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Is it really possible to have less than zero carbon emissions? Sixteen projects worldwide, including Zonk’izizwe Town Center in Midrand, Gauteng, South Africa, will attempt to find out with the help of a former US president and his foundation.

Zonk’izizwe, a $1.5-billion, five-million-square-foot mixed-use complex to be built over 15 years by Old Mutual Properties on 554 acres between downtown Johannesburg and Pretoria (Tschwane), will consist of residential, commercial and transportation uses. But it’s the commercial core, which will include 1.6 million square feet of retail and entertainment, a 12-story hotel, office towers and a transportation center surrounding a man-made lake, which will provide the early demonstration of climate positive development.

“We’ve been master-planning the project for the last 10 years,” says Roy Higgs, CEO of Baltimore-based Development Design Group, with green aspects as an important consideration throughout. The master plan includes bike paths and trails to allow easy pedestrian and bicycle traffic between the project’s components, reducing auto dependence. A shuttle also is being discussed for more distant elements. Office and residential towers will rise as high as is permissible for a complex located near a regional airport.

The Town Center, which will be the first phase of the project, will use ground water and a degree of grey water for the manmade lake. Energy efficiency, densification and incorporating public transportation–including a rail network still under development–atypical in African developments, have long been a part of the plan. Solar energy will be incorporated, and the design has retained much of the local egoli granite grass found on the site. Other landscaping will shield buildings and people from the summer sun.

“We situated the development so it picks up the winter sun,” Higgs says. Retailers’ mechanical systems will be designed to help clean the water and reduce energy use. In addition, DDG is looking at the possibility of wind power.

As a result, Zonk’izizwe was one of 16 projects selected by the Clinton Climate Initiative and the US Green Building Council (USGBC) to participate in their Climate Positive Development program. Launched in May 2009 by the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI), a project of the William J. Clinton Foundation, in partnership with the USGBC, the program supports the development of large-scale urban projects that will demonstrate that cities can grow in ways that are “climate positive,” striving to reduce the amount of on-site CO2 emissions to below zero. In other words, these projects will not just “do no harm” to the environment, they actually can improve the surrounding environment, the definition of “climate positive.”

By combining CCI’s business and finance expertise with the technical knowledge of the USGBC, the Climate Positive Development Program will support the planning and implementation process for each real estate development and establish the standards and metrics by which the sites can measure climate positive outcomes, the Foundation says. The program will create a “Climate+” greenhouse gas metric and measurement standard, as well as offer project technical support, business and financial analysis, and partnership facilitation.

“A program that aims to set a new global benchmark has to be set on solid metrics,” says USGBC President, CEO, and Founding Chairman Rick Fedrizzi in a statement. “We know this from our experience with LEED, and believe it’s fundamental to delivering immediate and measureable results,”

Other benefits can accrue from such developments. Zonk’izizwe is being built into part of a mountain, requiring major digging that will help build another part of the country, Higgs explains.

“Because of the excavation we have to do, there will be enough granite to produce the crusher rock for South Africa’s roads for the next two years,” Higgs says.

Zoning and the world economic downturn have slowed development, but the delay also helped connect Zonk’izizwe with the Climate Positive Development Program, Higgs says.

“I was asked to meet people [in the Washington, DC area] to talk them through the project,” Higgs says. “They made it known that there are systems that can clean the air and water to make it carbon positive. There are ways of reducing CO2 emissions to below zero. I have to see that myself.”

The key, according to the Clinton Climate Initiative, is for property developers to partner with local governments to implement economically viable innovations in building, generating clean energy, waste management, water management, transportation and outdoor lighting systems. Other climate-positive communities will be located in Melbourne, Australia; Palhoca, Brazil; Toronto; Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; Ahmedabad, India; Jaipur, India; outside Panama City, Panama; Seoul; Stockholm; London; San Francisco and Destiny, Florida.

“As the Earth’s population increases and our cities grow, we need to ensure we have the models in place to sustain our way of life in an increasingly urbanized world,” says President Clinton in a statement announcing the program. “The Climate Positive Development Program will set a new global standard for developments that will minimize environmental impacts and benefit economies as we build and rebuild homes, schools, and businesses. Today’s announcement builds off the work my Foundation and the C40 have done to initiate large-scale projects in more than 40 cities that are already reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making a significant impact in the fight against climate change.”

DDG and Old Mutual have worked closely with Gauteng officials to integrate the project with a rail line still under construction, as well as an existing airport for small aircraft. The timeline is yet to be determined, but Higgs says he is confident that the CCI involvement will help accelerate the process.

“Ironically, [the Clinton announcement] has generated more positive P.R. than anything on the planet,” Higgs says. “I’m looking forward to engaging everyone.”

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