Inside Tucson’s Civano Project
Inside the Civano Project: A Case Study of Large-Scale Sustainable Neighborhood Development (Mcgraw-Hill’s Greensource Series) 2009
By C. Alan Nichols and Jason A. Laros
Forward by Sustainable Tucson — Co-Founder Bob Cook
The following story is about a group of people who recognized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and took it upon themselves to reinvent the future and work for its realization. The great vision of this project was understood long before those still preoccupied with the status quo could accept its premise. Yet, the story unfolds despite all the resistance and pitfalls in its path. While the final outcome was never assured, the dream and ultimate value of this opportunity would never be shaken.
And so this is the story of the Tucson Solar Village Project later to be renamed Civano.
The 1970s was a decade much like the present period – a protracted energy crisis, a long global recession, major changes in our monetary system, high unemployment, conflict and wars, heightened global competition for resources and markets, price inflation, and growing interest in solar energy and new, more efficient technologies. In short, the world was burdened with uncertainty but also drawn to the possibilities of great and needed change.
The key scientific finding during the seventies was that Planet Earth is a finite system and that unconstrained growth would lead to dangerous resource shortages and degradation of natural systems. When the bad news would arrive in the future – when the limits to growth would be reached — was debated endlessly among “experts.” However, in everyday terms, these limits seemed so far off in time that more immediate, pressing issues absorbed most peoples’ attention. Except for a relatively small community of scientists and environmental thinkers, the value of alternatives to growth was very low. Why pursue sustainability when the presumed nature of the economy and the world’s capacities is to always grow.
In the United States, the seeds of the sustainable development movement germinated in the seventies in response to these scientific findings and the social and cultural fallout from economic instability. For those of us who came to see this coming paradigmatic change, many would have to carry this knowledge patiently into the eighties and nineties before the time was right to actually work on planning, engineering, and building a different world.
The story of Civano is a story of many diverse people and events coming together at different points in time to move forward the proposition that now is the time for a prototype sustainable community development. The designs changed and evolved, but the vision was always a comprehensive treatment of all functions of the human built environment in harmony with the natural cycles of energy, water, materials, and eco-systems.
When this opportunity appeared to the first wave of Tucson innovators in the 1980s, it was clear that the next evolutionary phase was beginning. We would lead the first major experiment in the desert Southwest for learning how to create a community land development based on regenerative cycles and significantly reduced resource consumption. The promise of wide-scale utilization of solar energy in the future would be furthered by this single venture in a new approach to development.
The chronology of Civano spans three decades with important milestones achieved in each. At many points, the realization of the dream stood in doubt as challenges overwhelmed the participants and the institutions backing its progress. But key actors always kept the effort moving forward up to its current state as a living, breathing place where people and families live their lives.
An experiment should never be labeled either a success or failure because the underlying purpose of an experiment is to test hypotheses and learn about something which often has never been attempted before. Civano provides us with a unique set of valuable lessons for designing ongoing responses to the intensifying sustainability crises unfolding all around us.
The story of Civano is ultimately a story of local heroes carrying forward a noble and important mission. In particular, I want to acknowledge Al Nichols, engineer extraordinaire, for his many roles throughout the past two decades in bringing Civano into being and making its beneficial lessons available to all those now and in the future who will take on the next critical sustainability challenges.
Former Chair, Tucson-Pima Metropolitan Energy Commission
Co-Founder, Sustainable Tucson