Final Report: City in a Box: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Living

EPA Grant Number: SU831881
Title: City in a Box: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Living
Investigators: Scott, Norman R. , Albright, Louis D. , Cheung, Edwin , Compton, Jeannette , Duan, Liping , Goldman, Jordan , Hatch, Joshua , Hill, Jamison , Kadlec, Jessica , Labatut, Rodrigo , Lambert, William , Lark, Michael , Lewis, Gabriel , Murray, Ian , Nichols, Kevin , Peritz, Lauren , Ramo, Jarred , Raybould, Julia , Richards, Lauren , Smithmeyer, James , Streeter, Nick , Vadas, Timothy M. , Vigil, Michelle , Wright, Michelle , Wrolstad, Melissa , Wyffels, Emily , Young, Robert
Institution: Cornell University
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: September 1, 2004 through June 30, 2005
Project Amount: $10,000
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2004) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: P3 Challenge Area - Built Environment , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability


The objective of this project, simply put, is to design a 50,000 person sustainable community. However, true sustainability requires a holistic and intricate solution. Such a solution cannot be reproduced within a household, factory, or neighborhood; rather it must combine the relevant elements to build an all-inclusive model.

We envision a community where all social and economic classes can live and work together towards a better and more sustainable style of living. Utilizing renewable energy, smart growth and mixed development principles, this community is a safe, fun place to live while still maintaining a vibrant social atmosphere and economic center. It is a place where individuals can walk to work or school and enjoy the outdoors without sacrificing everyday comforts and conveniences. This was made possible by our “City in a Box” vision, which began one year ago. The goal was to examine whether a large-scale community could become self-sufficient without compromising health, happiness or the American standard-of-living. Since then the scope of the project has shifted from purely a theoretical idea to a comprehensively designed development placed outside of Reno, Nevada. With that goal in mind, along with current technologies and sustainable strategies, we have realized that such a community is not only possible, but beneficial in ways we never imagined.

In order to assess the merit of our project, we have set requirements and guidelines for the design of our community:

  • Residents will live in mixed-use dwellings in close proximity to their place of employment and markets, and integrated with, the community which will be located near a large city and interconnected with its public transportation system.
  • Neighborhoods will be designed to create a sense of community and provide considerable amounts of green and open space integrated with the natural environment.
  • The majority of fruits and vegetables consumed will be produced onsite through controlled environment agriculture.
  • All of the energy requirements will be met through renewable energy.
  • Industrial ecology will be the model of business development and create ample employment for members of the community as well as reduce and reuse resources and wastes between businesses.
  • The community will be designed for an area expecting higher than average growth and features a diversity of persons in terms of race, income level, education and other factors.
  • Our design will focus on energy efficiency and conservation of all resources and energy.

After thoroughly describing and designing our community, the goal was to compare this community to a typical US city in terms of transportation, energy, emissions, water, wastewater, solid wastes, and quality of life to show the potential benefits this type of community would have.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

In order to provide a basis of our design, we chose a site located within the Reno city limits, which is roughly 3 square miles. It is bordered by Route 80, a rail line and the Truckee River. The southern portion of the site has high potential for wind energy and the entire site has high geothermal potential. The community demographics were chosen for design based on a nearby city, Madera, CA. This provided a community make-up to design our neighborhoods, specify commercial and public needs and calculate potential benefits. The Truckee Meadows Water Authority provides water for the area and has enough resources to cover growth of the Washoe county area over the next 25 years.

The design of the community centers around the creation of an environment, beneficial for humans and meeting the requirements necessary to increase quality of life. The first concept was to create a true sense of community, not detaching families into their own plot of land, but integrating their lives while still maintaining some privacy. Neighborhoods were created with different demographics in mind, allowing for each to have the daily amenities but the aggregate to provide a broader array of options. The density of our community was set to allow for adequate populations for public transportation and an 80 % reduction in developed land, allowing for more green and open space.

Although businesses will operate based on the market, we encourage industrial ecology to minimize wastes and maximize benefits to each business developed. In addition, a wide array of service companies will be initiated such as food preparation, dish washing, laundry to increase energy and resource savings that come with a centralized process.

Transportation outside of the community will be linked with the Reno transit public bus system and the local airport. Transportation within the community will focus on extensive walking and biking paths, and de-emphasize vehicular traffic by making it easier to walk or bike.

Solid and liquid waste will be digested in a high solids anaerobic composter with a final product of marketable peat moss created and the final liquid being treated in 45 acres of integrated constructed wetlands. The methane generated will be combusted in a cogeneration unit for use on site.

Water resources will be used sparingly, focusing on efficient technology and user conservation. By using ultra low flow toilets, waterless urinals, pressure reducing valves, low flow showerheads and a graywater recycling system, more than half the typical water demand of 13.5 million gallons per day will be saved.

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) will grow approximately 2000 tons of our required fruits and vegetables in only 10 acres of greenhouses. CEA uses less water per acre for higher yields and better quality products. The value of this crop is estimated at 40 million dollars per year, of which most will remain within the community.

Renewable energy systems will be used throughout, including a district heating system, geothermal electrical production, rooftop PV arrays, passive solar design, and wind turbines, although the initial focus is on energy conservation and efficiency. Buildings are designed for thermal storage, high insulation values, day lighting, resulting in over 50 % reduction in energy use. Our heating and cooling loads will be met with a 90 MWthermal district heating system. A large portion of the electrical load will be met with a 160 MWelectrical geothermal binary-cycle power plant. An additional 50 MWelectrical each will be met with the PV arrays and 70 - 2.7 MW wind turbines. A connection with the local energy grid will be established to even out any demands during the day which may not reliably be met with our systems.


The design of our sustainable community has resulted in a community less dependent on petroleum through the use of renewable energy technology, energy efficiency and conservation, and incorporation of passive solar ideas. Compared to a typical city of this size, the potable water demand is reduced by 51-66 %, energy demand is reduced by 50 %, the heating and cooling load is met entirely through passive solar design, a completely free use of energy, and geothermal district heating, renewable energy and less transportation demand decreases CO2 emissions 93.5%, wastewater and organic solid wastes treated and completely recycled on site through an anaerobic digester and constructed wetlands, and recyclable materials are remanufactured for other uses. On the human side, a more interactive and socially stimulating environment is created, promoting interest in the well being of your neighbors and leading to a higher quality of life, similar to successful cities developed on hilltops in Spain over the last few hundred years. Although this community may be more expensive to build initially, the long term operation costs, health benefits, social benefits, and environmental benefits all outweigh the startup costs. We believe this community to be a step in the right direction for the future development and re-development of our Earth and clearly shows that with smart design and creative solutions, a more sustainable world will emerge.

Proposed Phase II objectives and strategies:

Phase II proposes three aspects: further development of our Phase I design: promote greater discussion with Reno stakeholders, and planning an implementation strategy.

We will continue to develop our ideas concerning design with the assistance of urban planners, architects, and engineering firms we have come into contact with over the progress of this project, such as Kiss & Cathcart, Fox & Fowle, Raymond Kaiser, and others. We will also approach local and state governments and developers to gauge their interests and include their concerns. It is necessary to have as complete an idea as possible to be able to propose to stakeholders interested in developing this concept.

These interactions will lead to development of an implementation strategy. A project of this scale can only be accomplished in phases realized over twenty years. The community population will be achieve 10,000 persons within the first five years of completion, along with the establishment of a sustainable infrastructure of water, wastewater, agriculture, and scaleable energy systems. The next stage would be at 10 years with a population of 20,000 persons, adding more renewable energy up to 80% design capacity and the community will begin to become independent of Reno. At the 20-year stage, the population will grow to the designed 50,000-person size, achieve 100% renewable energy sources, greatly reduced automobile use, fully integrate neighborhoods, and realize the vision of the project.

The proposal to Reno stakeholders will be in the form of a charrette, first explaining our concept and outlining details and benefits, and then proposing the detailed implementation plan. From the outcome of this meeting, design will be modified as needed and any concerns addressed before a final proposal to the government and people of Reno.

Through careful planning, feedback from designers, developers, citizens, and government, the sustainable community designed here has the potential to become a realized community and a model for sustainable growth.

Supplemental Keywords:

renewable energy, ecological design, sustainable community, agriculture, systems integration, green buildings,, RFA, Scientific Discipline, Sustainable Industry/Business, POLLUTION PREVENTION, waste reduction, Sustainable Environment, Energy, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Ecology and Ecosystems, Environmental Engineering, energy conservation, sustainable development, waste minimization, environmental sustainability, conservation, biomass, community based, energy efficiency, energy technology, solar energy, alternative energy source, waste management, resource recovery, wind energy, renewable resource, renewable energy