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Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future

A blighted island in San Francisco Bay could become the world’s hottest property, a showcase of sustainable design. With cities now consuming 75 percent of natural resources, it’s just in time.
This scale model of San Francisco’s Treasure Island shows the mix of dense housing, a canopied retail area and a convenient ferry terminal that will help make it both pedestrian- and eco-friendly.


Published in the January 2008 issue.

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Every day, a few hundred thousand vehicles cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, their drivers barely aware of the small, rectangular land mass lying just to the north. From where I am standing, on rocky Yerba Buena Island, I can both hear the traffic thundering overhead and look across a narrow isthmus to the long-forgotten patch of real estate in the middle of the bay: Treasure Island. Home to an abandoned Navy base and a small population of low- to middle-income residents, the 400-acre property hardly lives up to its prosperous name. Defunct military buildings, rusty oil tanks and electrical transformers litter the landscape. Crumbling asphalt caps chemical dumps.

Treasure Island is an unlikely place to look for the city of the future, but that's what I'm here to find. My guide is Jean Rogers, an environmental engineer with the global design and consulting firm Arup. Surrounded by a panorama of postcard views—San Francisco, Golden Gate, Berkeley Hills—and buffeted by winds that whip in from the Pacific, Rogers seems somewhat unlikely, too: Petite, stylish, with an impressive string of degrees and a down-to-business manner, she speaks with easygoing "likes" and "you knows" sprinkled among phrases such as "tertiary water treatment" and "optimal solar exposure." Rogers jabs at the ground with the heel of her shoe, reminding me what an engineering feat we stand on: Completely man-made, Treasure Island consists of 20 million cubic yards of sea bottom that has been dredged up, dumped into walls made of 287,000 tons of quarried rock and topped with 50,000 cubic yards of loam.

Built for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, Treasure Island was claimed as a Naval base during World War II. When the base was finally decommissioned 11 years ago, San Francisco began studying how to redevelop it. From nearly 300 meetings among city officials, engineers, architects and the public emerged a plan for the most ambitious new community in the United States—a 13,500-person "urban oasis" that will rise from the soil of reclaimed Superfund sites, combining cutting-edge technology with restored natural systems to leave a light footprint on the Earth. After ground is broken in 2009, Treas­ure Island will become a testbed for the newest ideas in energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management and low-impact living. Says Rogers, with idealism undaunted by the task ahead: "We want it to be the most ecological city in the world."

At no time in history has a model metropolis been more sorely needed. More than half of the people on Earth now live in cities, where they consume 75 percent of the natural resources and are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases. But while cities can be a liability to the planet—their aging infrastructure ripping through raw materials and compounding the effects of global warming—they can also represent an important opportunity. Typically, food and water enter a city as raw material and exit it as sewage and garbage in what might be called a linear flow. By producing its own energy and recycling its waste, a city can operate less like a factory and more like an ecosystem—supporting a larger number of people with far fewer resources.

Treasure Island represents a rare chance to wipe the slate clean—to tear down old infrastructure and lay new foundations using only the smartest ideas for the future. As Jared Blumenfeld, the director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, asked a crowded forum last spring: "If you could start from scratch, absolute scratch, what would you build?"

Reader Comments
29. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
I think the rusty things like the oil tankers should be recycled and used to make buildings.I recycle alot so i think i am being a big help!

28. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
will Segways be allowed?

27. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Website: www.spintradeexchange.com/san-diego-computer-liquidators.htm
I grew up in san francisco and I think the concept is exciting! Power to the Green Revolution!

26. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Ok i read all of the comments and I see both sides. The current residents of Treasure Island will have no place to live because the new homes on the "improved" island will be VERY EXPENSIVE. And If we don't all want to be killed from destroying our planet we have to do something to help the environment. If you ask me all of these ideas sound coll. I wouldn't say I'd want to live there but it's going to be a nice place. Even though I really think this is a good idea what is one little island going to do to change the rest of the world? Just because we have one eco friendly place in the world whats going to stop the rest of the world from pollution? I really think it's going to be expensive and we won't have enough money to make every city or place in the world eco friendly. We should think about it before we act! BUT SAVE THE EARTH GO GREEN! RECYCLE!

25. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
I agree with post #19. has anyone ever heard of Mackinaw Island, in northern Michigan. it also an island where there are no cars allowed at all. only bikes, horse drawn carriages and of course, foot power. it is a very beautiful and majestic place. now I live in the real world also, and no cars aren't going to go away, I drive on myself, but I'm all for new technology that's there to for cheaper and enviro friendly auto's, such as electric cars and such. we have to do something to think of the environment. I think the island is a good idea to try, but also feel for those on the island like post #21 who would get squeezed out by big money develpors. the lady in the article mentions them, but only briefly, and like post #21 says, most if not all of those currently on the island are going to be able to afford the rent increase for their new places on the island. thanks for listening to my ideas.

24. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
It's interesting that the engineer interviewed, Jean, only briefly mentioned the people living there currently: "current renters will be able to apply for new multifamily units and residential towers", and thats all she says. She doesn't mention that the reason why they live their is that the housing is predominatly (if not all, i'm assuming since I live in san diego) low income for the simple and obvious reason that the people who live there ARE LOW INCOME. They make no mention about how they will compensate those displaced by this plan or what their options will be. I'm all for saving the planet, but not at the cost of displacing the economically disadvantaged. I say let those who would notice the difference the most be the first to enjoy the new city within a city: the impoverished people of that island. But our society seems to place more of an emphasis on those who can give developers the biggest bang for their buck. I'm not saying that those with money should be kept out, on the contrary, they bear the biggest tax burden, but who say's that new towers and clean technology can't be innovative and affordable? How energy efficient your home is shouldn't depend on your wallet.

23. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
It's interesting that the engineer interviewed, Jean, only briefly mentioned the people living there currently: "current renters will be able to apply for new multifamily units and residential towers", and thats all she says. She doesn't mention that the reason why they live their is that the housing is predominatly (if not all, i'm assuming since I live in san diego) low income for the simple and obvious reason that the people who live there ARE LOW INCOME. They make no mention about how they will compensate those displaced by this plan or what their options will be. I'm all for saving the planet, but not at the cost of displacing the economically disadvantaged. I say let those who would notice the difference the most be the first to enjoy the new city within a city: the impoverished people of that island. But our society seems to place more of an emphasis on those who can give developers the biggest bang for their buck. I'm not saying that those with money should be kept out, on the contrary, they bear the biggest tax burden, but who say's that new towers and clean technology can't be innovative and affordable? How energy efficient your home is shouldn't depend on your wallet.

22. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
I do not see anything "green" about taking Treasure Island and building skyscrapers on it. People are busy re-defining what the words "sustainable" and "green" mean, to make the concepts more commercially feasible, destrying the very meaning of the concepts in the process. It's a crock.

21. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
I live on the island, and just this week the rental office staff asked when my roommates and I wanted to come in and sign another year long lease. We were surprised by this question- as the very same rental office staff told us last year that rental agreements would be going month-to-month due to impending demolition of the island. The rental agent acted surprised when we told him this, and even made a wide eyed gasp at the mention of "demolish". He told us that we had been "VERY misinformed!", and even looked to a coworker to back his story up. (she nodded in agreement with him- that there was to be no such demolition or massive remodeling) Maybe their fabricated shock and overdramatics had something to do with the fact that there was a woman standing next to us waiting to get a tour of an open unit. (A wrecking ball through your living room window isn't how most renters are looking to celebrate their 1st year in a new home.) I'm not sure if there is an exact groundbreaking date set, but what I can tell you is that 9 out of 10 people living on this island have no idea that they will soon be left with nowhere to live. Its doubtful that the few thousand residents who have made this island their home, will be able to afford finding a place on the mainland priced within their housing budget... which would be at least 2 to 3 times as much as they are paying now. Personally, as a student on a near-shoestring budget, it will be either homlessness, or goodbye to California. Some of these families have relied on affordable housing here for close to a decade. If you want to turn our homes [our memories within shared walls, our community] into a guinea pig to inspire a bevy of eco-friendly metropolises, I understand. Its for the greater good-------- but at LEAST be honest, diligent in localized* public affairs, and let people know. *(and by "localized", I mean people who actually live on the island- not just the hemp totebag carrying, organic food store shopping, San Franciscan mainlanders who have cocktail party chats about who is on the waiting list for the next hybrid car.)

20. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Do think this concept would work in a small Town in Mexico? I am interested in utiizing this concept to create an eco friendy place for them to live.

19. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
RE: "If you could start from scratch, absolute scratch, what would you build?" Any showcase, of a sustainable ecological future, that includes conventional cars motor vehicles is a farce. A carless Treasure Island featuring alternate modalities of transportation of people and goods-- THAT will cinch the argument. America's fleet of 260 million registered motor vehicles uses 65% of all oil consumed in the U.S.A. That oil goes out the tailpipes of those 260 million cars/trucks/motorcycles as CO2, H2O vapor, gaseous pollutants, and noise. (Noise pollution is America's #1 neighborhood complaint per U.S. Census Bureau and must also be controlled and abated for a "Super Green City" worthy of its name.) It is the U.S. car fleet that is responsible for America's title as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases. Curiously, U.S. imports 65% of all oil used from foreign sources, the same amount of oil used by all those U.S. motor vehicles. Thus, in reality, America isn't oil addicted, it's car addicted. Not to mention that motor vehicles are the most dangerous, least efficent, most expensive ecologically unsustainable means of carrying people and/or goods. If the words "ecological" and "sustainable" are to mean anything in the context of the Treasure Island experiment, it needs abolish automobiles.

18. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
One thing the article did not mention is the abandoned elementary school on the island. Are there any plans to revitalize this to become a school for the citizens of the island? Also, as everybody knows there is always going to be a big fight before any major development in California- I think the environmentalists would be a tough sell on the tidal turbines as it could kill fish and seals in the water. Have these issues been addressed?

17. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
What you didn't mention is the fact that none of this amazing design would be happening if it weren't for a urban design studio of masters students at UC Berkeley who studied the possibilities for redesigning the island in the spring of 2005. Before the students presented their self-sufficient eco-friendly designs with windmills, solar orientation, farms, high density residential, and a ferry to SF, the plans were just like any other suburban neighborhood with no provisions for taking care of the hundreds of cars that would be dumped onto the Bay Bridge.

16. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
It seems the developers sure have put enough thought into it with all of the technicalities mentioned in this article, hopefully they start building soon! I currently live on Treasure Island, and looking forward to a nice deal on a new spot!

15. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
The idea of a more efficient city is a good one, but slow down one second. It sounds like the inhabitants are going to have to get used to far less square feet per person. Also by eliminating the old houses in favor of apartment buildings they will lose their own private outdoor spaces in exchange for purely public ones. Parks are nice, but I can do whatever I want in my yard. Also, this displays one of the main problems of New Urbanism. It ends up pricing most people out of the market. This island will just be a high-dollar experiment, and the people that do most of the work there won't be able to afford to live there. Isn't that already a major problem in the Bay Area? And any product that relies on selling to the rich is very vulnerable to changes in taste and recessions. Sorry, but this looks like a great waste of taxpayers money.

14. transportation methods
i came across this website... www.skytran.net which would be fantastic to implement at a place like this... unfortunately i'm NOT affiliated with skytran... i wish some city would take the initiative and implement it, instead of light rail or the BART extension down to san jose. I took the VTA from downtown to mountain view once... 2 hours and 20 stops later.. never again!

13. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Website: http://www.mortaragency.com
Wow, amazing. I would love to live here! Would n't be too far of a move from my Potero Hill home.

12. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Finally the United States can make the difference. After causing 20% of CO2 emission to the environment, it can turn around by 180 degrees. Show to the world, especially China and India, that you can clean up first your home.

11. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
> The only problem with something like this is that the government and corperations are going to betaking a step back and asking themselves, "How can we make money from a self sustainable enviroment?" I'd say that's actually a good thing. I hope they do see and realize a profit in green tech as this will make it as ubiquitous as McDonald's and Nike to the point where global warming is no longer an issue. My main concern with green tech is ensuring that it doesn't require sacrifices in the lifestyle department of people who live in green communities. Some things like public parks and gardens I see only benefits to and wish Shanghai had more of. Something like the verticalfarm would be a great example of an opportunity to deliver real value (hydroponic carrots and peas) to the customer and profit to the investor.

10. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
The only problem with something like this is that the government and corperations are going to betaking a step back and asking themselves, "How can we make money from a self sustainable enviroment?"

9. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
man, it's amazing what is on the horizon folks.

8. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
If I'm not mistaken Mythbusters is filmed on Alameda Island, next to Oakland. This will be an amazing project and an example to follow...

7. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
I hope the buildings aren't made of glasss, as it looks in the scale model. This area has so many birds passing through-- people don't realize, but birds can't see glass and are killed in great numbers when they run into tall glass "high density housing".

6. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
i wish they would do something like this for the philippines, god knows we have enough bottom feeders in government to work the waste materials processing plants. seriously though, what country needs a good kick in the arse to scoot into modernity more than the philippines?

5. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Is there a list to get on for a spot to live on this island? This place sounds idealic.

4. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
no vertical farm?

3. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Website: http://www.tratfor.com
This is the type of concerted effort we need - rather than all of this detroit rah rah gigantic old trucks sold as suvs We need focus to develop, test and introduce alternative energy technologies

2. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
But where will the Mythbusters go to film their experiments?

1. RE: Why Treasure Island Is the Super-Green City of the Future
Website: www.openeco.org/energycamp
For my New Year's resolution, I'm going to Macworld a few days early this year to go to an event called Energy Camp in SF. I'm not going to stop bathing or anything but I figured there is something I can do to make a difference by learning how to reduce carbon emissions and waste. Check out www.openeco.org/energycamp for info. -- Its free by the way!

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