meet the USDA’s definition of food insecure, meaning they have experienced a lack of access to enough healthy food for all members of a household. That includes 41 million individuals, about 12 million of whom are children.
The interactive map zooms to the state and county level, showing how many food-insecure people qualify for nutritional assistance programs like SNAP. It also points out the average meal costs, food budget shortfalls, and the locations of nearby Feeding America network food banks. How does your hometown compare, and are there any interesting initiatives we should know about there? Drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s not just an airport. It’s Mexico’s largest, most expensive endeavor in a century, a megaproject fit for a megacity. And along with those superlatives has come great controversy.
Mexico City’s new international airport will be the biggest in the Americas and the third-largest in the world. The distinctive X-shaped, six-million-square-foot main terminal will top LAX, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson by handling more than 125 million passengers annually.
Flying high on then-rising approval ratings and a controversial Time magazine cover, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto greenlit the project back in 2014. The cost: $14 billion dollars––more expensive even than Beijing’s new mega-airport, Daixing, which is expected to become the world’s largest in 2019. But Peña Nieto will leave office after the upcoming July 1 elections, and his likely successor, front-runner candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is an outspoken foe of the project. That has left the fate of the enormous facility dangling in thin air.
The only thing most Mexican leaders agree on is that there’s a real need for a new facility. Benito Juárez International, Mexico City’s current main aviation facility and the busiest one in Latin America, is operating at 50 percent over capacity. In 2017, more than 46 million passengers traveled through a facility designed to only handle 32 million, after its expansion completed in 2007.
To replace the old airport, Mexico City turned to Pritzker-winning architect Norman Foster, who also designed new terminals at Beijing’s Capital International and Hong Kong’s Chep Lak Kok. Foster’s firm teamed with Mexican architect Fernando Romero, who is responsible for Mexico City’s spectacular Soumaya Museum. Romero also happens to be the son-in-law of Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, whose fortune of close to $80 billion makes him one of the richest people in the world; Slim’s companies hold 8 percent of the total investments related to the airport’s construction.
That construction is already well underway: The first phase of the airport, now known as NAICM (Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México), is expected to begin operations by 2020, increasing the city’s passenger-handling by almost a 100 percent. This initial stage will handle 75 million passengers annually through its main terminal, 96 gates and three runways. Once the airport’s master plan is fully completed in 2022, the whole complex will feature two more terminals, two other satellite buildings, and six runways capable to operate simultaneous landings and take-offs serving 125 million people each year.
That’s assuming, of course, that the airport gets finished. López Obrador, who has accused authorities of corruption and giving away contracts to collect political favors, is backing an alternative airport project, which would transform Santa Lucía Base––an Air Force facility north of the capital––into a much less expensive new terminal while using its infrastructure to increase the city’s current passenger capacity.
If López Obrador wins on July 1, his to-be communications and transportation secretary promised to demand the suspension of the new airport project “on July 3 or 4.”
López Obrador is hardly the only critic questioning the project. The new airport has been the focus of intense controversy since the site was selected. The airport is being built on a vast plain called Texcoco, 14 miles northeast of Zócalo, Mexico City’s central square. It’s a humid, marshy wetland; like the city itself, this was once an enormous lake drained by the Spaniards after they colonized Mexico five centuries ago.
And, like many parts of the city, it’s sinking. According to several reports, the construction site is subsiding between 8 and 16 inches every year as the city drains water from underground aquifers––the fastest ratio when compared to all other locations in the city.
To support the structures it must bear, the muddy, unstable land had to be covered by a thick layer of tezontle––a type of red volcanic rock often used in construction projects in Mexico. An elaborate drainage system composed of gigantic pipes, tunnels, and canals is being simultaneously built, so the terminal and its runways can handle the severe rainfall and floods during the city’s wet season, between May and November. On top of everything, Texcoco is also where Mexico City’s stormwater naturally flows.
“In terms of feasibility, it’s just the worst terrain,” said Fernando Córdova, environmental impact specialist and a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico to Alto Nivel. “There’s a reason why this part of the city hasn’t ever been urbanized.”
Others have pointed out the severe environmental impact the project could have on the nearly 130 bird species found on the wetlands of Texcoco, and that it will worsen the ongoing water shortage crisis faced by the Mexican capital. NAICM, along with the adjacent industrial and commercial zone known as Aerotrópolis, is estimated to consume more than 23 million cubic meters of water each year. Authorities have warned that Mexico City will only have water for the next 50 years if the capital doesn’t lower its current consumption rates.
The new airport is also extremely close to densely populated Ecatepec––a city of 1.6 million that’s part of the capital’s enormous 21-million-strong metro area. Its residents will soon suffer from intense noise pollution and real estate price increases, without even being involved in the decision-making process. Richard De Pirro, co-founder of the Mexican Institute of Urbanism, is particularly concerned about the informal sprawl that could be triggered once the airport opens.
“Adjacent municipalities do not have any urban development plans that acknowledge the fact that there will be a massive airport there,” he said. “The land surrounding the airport isn’t zoned, and it does not have a defined use. I’m worried that there could be a new sprawl through informal settlements, as is often the case in Latin America. In 30 or 40 years, the new airport will be phagocytized by the urban sprawl. And now, honestly, there is no plan for that perimeter that will surround that new airport.”
Nevertheless, aviation authorities insist that––given the circumstances––the chosen site was still the best option available. “I would not have chosen another place. The city’s sinking condition is just inevitable,” said Gregorio García, president of the Mexican College of Aeronautical Engineers. “Given the circumstances, it is the best place and the best solution from a technical point of view.”
According to García, abandoning the project now and using Santa Lucía as a secondary airport along with Benito Juárez International––as López Obrador may demand after the election––would be a disaster on many levels, on top of the enormous costs involved in halting construction on NAICM. Santa Lucía is 30 miles north of Benito Juárez, and their flight paths intersect. “Of course, pilots and air traffic controllers would do their job so that no accident happens,” García said. “But having two airports would significantly increase operational risks.”
Meanwhile, the fate of Benito Juárez, is equally uncertain. The old airport is set to stop operating once NAICM’s first terminal opens. After that, the old airport could become a university. A gigantic park. A major thoroughfare. A new industrial zone. No one knows.
But hold on: Carlos Slim has a plan, which he presented on April 16 during a press conference orchestrated in defense of Mexico’s new airport.
Slim wants to transform Benito Juárez Airport into a wider and longer Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main avenue. According to the image below, Slim proposed a district of hotels and dense real estate development colored in yellow, a much smaller portion for lower density housing in orange, an enormous medical center in burgundy, a university in purple, and a commercial zone in red. Green areas would be limited to two thin lines next to the main avenue.
De Pirro, from the Mexican Institute of Urbanism, isn’t as enthusiastic about Slim’s scheme. “You have to be careful,” he said. “That really isn’t good urbanism. All the proposals seek to make these big projects. We want to see an intelligent subdivision of the territory that allows opportunities for all.”
De Pirro would prefer dividing the area into smaller parcels that might be available to individual developers. He points out that the re-urbanization of Mexico City neighborhoods like Condesa and Roma––now among the ones with higher living standards in Mexico City––did not involve large real estate developments nor changes in its road or grid structure. Also, businesses were encouraged to stay at a neighborhood-level scale. “It was organic. You didn’t see any big, outrageous developing projects as part of their own urban transformation.”
But authorities––both at the federal and local levels––do not appear to have a firm idea about exactly happens next, De Pirro said. “There is a lot of misinformation. The truth is that there is no clear deadline or timeframe to follow, and the future of that site still remains uncertain.”
Depending on the results of the presidential election, an even bigger uncertainty may be looming: What happens if López Obrador wins and follows through on his pledge to suspend NAICM?
Abandoning construction of a half-built mega-airport at this stage of the process might appear utterly unfeasible. But, then, so have many other things about the project. Wait until July, and we’ll see what happens next.
A Seattle proposal to levy an extra “progressive tax” on the city’s biggest businesses has provoked Amazon to halt construction on a new downtown office building. It’s the latest indication that, as cities compete to host Amazon’s second headquarters, the relationship between the company and the home of its first HQis growing more fraught.
When it comes to Amazon and Seattle, it’s been complicated from the beginning. After the tech giant opened its first headquarters in the city in 2011 (and other companies followed), home prices climbed, driving displacement and increasing rates of homelessness. By implementing this new tax, nicknamed the “Progressive Tax on Business,” the city would theoretically be able to hold companies themselves more accountable for mitigating these effects: The top three percent of the highest grossing businesses would be charged an annual tax of $500 per local employee, and their cash would exclusively fund affordable housing and homelessness initiatives—about $50 million would go to low-income housing (enough to build 750 new units a year), and $20 million to emergency shelter and services. Between 500 and 600 business would be eligible for the tax, including Amazon.
On Wednesday, Amazon Vice President Drew Herdener told the Seattle Times that the company would be pausing all construction on Block 18, a 17-story office building they had planned to open in downtown Seattle, and wouldn’t resume until after the outcome of the city council’s May 14 vote on the bill. And instead of following through on plans to occupy space in another skyscraper, he said the company might sublease the floors to other companies. Amazon confirmed the construction pause to CityLab but declined to add further comment.
In a statement, four members of the city council said “this was never a proposal targeting one company.” They listed McDonalds and Home Depot as other businesses that fit the bill: Big, prosperous Seattle employers whose tax dollars could, in their eyes, contribute more to city services.
“The lack of affordable housing is a crisis for our entire community,” the council members’ statement continued. “Amazon made the conversation about them.”
But Amazon would bear more than a quarter of the total tax burden,according to estimates, and other proponents have been more overt that the company is indeed a target.
“We are not being coy about naming Amazon as one of the culprits,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party and a backer of the bill. “It’s the largest corporation and its footprint of wealth consolidation sort of defies imagination… That’s pocket change for them, and what we can do with it publicly is huge.”
For a corporation that paid no federal income taxes in 2017 (and made $5.6 billion), the tax would be a pretty big blow in the opposite direction. If passed, it’s projected to cost Amazon more than $20 million per year for the next two years; and, based on the high salaries of Amazon’s Seattle workers, their fees would continue to grow if the city switched over to a payroll tax of .7 percent in 2021, as the plan outlines. That all may be pocket change to a company worth over $600 billion, or to a CEO worth more than $100 billion himself. But with other cities scrambling to give away free money for the chance to host Amazon jobs (see: Maryland’s $8.5 billion in tax incentives promised if they win HQ2), it’s not all that surprising the company would balk at handing over extra.
Amazon is not the only business opposing this tax proposal.Already, other business leaders in the community have taken to town halls to protest: “If spending more money was the only answer, we would’ve solved this problem a long time ago,” said Jon Scholes, a representative from the Downtown Seattle Association. The grocery company Safeway and Albertsons said it might need to raise prices, or shut down stores.
When a similar tax was proposed last year it failed early, Sawant says, because of thatfear of corporate retaliation, fanned by business interests in the city. “What ends up happening in terms of whether something will get passed or not, it really depends on the balance of forces between ordinary people and big business,” she said. In Seattle, that balance had long been skewed towards the latter. “It’s political blackmail,” she said.
This time, however, the tax,dubbed a “head tax” because it is imposed equally onthe cost of everyemployee, has picked up more steam. Five out of the nine council members back the bill, and the newly elected mayor Jenny Durkan has expressed tepid support.
At a press conference after Amazon’s announcement, Durkan acknowledged that Seattle “must urgently address our homelessness and affordability crisis and lift up those who have been left behind.” But she also noted the very real possibility that angering Amazon would inflict long-term damage on their working relationship, and reduce Seattle’s employment opportunities. The company already employs 45,000 Seattle residents; the halted headquarters addition was predicted to bump that number up, creating 7,000 to 8,000 new jobs. And while Amazon has been credited with jacking up housing prices, it hasalso offered philanthropic support to homeless shelters in the form of space in their buildings and cash donations. Fighting with Bezos this way has real consequences on a lot of facets of city life, and Seattle knows that.
Seattle and Amazon’s intrinsic, mixed-bag relationshiphas started inspiring preemptive action for cities competing to host HQ2. There’s been talk among labor organizers in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago about tying economic development contracts to community benefit agreements; of mandating affordable housing construction near developments; and of setting floors on the number of permanent jobs that have to come from within the city itself. But Amazon’s aggressive response to a progressive tax proposal that hasn’t yet been brought to a vote serves as a palpable threat to those other organizers, and another warning for the city that might end up hosting HQ2: Charging Amazon extra to fund city services won’t be easy, whenever you do it. And if you do it too soon, it might break a deal.
That Amazon seems so cowed by a proposal that was once dead on arrival could also be read as a different sort of sign. Anti-Amazon and pro-worker momentum are building, says Sawant. And as more coalitions form, there’s a greater chance big businesses will listen.
“The working people of any one city cannot really win better conditions, better standards of living, or win victory over the might of big business alone,” she said. “Our power lies in linking ourselves with working people in other cities. It’s not only about raising political confidence—it’s about working class victories being contagious.”
Amazon could be bluffing, and resume construction next week. It could use this stand-off as a negotiating tactic, driving down the value of the progressive tax and either ultimately footing a smaller bill or a non-existent one. (Though Councilmember Mike O’Brien, a sponsor of the measure, told the Seattle Times that Amazon hadn’t suggested any specific changes to the bill as of Wednesday, and a spokesperson for Amazon declined to comment on whether they would in the future.) Or, if on May 14 both parties stand their ground, a fight for affordable housing could turn into a longer-lasting struggle between Amazon and its host.
BABCOCK RANCH, FLORIDA—Like a lot of Floridians, Syd Kitson loves the sun. But his passion is mainly for the energy it feeds to his new development, Babcock Ranch, which bills itself as the country’s first solar-powered city, located 15 miles northeast of Fort Myers and close to Florida’s southwest coast.
This particular day in March turned out to be a milestone for Kitson, an NFL guard-turned-property developer who has been chasing his vision of a sustainable society for more than a decade. As he surveyed the 440 acres of solar panels already in place, on land that he donated to Florida Power & Light, he said he just learned that the utility company plans to double the size of its energy farm. “FPL is going to add another 75 megawatts, so we’re going to have a total of 150 megawatts,” Kitson said.
His ultimate plan is for a solar-powered city of 19,500 homes with a downtown, schools, restaurants, shopping and leisure facilities, and more than 50 miles of nature trails for walkers, runners, and cyclists. By full build-out, he hopes Babcock Ranch will have about 50,000 residents.
The FPL solar farm is a cornerstone of the Babcock Ranch masterplan, and the 14 months between the farm’s October 2015 groundbreaking and its 343,000 panels coming online last December reflect the quick pace of the development as a whole.
It was only in January that the first residents began moving in. This month, a health, wellness, and lifestyle center opened in Founder’s Square, the development’s town center, with medical offices, a gym, and a swimming pool. That followed the rollout of a K-8 charter school with a STEAM-based curriculum; a lakeside gastropub serving locally-grown seed-to-table organic food; and a cavernous co-working space called The Hatchery, with options from walk-up desk rentals to serviced offices.
At weekends, electric self-driven shuttles ferry residents and visitors around as part of testing by the autonomous transportation company Transdev. There are plans to expand the pilot to an Uber-style on-demand service.
At a cursory glance, Babcock appears little different from numerous other planned communities around Florida. It has single-family detached houses arranged into neighborhoods, and the seven homebuilders that partnered with Kitson offer a range of models from two to five bedrooms, priced from the $190,000s to more than half a million dollars. The sales pitch rests on their high-tech and green features. These are Alexa-controlled smart homes with 1-gigabit fiber internet and wiring for electric cars in every garage; kitchens and laundry rooms piped for natural gas cooktops, ranges, and dryers; and metal roofs to reduce heating and cooling costs.
Additionally, homeowners are encouraged to grow vegetables in community gardens, landscaping is limited to native plants (with turf covering no more than 30 percent of yard space),and all irrigation water is reclaimed.
Kitson describes Babcock Ranch as “a living laboratory,” with energy self-sufficiency at its core. All public and commercial buildings with good exposure have roofs covered with solar panels, and solar “trees” are dotted around the public areas to bolster the power supply and provide recharge stations for visitors’ cell phones, tablets, and laptops.
What you won’t see are solar panels on the roofs of most houses. Residents are hooked up to FPL’s grid in the same way, and billed at the same rates, as any other of the utility’s customers. “For us to truly be sustainable and a solar-powered town, we absolutely have got to do it on a utility-scale basis, period,” Kitson said. “Solar power comes to us first, and the excess goes into the grid. I can’t see how that’s not a huge win for everybody.”
Some outside analysts believe that Kitson’s pursuit of that utility-scale solar is the key to the long-term viability of the project. “In the future, we’re going to see almost all of our new developments powered by renewable energy, and to the extent this is a model for the future, especially in Florida, it’s a good thing,” said Ed McMahon, senior fellow for sustainable development and environmental policy at the Urban Land Institute.
Even before the upcoming solar-field expansion, Babcock Ranch is generating more electricity than it needs, Kitson said, and in a further innovation now has the capacity to store some of it. Ten single-megawatt batteries that became operational earlier this year on the western edge of the solar field—and also slated for future expansion—can store power for four hours, allowing a stable discharge during cloudy spells, or to “reserve” energy from sunny afternoons for peak evening demand.
The town’s buildings, constructed to match or exceed the latest county codes, soaked up everything the furious 2017 hurricane season had to offer. “During Irma, the eye of the storm came right over us,” Kitson said. “We did just fine, and we’re 30 feet above sea level so we didn’t flood. Sure, there were a few trees down, but we just picked them right back up because we’d just planted them.”
Kitson said the initial planning and design of the town was a community effort. In the mid-2000s, his team held meetings in community halls, city offices, and even at late-night social gatherings around Charlotte County to discuss what kind of town local people would want to live in, or at least visit. “It was [that] input that established the principles that continue to guide every planning decision,” he said. Several architecture and planning firms collaborated to shape the new town, including Looney Ricks Kiss, Harvard Jolly, and Kimley-Horn.
The master plan was approved in 2006, but the project was put on hold through the economic downturn of the late 2000s, which Kitson admitted was “less of a curveball, more of a boulder.”
Babcock Ranch is still in its infancy. Only about 20 families have taken up residence so far, a number that’s expected to grow to about 100 by the end of this year as more new homes become ready for occupancy. The Babcock Ranch Neighborhood School already has 156 students (who live outside the town). Shannon Treece, the principal, says the development growing up around the school provides hands-on, real-life lessons in environmental stewardship.
“We are in a place that … just evokes that spirit of innovation and that engagement of people,” Treece said. “It’s easy to open a textbook and read and answer questions. But project-based learning has a really specific driving question, and it always has a community-partner piece as well, which is, ‘How is it going to change the community we’re in?’ That’s the connection to here.”
With guidance from the chef of the Tap and Table, Babcock’s gastropub, students aced a recent solar cook-off tournament against other local schools. They harvested ingredients from their own community garden and created a three-course teriyaki meal. The students also track how much energy the school consumes by reading data from a solar tree in their playground.
When a larger school building opens in August, there will be twice as many children, teachers, and staff. Ultimately, there are plans for eight schools from pre-K to high school, with enrollment open to any child who qualifies to attend public school in Charlotte County.
Two likely future students are the three-year-old son and newborn daughter of Matt Angerer. Angerer rents an office in The Hatchery for his online business, and can’t wait to move his young family to Babcock when their home is ready in September.
“What better situation than having a home here and office space to grow my company and my family?” he said. “I’m an early adopter. I believe in technological innovation, but I also think we should leverage technology to help the environment and sustainability.”
Angerer said that everything at Babcock Ranch “fit the bill for us, including the school. They’re focusing on the family core, a comfortable and safe place to bring your children. (That is, apart from the alligators, which are “everywhere,” he said.)
Local criticism of the development so far has focused on the environmental impacts of its footprint. When Kitson bought the 91,000-acre working ranch in 2006 for more than $500 million, it was failing as a business; cattle ranching, alligator farming, the raising of crops including watermelons, and even rock mining and eco-tourism were no longer money-spinners for the Babcock family. Yet because of the ongoing stewardship of the land, it was in good condition.
After the purchase, Kitson immediately sold 73,000 acres, or about 80 percent of it, to the state of Florida for preservation, with the remaining 18,000 acres, spanning Charlotte and Lee counties, set for development over the next 20 years.
At a meeting of the Lee County commission in February, Kitson won approval for a land-use change from agricultural to planned development, and got a green light for construction of Babcock’s southern section (everything else so far has been in Charlotte County). Some environmentalists spoke out.
Carl Veaux, vice president of the Cape Coral Wildlife Trust, accused commissioners of “ripping the word ‘rural’ right out of the heart of Lee County,” according to the News-Press.“This is the most beautiful parcel of land on Babcock Ranch, and they’re going to develop it.”
Kitson wants his critics to see the town firsthand before passing judgment. “They think they’ll come in and [it’ll be] like George Jetson, but it’s not. It’s an old-town feeling with all of those modern conveniences and technology of today.”
He acknowledges that some will question the choices that were made for Babcock Ranch on environmental grounds, and whether it can call itself fully sustainable when, for example, residents still need cars to commute to jobs in other towns, and the housing stock is larger detached homes rather than higher-density units.
His answer is that he has made a laboratory out of a place where traditional models of community and family life are central. New ideas can be developed and tested at Babcock Ranch, and expanded gradually toward sustainability, without wholesale changes that would be too radical for many people.
“Americans are not going to go from one car for every driver to no cars for every household overnight,” Kitson said. “We start by making the cars just one option for getting around. When people can walk, bike, catch a shuttle, use a handheld device to summon an autonomous vehicle, or utilize a shared vehicle service for trips off-site, they will quickly realize they don’t really need their own car.”
“What we are creating,” he continued, “is a suburban–urban environment with everything in walking distance, and [we’re] working continuously to bring more jobs within our town footprint to achieve the goal of a real, multi-generational town where people live, work, and play.”
McMahon believes that solar power, for Babcock, is the market differentiator that large, out-of-town developments need these days to prompt people to move there, as well as an environmental good. “It’s a greenfield site; everybody has to drive there from somewhere else, [and] there’s energy used in building the site and getting to it and from it,” he conceded. “So it’s not completely carbon-neutral in that sense. But as we like to say at the Urban Land Institute, ‘It’s better to be half right than all wrong.’”
In the future, McMahon continued, “the most successful communities in Florida are going to be ones that are walkable, where you can reduce your transportation. There’s no place that’s probably perfect, but all these things are steps in the right direction.”
For Richard Kinley and his wife Robin, Babcock’s first residents, who moved into their house in January from Atlanta, the development is living up to its promise so far. “It feels like you’re gaining good karma, living here,” said Richard Kinley, a semi-retired medical professional.
“We go days without needing air conditioning, because homes are built to green standards and are well insulated. The metal roof helps decrease costs. I also have an electric car charging in the garage, so I’m using solar energy to drive around the state,” he said. “We want to live here because it encourages a lifestyle we want to take on. It’s nice to live in a community where like-minded people are moving.”
All of which is music to Kitson’s ears. “If I come back in 20 years,” he said, “and see families, empty nesters, and retirees all mingling together; autonomous vehicles taking people from place to place; kids using technology outdoors; a respect for nature where the air is clean and the water is pure—that those things we talked about from Day One have come to fruition—then it will all have been worth it.”