A utopian, sustainable N.C. city

Columbia, North Carolina: A Sustainable Example

In April 2018, Viktor Agabekov wrote a fictional, first-person account of life in a utopian, sustainable North Carolina city of the future. Read his story below.

As dawn rolls through the transparent solar panel of my bedroom window, I start another day in the historic downtown of Columbia, North Carolina. Once a tiny settlement with less than 900 people, the city is now a national leader in adapting to sea level rise. Situated near the mouth of the Scuppernong River in northeastern North Carolina, Columbia first experienced irregular flooding in the late 2010’s, and city leaders boldly decided to reshape the image of the town to ensure it would have a future.

It is now 2040, the city has swelled past 4,000 residents, and the policies adopted in the past 20 years make it sustainable to live and thrive in the city. In addition to environmentally-minded designs, the city has shaped development to capture the benefit of social capital as part of its mission.

I work as an environmental consultant for the town, and start each day with a 5-minute commute to the city center by bicycle. The design of the town follows the “garden city” layout proposed by Ebenezer Howard in the late 19th century, as the town has capitalized on the nearby abundance of green space surrounding it (figure 5). The total size of the city is just over 25 square miles, with most of the area being dedicated to green space. Several “spokes” of transit that include three-lane roads and separated bike paths stretch to compact residential neighborhoods, such as the one I live in.

I leave my tiny home in the morning without having to lock my door, as the Internet of Things lets me do that remotely from my phone as I’m on the way to work. The roads and bike paths are elevated over the saltwater wetlands below, and are made of permeable material to limit flooding when heavy storms saturate the area.

As I ride up to my company building, I lock my bike in an elevated bike rack and head up the stairs to my office space. It’s not a long walk, however, as the city has a height limit of 4 stories for buildings by the waterfront as to preserve the profile of the riverfront. My office building has passive lighting and large windows, which offset its electricity use even on hot summer days by letting the sun do the electricity generation and lighting work.

The building facades of downtown Columbia are mandated to appear similar to historic buildings previously constructed, to keep up the historic charm of the city. My building, along with all others in the downtown area, also has a green roof to reduce the heat absorbed in the hot summer months planted with crop plants that can be harvested by workers for food. The roof captures rainwater in a cistern, which is then used for secondary non-potable purposes including flushing and irrigation.

Water in the city literally surrounds the core of downtown every day. As sea level rise has caused the height of the Scuppernong River to increase by 2’, Columbia has adopted strict building codes that minimize losses due to seasonal flooding and constant water presence. The riverbank is lined with a living shoreline, mostly made up of oyster reefs and vegetation beds. The river water isn’t fresh, as saltwater from the ocean mixes in during tide changes. This made obtaining fresh water a priority for the city, so a single large desalination plant was built in 2030 in the northern limits of the city to solve this problem. The rising water forced the city to condemn several older structures that became total losses over time, and these structures were torn down and converted into wetland park open spaces.

Water also serves as a means of transport to Columbia, and the city has a central transit hub on the downtown waterfront that links a ferry terminal, boat marina, bicycle path, and arterial road. It’s easy to get around the downtown by walking from this transit hub, and it’s a popular public space for people to meet up at and watch boats go by. The city is small and walkable to the point where local buses aren’t required, and all buildings are made inclusive for all people through accessible ramps, doors, and elevators to upper floors.

Lunchtime calls for a trip down to the local food co-op in downtown Columbia, and I walk across the main circular plaza at the core of the city. The streets here are made of cobblestone filled with permeable gravel, which slows down drivers and adds a cozy, historic element to the atmosphere of downtown. This allows water to quickly dissipate during rain events, and helps bring the total runoff from the city center to almost zero. The food co-op has a large open lawn that is open to the public, and is a popular spot to relax and enjoy the sights of the city at. It is lined with fruit trees that are grown in large containers, as the soil across most of the city is too salty for fruit trees otherwise.

Container gardens like this also line the windows of downtown buildings, and it is town policy to allow any citizen or visitor to freely harvest these gardens as part of an equal access to fresh foods initiative. Because the city is easily walkable, there are no recognized food deserts in Columbia.

Agriculture was once the backbone of Tyrrell County, but rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion have caused it to retreat inland within North Carolina. This has caused Columbia to rely on many crops to be imported from other locales, but several salt-tolerant crops such as sugar beets and barley are still farmed beyond the green belt band of the city. Lunch also includes a refreshing non-alcoholic craft beer from a Columbia brewery, which has become a cultural staple for locals.

The fishing industry on the Scuppernong River has also surged to cultural prominence, as the farming of oysters and blue crabs have made the city internationally recognized for its seafood products. Sustainable culling and size restrictions have allowed these populations to flourish near the town, and the fishing economy has become one of the largest employers in the region.

Another industry that has become integral to the city has been research in climate adaptation for agriculture and city resiliency planning. A large research institution sits at the core of downtown Columbia, bordered by a cobblestone woonerf plaza that gives its students access to labs and high-paying research jobs. This reflects the progressive ideology of the city, as the rise from a poverty-stricken town to a global leader in climate adaptation has caught the eye of many inspired planners.

Columbia is also home to the a significant government presence, as it is the county seat of Tyrrell county and hosts a US Coast Guard search and rescue base. The presence of this large amount of industry is the source of employment for most of the town’s 4,000 residents, including me. My company helps developers set up microgrids in new communities, and works with electric utilities to allow net metering of residential surplus electricity to take place. The city offers net metering in all of the low-income housing neighborhoods it maintains, allowing residents to gain supplemental income and proving that Columbia values them and is invested in their success, a commitment to social capital.

The emergency services of the city including the fire department, police, and paramedic, are all centrally located behind the city hall at the core circular plaza of the city. This allows them to respond to all emergencies in the city’s radius from a single, central point, and thus equalizes response times to neighborhoods despite their demographics.

The energy portfolio of Columbia is entirely made of renewable sources, primarily fed from a large offshore wind farm near the Outer Banks. The rest of the city’s electric needs, including a full charging infrastructure for electric cars, are met by solar microgrids that use transparent window-panels, much like my home neighborhood.

Columbia city schools are also powered by microgrids, and use electric school buses to get kids to and from their schools. Renewable technologies are taught to all kids enrolled in Columbia, and are favored in city policy. In fact, the city has a ban on internal-combustion-engined vehicles, including lawn mowers and carts, as the volatile compounds created by those emissions are precautionary blocked from impacting the wetland ecosystems that surround the town.

Since most of the former agricultural lands near Columbia became unfarmable due to saltwater intrusion back in the 2020s, the city bought them at fair market value and raised funds through taxes to convert them to a green belt, reverting them back to their natural pocosin wetland biome type. These delicate ecosystems are degraded by combustion emissions, and the city has opted to justly protect them since they are an ecotourism destination, provide ecosystem services to the city, and are a cultural staple.  

Wetlands have come to define Columbia: they have naturally resisted climate change and rising sea levels, are entirely unique compared to other ecosystems, and provide valuable services that other regions can benefit from. The city knows this very well, and recognizes this through an annual celebration called “Wetland Day,” which involves completely closing the downtown of the city to cars and having local artisans, scientists, and teachers show visitors the benefits that wetlands provide the town. Because the scale of the downtown area is very human-centered, visitors are fully comfortable walking around historic buildings and bringing their families as well.

The city has a comprehensive CCTV network that monitors streets, neighborhoods, and the green belt, and thus creates a network of safety that wasn’t previously seen in such a coastal community. The monitoring of wetlands specifically deters any poaching of endangered animals such as the red wolf, which has become a local symbol of pride and resilience. The conservation of a wetland buffer around the city also provides many ecosystem services for residents, ranging from cooler temperatures in the summer, to protection from flood surges and hurricane winds. This protection extends to all residents of Columbia, regardless of their demographics, and is an example of the city’s commitment to nature and valuing social capital.

My day at work wraps up as I collect the compost bins from around my office and send them down a vacuum chute into a central composting and waste management center in the north of the city. Composting, along with recycling has lowered the city’s total waste destined for landfills to just 2% of the total waste produced by residents each year. Because the city’s low-lying topography and sensitive ecosystems make landfills unfavorable, it exports this trash inland to Person County, and pays for this service through a waste disposal fee levied on citizens. This makes everyone want to generate as little landfill garbage as possible, and most neighborhoods around Columbia even hold competitions to see if anyone can lead a truly zero-waste lifestyle.

My final stop before I leave for home is a small drugstore in a mixed-use building at the edge of downtown, to pick up some protein powder. I debated seeing my friends who live above the drugstore in an apartment, but decided against it as I still have to prepare dinner and harvest vegetables from my container garden back home.

As I cycle back home on the raised wooden bike path, I remember visiting Columbia when I studied on the Outer Banks in college. The town was entirely different back then, and didn’t have a single value of sustainability at its core. The Columbia I know now is at the forefront of sustainable living and development, and to see how successful policy has been for this city is humbling; it was an effort by the residents who denounced isolationism and banded together to outlast the changing climate that threatened their very homes.

As I look over my shoulder at the bright sunset, I pull up my bike to my house and check my net electricity meter. My house generated 3-kilowatt hours of extra power, which was used by my neighborhood microgrid to light a basketball court for a kids’ scrimmage game. I tend my garden and prepare dinner, winding down after a long day of analyzing sustainable policy.

I finally wrap up my night by stargazing with my telescope through my open window, a hobby I picked up since the wetland buffer around the city limits the sprawling light pollution, right as the sun finishes setting on my sustainable city.

About the Author: Viktor Agabekov graduated UNC in 2018 with dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in Economics and Environmental Studies, along with a minor in Entrepreneurship. A proud son of North Carolina, he has worked with state and local public entities along with student organizations and start-ups to find solutions to the question of what it means to be sustainable. He is now the Project Coordinator for the UNC Three Zeros Environmental Initiative. Aside from his official roles, he enjoys hiking, fresh and saltwater fishing, sustainable cooking, and organic gardening.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Viktor Agabekov.