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New Urbanism Meets Goldrush Wisdom

| Thursday November 1st, 2007 | 0 Comments

I recently moved to the town of Grass Valley, California , population ~12,000. You’d be in good company, not knowing where it is. It is approximately an hour Northeast of Sacramento, the same west of Tahoe. Coming from living in Oakland, this Gold Rush era town surrounded by trees, rivers, farms and ranches feels small, livable, and beautiful. And yet, something is afoot: With this charm comes increased population growth. And I am part of that. To some, I am the “enemy,” changing the face of this once primarily rural place into what they consider increasingly “urban,” though from my eyes it looks suburban, with the Burger Kings and KFCs.
So it’s ironic that the source of some very smart development, with an eye for sustainability, is a ranch. Loma Rica Ranch, to be precise. The ambitious owners of this 450 acre property could easily have gone the typical route, subdividing their property into tiny parcels, covering it in identical tract houses, making a tidy profit while congesting the roads, decimating the land, and obliterating the character of the area. There’s thousands from the ever sprawling Sacramento that would eventually, as it becomes fuller down south, see this as just fine.
Loma Rica Ranch has chosen a different, much more inspiring path:


They’re proposing a series of interconnected developments on the land, being created over approximately 15 years, slowly growing within specified spaces rather then plonking down a massive development and having a vacant ghost town, slowly filling in. They have an awareness of the town in which they’re building, and an eye to enhance the community in which it will be created.
Rather then defer to the automobile, they are going to seek out a range of businesses to locate in each hub, with the aim being that nobody will have more then 5 minutes walk to all the resources they need, including community gathering points, schools, and faith centers. With this, Loma Rica hopes to minimize the need to travel down the hill to Burger, pardon me, Brunswick Basin below. It’s interesting to note that the thinking behind this is both rooted in the present, “new urbanist” minded thinking, and at the same time, takes its cues from the gold rush era when this town was born, that is, with a town center and development clustered close in, at that time a necessity, now a thoughtful, human centered consideration.
The housing will be of mixed price levels and types, encouraging a hoped for mix of incomes and people residing there. Rather then design for separation, the houses will be oriented to encourage connection and interaction with neighbors. Open space will be maintained, integrating with the original character of the land, and shaping it to the neighborhoods for a variety of uses. Amazingly, More then two thirds of the land will be open space. You can see the thought going into this when they say:

An extensive network of open spaces is planned that recognizes the natural qualities of the site while providing a multitude of both passive and active recreational opportunities.

Showing their true commitment to a vital, sustainable community, Loma Rica has a currently operational organic farm, with an active CSA component. This will remain after community development has begun, again supplying the needs of areas locally, rather then depending on imported, or even down the hill produce.
So, while much of the press these days goes to the sexier side of green building, with thin film solar panels, fly ash floors, and non VOC paint, I think that what gets missed is how these buildings, and the people who live, work, and play in the them, interact.
Will it happen? It’s not a clear shot at this point. The population has historically been ambivalent about any sort of development, yet at times has done so quite thoughtlessly, with an eye for the short term rather then the big picture, economic and community enhancing model proposed here.
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. His overarching talent is “bottom lining” complex ideas, in a way that is understandable and accessible to a variety of audiences, internal and external to a company.


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