The Town of the Future is Here - in Florida
A test case for a smart and resilient city: What cities like Miami can learn from the making of Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida.
Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida serves as a blueprint for how to live and build with community and sustainability in mind. Watch our interview with founder and former NFL player Syd Kitson here.
For eight hours Hurricane Ian hovered over Babcock Ranch with sustained winds of more than 150 miles an hour, pounding the newly built southwest Florida town that’s home to more than 6,000 people, and aims to ultimately have a population of some 50,000.
But once the Category 4 storm cleared, a stunning realization came to light. Babcock Ranch never lost power, all structures were intact, and life returned to normal quickly. Meanwhile, in coastal areas less than 30 miles away the vicious storm had taken lives, leveled homes, and quite literally swept away once bustling seaside communities.
The split-screen result from Hurricane Ian - which caused nearly 150 deaths in Florida and is the costliest hurricane in the state’s history - vividly illustrated what it means for a community to be resilient. It showed, in the starkest of terms, the difference that sustainability, smart planning, and investment can have in the trajectory of people's lives.
For our latest Opportunity Miami Interview, we sat down with Syd Kitson, the developer behind Babcock Ranch, a new community that started welcoming people in 2018, to discuss the qualities that make it sustainable, why he chose to do it, and what’s needed for other existing cities and regions to do the same. You can watch the conversation here.
HOMETOWN OF TOMORROW
Babcock Ranch is a pioneering experiment in city building at a time when the country - indeed, the world - continues to search for ways to transition to a sustainable, net-zero economy, drive economic growth, and provide healthier ways for people to live.
Sitting on 18,000 acres of land northeast of Fort Myers - and only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Miami - Babcock Ranch’s self-declared goal is to be a leader in the “future of sustainable living.” Indeed, it calls itself “the blueprint for the hometown of tomorrow.”
“We are trying to prove that a new town can work hand in hand with the environment,” said Kitson, who played with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League before starting a career in real estate.
Babcock Ranch is powered by solar energy. With FPL, it built an 840-acre solar field with some 700,000 solar panels, along with battery storage units to avoid energy disruptions. Power lines are buried. Fifty percent of its footprint is for green spaces. Walkability and bikeability are emphasized; ultimately, it’s to have 150 miles of trails. High-speed internet - a gigabit - is standard in each home, along with free community wifi. Landscaping is with indigenous plants; the stormwater management system takes natural water flows into account for drainage and rehydrating surrounding wetlands. Construction avoids environmentally vulnerable areas. The community is built more than 25 feet above sea level.
Meanwhile, Babcock Ranch aims to be a living laboratory for new technology, a place that, it declares on its website, “embraces testing and piloting technology projects, from autonomous shuttles to drone delivery service to robotic garage cans.”
“I think it’s how we integrated with the environment, sustainability, resiliency, and innovation that is really the hallmark that makes Babcock Ranch unique,” said Kitson.
CONFRONTING RECESSION, PANDEMIC AND HURRICANE IAN
The story of Babcock Ranch is just beginning to play out. Residents started moving in five years ago and new phases of development are planned to accommodate what’s envisioned to be a nearly ten-fold population growth. But the Babcock Ranch story is already one of resiliency. It’s a project that endured the Great Recession and pandemic before being confronted by the menacing wind and rain of Hurricane Ian.
In 2006, Kitson and a group of investors purchased 91,000 acres in southwest Florida - an area five times the size of Manhattan - from the Babcock family. He then sold 73,000 acres of that land to the State of Florida in what TIME magazine called “the largest preservation buy in Florida history.” Kitson kept the remaining 18,000 acres to build the new environmentally-friendly, tech-savvy, path-breaking town. (Notably, with half of the 18,000 acres set aside for green space it means that 90 percent of the overall 91,000 acre land purchase will be preserved for generations to come, Kitson said.)
But then the recession hit, delaying the project. Shovels didn’t go into the ground until 2016. By January 2018 the first residents moved in, but two years later the COVID-19 pandemic hit, prompting lockdowns and shuttering businesses. And then two years after that, in September 2022, Hurricane Ian had Babcock Ranch in its crosshairs.
“We were initially known as the first solar-powered town in America,” said Kitson. “Then after Hurricane Ian, I think we became quickly known as probably one of the most resilient.”
As many parts of southwest Florida continue the long road to recovery, Babcock Ranch has virtually none of those costs, nor the personal trauma, from Hurricane Ian because of its planning and investments made upfront. Not surprisingly, it’s also setting new records in home sales. By one measure, Babcock Ranch ranked 5th nationally last year in home sales. It’s another illustration that economic growth and sustainability don’t have to be tradeoffs, but can be completely aligned.
AN URGENT, LONG-TERM APPROACH
But, of course, this raises the question: what can be done to create more Babcock Ranches, and, in particular, what can existing metropolitan areas like Miami do to become similarly sustainable, resilient, tech-enabled, and innovation-friendly?
“The goal here is that people will look at what we are doing and not only will do the same, but they will do better,” Kitson said.
For existing places with legacy infrastructure, it’s admittedly a challenge, said Kitson. But the message he shares to cities and towns around the world is “to start somewhere.”
“Don’t think short-term but long-term. Think ten to 15 years, 20, 30, 40 years down the road. How to start creating a resilient community now with building codes, where you build, how you build,” he said.
But critically important, Kitson continued: “Begin the process, and start now.”
As the future-focused arm of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, Opportunity Miami is a platform for people passionate about where Miami goes next. As always, we would love to hear from you.
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