It’s a Beautiful Day in the Weird, Green Neighborhood
These 7 neighborhoods are competing visions of a more sustainable future.
I’m a serial cheater, emotionally, on New York City. As much as Queens is my home, one of my favorite ways to lose track of time is by going down the Zillow rabbit hole and imagining all the other lives I could live somewhere else. If I had $2 million, would I move into a houseboat to live out my Sleepless in Seattle dreams? (You laugh, but at least a floating home is floodproof!). Or maybe I’d go to California to be closer to my extended family? (Never mind — I’d never be able to afford the fire insurance).
Recently I’ve become especially captivated by “intentional communities,” of which there are thousands worldwide and hundreds in the United States alone. These are experimental master-planned neighborhoods that revolve around shared values that often pertain to things like sustainability, communal living, green spaces, and minimizing individual impact — things that might be necessary to adopt in some form on a wider scale in the coming years.
Some of these communal neighborhoods are pretty out there (think aquaponics that runs off a “VillageOS”). Others are so alluring that without even realizing it, I found myself browsing their availability pages. Oops — don’t tell New York.
Here are a few of the innovative neighborhoods that caught my eye:
Green high-density living
Location: Utrecht, Netherlands
Courtesy MVSA Architects
You’ve joked about running away to go live in the woods, but what if you didn’t have to make the choice?
Designed by Stefano Boeri of Verticle Forest fame and Roberto Meyer of the Dutch firm MVSA Architects, Wonderwoods is a 200-apartment, two-tower project in Utrecht, the fourth-biggest city in the Netherlands. The pair of structures, set to open in 2024, look in the renderings like something nature has reclaimed. But the 10,000 plants and 300 trees that will eventually cover the buildings’ balconies, roofs, and facades aren’t just there to look cool.
By decking out Wonderwoods in the equivalent of one hectare of forest, the designers aim to maximize the known benefits of urban tree planting: Plants suck up CO2, help filter out environmental pollutants, and can even generate microclimates that will be important in a warming world (the cooling effects of plants will also help reduce the energy demand of air conditioners).
Wonderwoods’ co-designer, Boeri, has been called “perhaps the most famous name in green architecture,” and he is both prolific and influential: The Dutch project is just one of the dozens of plant-coated buildings that have been, or are being, constructed around the world.
Not all of these experiments have been successful — rumor has it the Qiyi City Forest in Chengdu is overgrown and bug infested — and some scientists have downplayed the greenhouse gas-mitigating effects of so-called biophilic design. Still, if we’re to survive in a hotter, more concrete-covered world, we’ll need to bring plants along with us.
Would I live here?: I’ve always been jealous of people who junglefy their living spaces with lots and lots of plants (Hilton Carter, please decorate my home!). Tragically, I don’t always have the greenest thumb — I’m an overenthusiastic waterer — but the good news is, Wonderwoods has a team of rappelling gardeners who will maintain the exterior vegetation for you. Getting to enjoy the lushness of a rural forest in the heart of urban Europe without having to do any of the work? Count me in — I’d live here for sure.
Live, Work & Play at Wonderwoodswww.youtube.com
A pedestrian paradise
Location: Tempe, Arizona
Forget electric vehicles: Residents of Culdesac, a rental community just across the river from Phoenix in Tempe, Arizona, are “contractually forbidden from parking a vehicle within a quarter-mile radius of the site.”
While that might sound practically un-American to some, it’s a paradise for others. The 17-acre, $170-million project includes 761 apartments, a light rail stop (which is free with residency), communal courtyards, a coffee shop, restaurant, gym, grocery store, soon-to-open coworking space, car-share pick-up and drop-off, and, yes, visitor parking.
Culdesac isn’t the only car-free community in America, as Jalopnik reports. But while the communities tend to be popular, especially with young professionals (40% of the people on Culdesac’s opening waitlist were from outside of Arizona), “these kinds of developments often aren’t legal to build in large parts of the country due to mandatory parking minimums,” Jalopnik adds.
That doesn’t deter its founders. The long-term “vision of Culdesac,” Ryan Johnson, Culdesac’s chief executive, told The New York Times, is to eventually “build the first car-free city in the U.S.”
Would I live here?: One of the biggest deterrents against leaving New York City is being saddled with car payments — not to mention that my husband doesn’t drive. Despite being located in the heart of the Phoenix sprawl, Culdesac seems genuinely committed to making a car-free lifestyle work for its residents, offering benefits like free rides on the metro, bike parking, $5-an-hour car-sharing, complimentary Lyft Pink, and rentable Bird scooters on site. Coming from the New York real estate market, its prices also seem reasonable — available one-bedroom units start at $1,390 a month. I know because I was tempted enough to look. If only I liked the heat a little more …
Culdesac Tempe: The First Car-free Community Built From Scratch in the USwww.youtube.com
3. Aspern Seestadt
A feminist eco-utopia
Location: Vienna, Austria
Anja Pfeifer/Getty Images
Vienna is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe, which has created a massive demand for housing. In order to meet the demand, Vienna is building a city within a city — and taking it as an opportunity to do things right.
With over 11,000 new homes (including the world’s second-tallest timber building), the neighborhood of Aspern Seestadt is nearly net-zero, relying on technology and cutting-edge construction techniques to lower its footprint. Excess heat and electricity in one building can be sent to another, for example, while 80% of its residents reportedly travel by bike, foot, or public transit.
But what sets Aspern Seestadt apart from other green, pedestrian-friendly communities around the globe is its emphasis on centering women’s and families’ needs. For one thing, all of the streets and public spaces in the neighborhood are named after women, but the attention goes beyond the symbolic — the pavement is also wide to accommodate strollers, and ramps are included alongside staircases; parks and other gathering spaces have plentiful public toilets; pram parking and storage are readily accessible. There are also extra safety measures, like more lights in dark spaces, abundant alarms and assistance buttons, and extra guards during nighttime hours.
Buildings in Aspern Seestadt also mix housing with nurseries, shops, and coworking spaces so “women, as well as men, can … better reconcile professional and personal life,” Germany’s Gettotext.com reports. It’s a model more intentional communities should take note of.
Would I live here?:Vienna has repeatedly been cited as the city with the highest quality of life in the world although the picture might not be as rosy if you aren’t Austrian. The expat resource website InterNations lists Vienna as the “worst-rated city” in the world when it comes to the “ease of settling in” due in large part to it also being in last place for “local friendliness.” As amazing as it’d be to be integrated into a community like Aspern Seestadt — especially, eventually, as a mother — it’d probably be terribly isolating to get the cold shoulder from my new neighbors. For the “new girl in the high school” vibes this is giving me, I’d potentially pass.
Vienna is Building a $6BN "City Within a City"www.youtube.com
4. The Barcelona superblocks
The 15-minute city in action
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Pol Albarran/Getty Images
One of the major criticisms of intentional communities is that they’re not actually all that “green” since they require new construction, which in turn uses up resources and adds to emissions. Additionally, many of the neighborhoods featured in this article simply aren’t scaleable to the necessary degree; 4.4 billion people live in cities and moving all of them into net-zero villages or buildings would be next to impossible.
But what if existing neighborhoods could retroactively be made greener and more habitable? That’s the radical idea behind Barcelona’s superilles, or superblocks, which began reclaiming city streets for pedestrians back in 2013. The basic idea involves cordoning off 3x3 city blocks, diverting thru-traffic around the “islands,” and limiting the roads within the blocks to six-mile-per-hour residential traffic. This transforms the interiors of the superblocks into safe places for pedestrians to walk and kids to play; the new green spaces help eliminate the urban heat island effect and boost mental health; and the walkability encourages increased foot traffic, in turn reducing emissions.
The experiment has been an enormous success: NO2 pollution has dropped 33%; noise in superblocks dipped by 9 decibels, and local businesses have seen increased sales as residents opt to shop within walking distance, a positive illustration of the urban planning concept known as the 15-minute city.
Today, there are only six superblocks in the capital of Catalonia, but the goal is to expand the concept city-wide to potentially as many as 500. In the next decade, it aims for every resident to have a public square and a green street within 650 feet of their home.
Would I live here?:Psst, New York City, can’t you take a hint? The COVID-19 pandemic gave New Yorkers a taste of what it might be like if our city prioritized the needs of pedestrians over drivers with its “open streets” program, although most of that progress has been rolled back. Barcelona is proving we could be better if only we had our priorities in the right place. Sure, it’s a sí from me when it comes to moving to Spain, but it’d be evenneater if we could bring the superblock experiment back home.
Superblocks: How Barcelona is taking city streets back from carswww.youtube.com
5. ReGen Villages
A closed-loop community
Location: Near Amsterdam, Netherlands
“The Tesla of Eco-Villages” might not sound quite as appealing as it once did. But if you want to live minimally but aren’t quite ready to give up your Apple Watch, then ReGen Villages might be for you.
While other projects I've highlighted reimagine urban living, ReGen Villages wants to reinvent the “neighborhood development outside of cities.” The 50-acre community of 300 homes is planned for a rural region about a half-hour drive outside of Amsterdam and aims to combine vertical farming, aquaponics, renewable energy, and waste-to-resource systems to form an almost entirely self-sustaining, closed-loop community.
But this isn’t your hippie aunt’s crunchy, off-the-grid living. Conducting the complicated system will be the “Village OS” software, which eventually will use AI to “optimize living conditions, energy use, and overall efficiency,” and even potentially communicate with other future ReGen Villages around the planet, Insider reports.
ReGen Village has run into a number of roadblocks since it was first announced — construction on the complex was originally slated to begin in 2017 but it has encountered zoning, permitting, and funding problems and its website says the company is “in [the] process of raising a Series-A round of investment” to build out the operating system to test in “pilot communities.” But if the Amsterdam location doesn’t work out, stay tuned; ReGen is a California-based company and it reports interest in the concept is high in the U.S., particularly the Northeast.
Would I live here?: I’m all for off-the-grid living but something about ReGen Villages feels a little … cult-y? Maybe it’s the all-seeing AI, or the active discouragement of owning a car while living in a rural area, but something about this whole scheme sounds like the starting premise of an Ari Aster film. I’ll keep my cell reception, thanks.
ReGen Villages - Index Award 2017 Finalistwww.youtube.com
6. The Sustainable City
An over-the-top oasis
Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
A desert oil state might seem like an unlikely place for a sustainable city; in 2003, the United Arab Emirates had the highest ecological footprint per person of any nation (and it’s not much better now). But as part of a region-wide effort to convince the rest of the world that climate objectives are compatible with fossil fuels, the UAE is hosting COP28 and touting lofty goals like making Dubai the city with the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050.
The 120-acre, $354 million Sustainable City is one of the crown jewels of that ongoing effort. Constructed 18 miles in the desert outside of Dubai by Diamond Developers, which built the city’s famous marina, the Sustainable City is intended as a model net-zero neighborhood, complete with self-sufficient greenhouses and biodomes, recycled water, solar panels, and intelligent design (the villas, home to some 2,500 residents, all face north, which the developers claim cuts air conditioning usage by 40%). Cars are banned inside the compound and a shopping plaza, complete with a mosque, serves all the residents’ needs.
Critics are highly skeptical of the Sustainable City, arguing the project is an “‘island’ of specialized consumption and lifestyle … that does not actually take on the challenge of sustainability.” Supporters, on the other hand, describe it as a “living laboratory” where developers are learning in real-time how to make habitable one of the most climate-threatened places on Earth. True, the Sustainable City might not be the solution to Dubai’s problems — at worst, it might represent another instance of the UAE’s greenwashing. But if its experiment is successful, the solutions it discovers could help inform better-living for everyone.
Would I live here?:There is a reason most of the homes on this list are variations on high-density living; dense urban housing tends to be far more energy efficient. While having your own villa in the Sustainable City would be pretty sweet, it does give the impression that this is just another gated community surrounded by all the other gated communities also touting their green bona fides in Dubai. On top of the human rights violations I’d have to turn a blind eye to in order to live in the United Arab Emirates, I’m not sure the Sustainable City would be right for me.
Sustainable City | Fully Chargedwww.youtube.comSc
7. Whisper Valley
More than meets the eye
Location: Austin, Texas
Bringing people in closer harmony with the Earth is the goal of many sustainable communities. Whisper Valley, a 2,000-acre development in Austin, just takes it a little more literally.
At first, Whisper Valley looks like many innovative developments popping up across America: The 7,700 homes come with solar panels, Google Nest thermostats, nearby community centers, and ample public green spaces (in this case, a massive 600-acre park that doubles as flood control). But what sets the community apart is what you can’t see: Whisper Valley sits on the largest geothermal grid in the world.
Drawing on the steady temperature of the deep Earth, geothermal is gaining popularity as a means of slashing energy costs and emissions associated with heating and cooling homes. In combination with solar panels, monthly energy bills in Whisper Valley run residents only about one dollar.
But the low energy impact and savings are not the only things that make Whisper Valley a model neighborhood for the future. Because of its reliance on geothermal energy, the community had no problem staying warm when a 2021 energy surge during the deadly Texas Snowpocalypse left millions of people without heat for days. “As extreme weather gets more destructive,” Fast Company writes, geothermal solutions like that in Whisper Valley may be “a way for communities to withstand their own version of Snowpocalypse.”
Would I live here?: The suburbanite in me loves a lot about Whisper Valley — the stand-alone energy-efficient homes, the communal gathering spaces, the emphasis on healthy outdoor-oriented lifestyles, and the charging stations that come already installed in the garages. For most Americans, the development likely represents a feasible way to lower the family footprint while not compromising on many of the things we’ve come to take for granted, such as having our own space and the freedom that comes with owning a car. As far as daydreams go, Whisper Valley is perhaps a little underwhelming compared to living in a sky-forest or a luxury villa. But in terms of places that real Americans might actually be convinced to live, Whisper Valley is as exciting as it gets.
Whisper Valley - East Austin's New Zero-Energy Capable Communitywww.youtube.com