The Search for Sustainable Communities

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A hot topic among Baby Boomers, empty nesters, and my friends these days is the best place in the country to downsize and enjoy a freer lifestyle, perhaps more so this spring because of the long, snowy winter in the northeast and midwest. Some of those conversations have focused on the availability of not only beautiful places to enjoy warmer weather or have a second home, but communities that honor sustainable living and “green” practices. My husband, Frank, and I have made our own Connecticut property pesticide and chemical-free for over twenty years (the former owner kept the property chemical-free, too), and we’ve been searching for a completely green community for years.

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 The Inn at Price Tower, Bartlesville, Oklahoma.Bartlesville ranks high on the list of great places for affordable living with many cultural offerings.

Unfortunately, although you do hear about “green” developments, many of them simply have the word green in their name. Many others incorporate a few sustainable elements, but what I hoped to find, a comprehensive green community with LEED certified buildings, energy efficient air filtration systems, and chemical-free zones aren’t yet on the drawing boards. Perhaps the time is right to push harder for some of the eco-friendly features we’d prefer.

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Charleston, South Carolina: photo courtesy of Forbes.com. Charleston was voted America’s Number One City for the third year by Conde Nast Traveler.

Many publications offer a “best places to retire” list. Forbes Magazine recently published their own list of top 25 places that fits what most  Americans consider desirable features. Among them are a reasonable cost of living, a mild climate, a low crime rate, the ability to easily keep fit, with places to walk, bike and hike, good places to shop, and cultural activities. Of course, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another, which is the reason for lots of options. When you add a sustainable lifestyle to the mix, the options are narrower.

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Sustainable features may include water and energy conservation, access to public transportation or shops within an easy walking or biking distance, use of recycled or local materials, and indoor air quality. The LEED rating system offers points for walkable proximity to stores, schools, and churches, which is more common in urban centers. There is a movement back to the cities for empty nesters, to be closer to culture, restaurants and nightlife. A few places where walking is definitely part of the lifestyle are Capital Hill in Seattle, Short North in Columbus, Ohio, and Highlands in Denver.

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Short North Arts District, Columbus Ohio: photo courtesy of groupmv.com

Finding the perfect spot, sustainability aside, means choosing among the many welcoming towns scattered across America. Beaufort, South Carolina has gotten high marks from almost every magazine that has reviewed “best places to live,” including Coastal Living, Travel and Leisure, CNN Money, and Smithsonian Magazine. Located on Port Royal Island in the Intercoastal Waterway, its history reaches back 300 years, with the Historic Beaufort Foundation responsible for preserving much of its original architecture. If the Mandevilla-scented breezes don’t entice you, then perhaps the shrimp and sweet tea will.

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Beaufort, South Carolilna: photo courtesy of Coastal Living. Ranked America’s Happiest Seaside Town by Coastal Living, 

Nestled in between two of the South’s most beautiful and historic cultural centers, Beaufort and Charleston, South Carolina, is Spring Island. An island community in a 3,000 acre nature preserve and Live oak forest, Spring Island features unspoiled islands, undiscovered inlets, and stunning water views.

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Spring Island, South Carolina. Photo courtesy of spring island.com

Charleston, South Carolina offers Camellias blooming in February, fabulous low country food, historic buildings that have survived the Civil War and the marvelous Spoleto Festival that takes place for 17 days and nights every spring. It’s a natural choice for me, as many members of my family call South Carolina home, and it takes me back to the days on the family farm with my grandparents.

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Charleston, South Carolina: photo courtesy of harbourviewcharleston.com

With tides rising and more frequent, severe storms due to climate change, however, the fact that the Battery is one foot below sea level should be considered. But then there’s the  charming beach on nearby Sullivan’s Island…weighing pros and cons can be so difficult!

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 Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina: photo courtesy of city-data.com

Kiawah Island is only 23 miles from Charleston, and is another on the list of Coastal Living’s Happiest Seaside Towns in America. Open space abounds on the island, but so does luxury, with some of the country’s most stunning beach residences found there.  It’s ten miles of unspoiled beach, five award-winning golf courses, thirty miles of paved trails for walking, running and biking, and home to egrets, herons, and bald eagles, among other seaside wildlife. Sitting in the shade of a magnolia tree there could give a whole new meaning to relaxation.

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Kiawah Island, South Carolina: photo courtesy of frontdoor.com. Located only 23 miles from Charleston, and a popular choice for second homes. 

For year-round living, Rowayton, Connecticut has it all. I speak from experience since I lived there for nine years. Surrounded by Long Island Sound and Five Mile River, it’s a lovely waterfront community with all the related water sports, boating, and fishing. There’s an active Historical Association, a lovely church, and a civic center in a stone library. It’s a small town community just a short ride from the Big Apple!

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 Rowayton, Connecticut

 Of course, for me as for so many of my friends, “all roads lead to Nantucket.” With its history, charming architecture, and the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum, voted one of the ten places you must see before you die, it’s a destination for some of the most fascinating and accomplished people on earth. Its island setting makes it a very “green” community. Few pesticides are used there as people are aware of the fragility of the eco-system. What’s dumped in the landfill ends up in the water supply very quickly. A downside to any seaside community is mold growth, with the constant moisture in the air. Still, island living offers quite a trade-off.

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 Nantucket, Massachusetts

Another popular feature  is being surrounded by a wildlife-friendly habitat. Not only does it provide beautiful scenery, but it offers a green oasis for birds and other wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation recognizes eighty three communities that have worked to be certified as wildlife habitats.

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Charlotte, North Carolina has over 17,000 acres of parks, 21 nature preserves, and 33 miles of greenways. Photo courtesy of aga.org.

Sweetwater in the Foothills, Arizona is a planned community whose organizing theme was to create a community that is harmonious with its natural upper Sonoran desert setting. It provides critical habitat for birds, reptiles, rabbits, javelina, bobcats, and coyotes.  Landscaping is committed to low water usage and retaining the native desert plants.

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Sweetwater in the Foothills, Arizona

 As the second largest city located south of San Diego, Chula Vista has long been recognized for residential design and environmental innovation. There are over fifty miles of gorgeous coastal landscape, rolling hills, mountains and canyons. Hundreds of miles of trails attract hikers, bikers, birdwatchers and outdoor enthusiasts. There is a thriving downtown with a historic district known as Third Avenue Village, making this one of the most desirable places to live in the U.S.

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Chula Vista, California

Another lovely choice that celebrates progressive thinking and sustainable living is The Pinehills, a planned community of 1,700 homes in Plymouth, Massachusetts, located in the world’s third largest pine ecosystem. A commitment to environmental stewardship resulted in setting aside 2,200 acres (70 % of the total area) as preserved open space, homes are carefully sited to harmonize with the woodlands, roads follow–rather than alter–the natural valleys and contours, and a village green serves as the heart of the community.

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The Pinehills at Plymouth, Massachusetts

Powder Mountain, Utah, in development now by Summit.co, a group of young entrepreneurs with a modern vision for mountain living, is designing a number of homes limited to 1,000 square foot dwellings, and capping the size at 4,500 square feet. One of their goals is to stop the “mcmansionification of mountains,” according to Thayer Walker, Summit’s chief reconnaissance officer. Part of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, less than an hour from Salt Lake City, Summit is building their development on 10,000 acres on the southern side of Powder Mountain and leaving most of it open space. They plan to use locally sourced, reclaimed and recycled materials that conserve energy and comply with LEED specifications. When complete, it will consist of 500 ski-accessible homesites with cultural amenities and miles of walking, biking and nordic trails.

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A comprehensive guide to green retirement communities doesn’t exist yet, so it’s important to be wary of “greenwashing,” the practice of presenting a product or building as green when it doesn’t meet many of the requirements for a true sustainable community. Some of the features to look for include:

  • Meets the EPA’s Energy Star standards
  • Achieves high standards of indoor air quality
  • Uses locally produced or recycled building materials
  • Incorporates water conservation
  • Achieves a minimal footprint on the land
  • Has renewable energy sources or efficient building envelopes
  • Preserves natural resources
  • Built with non-toxic materials
  • Eschews the use of pesticides in favor of Integrated Pest Management

The original experiment in environmental accountability is Arcosanti, the self proclaimed “laboratory” of mixed-use buildings and public spaces where people live and work together. It operates as a not-for-profit educational organization devoted to urban planning research.

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Arcosanti: photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation

No individual town or development listed here should be taken as an endorsement of their suitability by me. I recommend that you carefully investigate any community before purchasing a home there. You may find that you agree with some practices, and disagree with others. You are the only one who can choose the right location for you and your family. 

I’m curious to know what places you’re looking into, and why. I’d love to know what pros and cons you’re considering. Let me know what you find!

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 Cape Coral, Florida: photo courtesy of Forbes.com

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