4 Eco-Fabulous Places to Live in 2020

Across the world, architects and environmental engineers are building cities inspired by Mother Nature. Here are four communities leading the way to a greener, cleaner world.

1. Masdar City, United Arab Emirates The Greenest Town in the Middle East

The United Arab Emirates isn't exactly known for its environmental consciousness. Many of its citizens live in large, air-conditioned homes in the middle of the desert, which is part of the reason the country produces more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than any other nation in the world. But Masdar City, a new suburb being built on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, hopes to change all that. As the world's first carbon-neutral town, this 2.5-square-mile development not only expects to house nearly 40,000 people by 2020, it also plans to run entirely on renewable energy.

How does a city reach carbon neutrality? For starters, automobiles will be banned! Instead, folks in Masdar City will get around by using a public transit system of pods -battery powered vehicles about the size of minivans. Sleek and white with see-through black windows, these six-seaters will zoom around a central loop taking passengers to their destinations. When the transit system is completed, 3,000 pods will shuttle between 85 stations within the development.

In addition to this new spin on public transportation, Masdar City plans to get its energy from large, solar-paneled umbrellas shaped like flowers. During the day, the umbrellas will open up, storing energy and providing shade for pedestrians. At night, they'll close to generate electricity. The suburb will also be surrounded by a perimeter wall that's designed to block out the hot desert winds, thereby keeping the community cool. The massive barrier may look like something out of the Middle Ages, but like the rest of Masdar City, it's actually part of the future.

2. Lyon's Gate, United States The Coolest Place to Live in Arizona

In the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, Arizona -where summer highs regularly spike past 100°F- one community is keeping cool the eco-friendly way. Lyon's Gate is a collection of 210 homes built to withstand the heat while also conserving energy. And according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the community's houses are unbelievably successful. In fact, they require 80 percent less energy for heating and cooling than typical American homes.

A lot of that is due to the way houses in Lyon's Gate are insulated. Most buildings in the Unites States rely on cheap, fiberglass insulation, which can leak out air. But the homes in Lyon's Gate are protected by a spray foam that expands up to 120 times its original volume to fill in cracks and crevices.  Although spray foam is more expensive than fiberglass, it traps air much more effectively. The houses in Lyon's Gate also beat the heat with vinyl windows, which block out solar rays four times more effectively than normal glass. And soon, you won't need to move to Arizona to experience the benefits. Meritage Homes, the company that built Lyon's Gate, already has plans to open similar green communities in several states across the country.

3. Dongtan, China Where No Grain of Rice Goes to Waste

Forty miles from downtown Shanghai, between the Yangtze River and the East China Sea, is Chongming Island -a massive expanse of mudflats and wetlands that occupies an area about the size of Los Angeles. These days, birds are the island's only visitors. But soon, the eastern part of the island could be transformed into a dense, eco-friendly city called Dongtan, which aims to have 80,000 residents, 27,000 homes, and complete carbon neutrality.

The most exciting thing about Dongtan is how it plans to power itself: All of the city's energy will be locally produced. To fuel the power plant, for instance, the city will use rice husks. Typically, after rice is processed in a mill, the husks -the protective covering on grains of rice- are discarded. But Chinese engineers have figured out a new way to transform them into energy. Even more surprising is the fact that Dongtan will make use of almost all its refuse, including sewage. Ninety percent of the city's waste will be reused or repurposed to create fuel, compost, and fertilizer for its organic farms. And because almost all the garbage will be recycled, Dongtan won't even need a landfill.

4. Jätkäsaari, Finland The Least Trashy Neighborhood in Europe

The Jätkäsaari district of Helsinki, Finland, is windy and barren -at least for the moment. Ship builders and cargo warehouses have abandoned the district for newer locations. All that remains are piles of old ship supplies and a grassy knoll that local kids use to play soccer. But all of that is about to change. In 2009, the city greenlighted plans to transform part of the area into a sustainable community. Over the next 15 years, it's expected to provide commercial and residential buildings for 16,000 people.

To ensure that it has a minimal impact on the environment, Jätkäsaari plans to utilize a variety of green technologies, including "automated vacuum collection" in every building. This incredibly efficient system will suck away waste through chutes that connect to tubes running under the city, eliminating the need for garbage trucks. There will even be separate chutes for different kinds of waste -one for cardboard, one for paper, one for compost, etc. Once underground, the paper will be transported to paper mills; the compost will be sent to farms; and combustible items will be shipped to a furnace, where they'll be burned as fuel. Watch out, garbage men of the world; your days may be numbered.


The article by Rachel Stern is reprinted from the January-February 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe today to get it delivered to you!

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