Babcock Ranch: Florida's first hurricane-proof town

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Babcock Ranch emerged almost unscathed when Hurricane Ian hit the town in September 2022  (Credit: Getty Images)
Florida's Babcock Ranch was built to survive a storm. Hurricane Ian was the town's first test. Incredibly, the community weathered the storm – emerging almost unscathed.

When Hurricane Ian made landfall on the southwest Florida coast, it brought 150mph (241km/h) winds, 17 inches (43cm) of rain within 24 hours, and storm surges of up to 18ft (5.5m). It was the costliest hurricane in Florida's history, causing more than $112bn (£88bn) in damage – and at least 150 deaths.

The category four storm, which hit Florida on 28 September 2022, knocked out power to more than four million people in the state, and caused catastrophic flooding.

Amid the calamity, there was one community that weathered the storm surprisingly well: Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre (73 sq km) development that was sitting in the eye of the storm, on the southwest of the state, just north of Fort Myers. Built to withstand powerful storms, the town came out relatively unscathed.

And although it was not in the direct line of hurricane Idalia when it swept across the southeastern United States at the end of August, the town may yet get to prove its resilience again this year.

The 2023 hurricane season is expected to be even more severe than the one experienced in 2022. Atmospheric scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have predicted an "above normal" season, with as many as five major hurricanes – which would bring winds of 111mph and higher.

Florida is more likely to flood than any other state in the US due to its flat terrain. Despite this, only 18% of Florida homes have flood insurance – some residents even report their insurance would be more than their rent. A recent study found the cost of insurance was projected to increase by 40% in 2023. Exacerbating the issue is the explosive population growth and subsequent housing development that's taken place over the past century – much of it on the wetlands that would normally help prevent to flooding. Over the next 50 years, Florida's population is expected to increase by another 12 million people, and the proportion of land developed could jump from 18% to 28% – an increase of 3.5m acres (14,000 sq km).

Building climate-resilient communities is especially important in a state like Florida, which experiences a six month-long hurricane season. And that's exactly what Syd Kitson, developer of Babcock Ranch, hoped he'd achieved.

Footage from the eye of a hurricane

Five days before Hurricane Ian hit, Kitson sat around a table with his team of engineers, contractors and internal managers, and pored over the layouts of Babcock Ranch. He asked them: "Have we done everything humanly possible to ensure we're safe?"

Kitson had built the development above building code requirements – at a large additional cost –   to ensure it was capable of withstanding a storm. "We spent a lot of additional dollars to make it safe, to plan it differently from other communities," he says. "The entire plan was based on the environment and resiliency. Everything we did was to address those two concerns."

The ranch, which opened in 2018 and is around five times the size of Manhattan Island, is like a picture-postcard, with neatly manicured lawns, vibrant green golf courses, forest trails and cycle paths. Residents zip around in solar-powered golf carts, kayak on the lakes, birdwatch, and congregate at the community pools. But the beautiful aesthetics have a dual purpose: the lakes double up as retaining ponds to protect houses from floods, streets are designed to absorb excess rainfall, and the community hall is reinforced as a storm shelter. A large 870-acre solar panel farm powers the entire development, as well as surrounding communities – making Babcock Ranch America's first solar-powered town.

Hurricane Ian was to be the development's first test. "The winds felt like a freight train running through my house," remembers Kitson, who lives at Babcock. "And I remember thinking 'if we survive this the way we should, it's going to prove a point'. But you never really know until you're absolutely tested – you can do all the planning and engineering you want, but don't know for sure what the results will be."

In the aftermath, not a single house lost power, internet, or access to clean water, and the development opened its doors to the surrounding community who had lost their homes, turning a sports hall into an emergency shelter. And when Kitson drove around the site the next morning to inspect the damage, he found that the community he had built had survived – almost unscathed, bar a few upturned palm trees and street signs.

"We had minimal damage. If we hadn't had put in place those resilient steps, we would have had tens of billions of dollars of damage. So those upfront costs to make Babcock resilient paid for themselves in just the first couple of years."

The realisation that his climate-resilient design had worked was an "emotional" moment for Kitson. "It was incredible to see this new town had really proved climate resilience planning can be done the right way."

The White House estimates that climate change could cost the US government $2 trillion (£1.58 trillion) per year by the end of the century

Building Babcock Ranch took years of planning and thoughtful design. Kitson's team consulted maps from the 1940s to find out where the natural flow ways of the land lay – essentially, where water would channel through during periods of high rainfall. Over decades, the flows had been changed to make way for farming, developments and other manmade purposes. "I told my planners 'forget where they are today, because the land has been drained'. You can't mess with Mother Nature, because Mother Nature is going to win every single time. We went and found these natural flows and we said we'd keep out of them and build around them."

Doing so meant the area's wetlands, which are adept at soaking up and holding rainwater, would be preserved. And in heavy rainfall events, when the wetlands are overburdened with water, the flow ways are able to carry the water down to Caloosahatchee River, because they have not been built on and so prevent flooding.

"It's refreshing that land developers are finally waking up to the fact that they have to address climate resilience and flooding," says Jennison Kipp, a researcher at the University of Florida's center for land use efficiency, who was "happy" to see the ranch survive the hurricane so well.

Hurricane Ian knocked out power to more than four million people in Florida and caused catastrophic flooding (Credit: Getty Images)

Hurricane Ian knocked out power to more than four million people in Florida and caused catastrophic flooding (Credit: Getty Images)

Another key component in building resilient towns is location. Babcock Ranch lies inland along Highway 31, around a 45 minute-drive to the region's barrier island beaches, which act as natural buffers to storms. The neighbourhood was also built 30ft (9.1m) above sea level, and planners ensured there was plenty of natural land surrounding it which could help buffer storms, particularly excess rainwater.

"We're literally paying billions of dollars in repairing damage caused by extreme weather," says Kipp. "These new developments offer a huge opportunity – as long as they can look past the short-term return on investment and take the long-term view." Last year, the White House estimated thatclimate change could cost the US government $2 trillion (£1.58 trillion) per year by the end of the century.

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Even though the ranch's first residents only moved in five years ago, the development became the fifth top-selling master planned community in the country last year. Richard Kinley and his wife were the first to buy a property at the ranch in 2018, moving from Atlanta, Georgia, after reading about the community's sustainable ambitions in local papers. Kinley, who says he's "always" been interested in cutting edge technology, was drawn by the problem-solving approach of the developers, particularly their water management system.

"When you're the first people to move in, you just never know," he says. "But the risk has completely paid off. I went out for a walk this morning and saw all these different birds, and fish in the lake, and lichen on the trees, and I thought about how incredibly clean the air is here. And yet, we still have a centralised downtown, and all the amenities we need."

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The ranch has become a blueprint for other developments, thanks to its resilience during Hurricane Ian, Kitson says. "Our success is reverberating around the country. There are solutions to living with extreme weather and Babcock Ranch is proof of that."

Climate-resilient communities have been emerging throughout the US in recent years: in Utah, a village hopes to protect its residents from drought; in Southern Californian, a community has been retrofitted to withstand wildfire; in Louisiana, an entire neighbourhood moved inland to escape rising sea levels; and in Florida, a coastal city is painting a new vision for dealing with rising sea levels and eroding coastlines.

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It wasn't just the stormwater management that ensured the ranch's survival; the enormous 74.5 MW solar grid and battery backup system prevented it from losing power while much of Charlotte County went dark.

"It was surreal," says Kinley, who had prepared for the hurricane by kitting out a closet with supplies such as water, a mattress, and food. "Imagine hearing the wind blowing horrifically loud past your windows, and you're sat there with all your lights on, and watching TV. It felt so otherworldly. We thought, this is absurd – it should all be dark."

During the build, developers also buried power lines, as well as building their own water plant, meaning it was the only town in the area that did not have a boil-water alert – an advisory that is issued when there is contamination in the water system.

Kitson acknowledges that while he had a rare opportunity to start from a "blank sheet of paper" and build from scratch, a lot of work needs to happen in vulnerable communities that must upgrade ageing infrastructure. In fact, the current White House administration has ringfenced $121m (£95m) in funding to upgrade critical infrastructure in rural America and along coastlines. Billions of dollars in funding is being plowed into upgrading infrastructure around the country, including restoring floodplains in Vermont and building a concrete gate in Texas to protect the coastline.

Ensuring vulnerable communities are not left behind as expensive climate-resilient developments plough ahead is vital. "There's a very stark divide between communities that have the resources to cope with climate change impacts, and those who don't," Kipp says. "We have to figure out how to balance these new developments and ensure they are strengthening and empowering existing communities. The average person does not have access to these kinds of [master planned] communities."

Not a single home in Babcock Ranch lost power or access to clean water when Hurricane Ian hit in September 2022 (Credit: Babcock Ranch)

Not a single home in Babcock Ranch lost power or access to clean water when Hurricane Ian hit in September 2022 (Credit: Babcock Ranch)

Large-scale new developments can exacerbate the climate divide, Kipp continues, and it's "unethical" to keep building new communities whilst existing ones don't have basic weatherproofing.

"How do we make sure these frontline, marginalised neighbourhoods can remain in the communities they've lived in for so long? Can we build communities in a way that integrates equity, environmental justice and affordable sustainability. That would be the holy grail, and I haven't seen that yet."

It's a concern for Joanne Pérodin, senior director of climate equity at the Cleo Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about the climate crisis.

"While [these properties] showcase how renewable energy, green spaces, and modern infrastructure can be integrated, there is the issue of exclusivity," she says. "The main barrier for low-income communities [that is] preventing access to this modern way of living is affordability. Addressing affordability concerns should be prioritised to ensure inclusivity and fairness."

Although Kitson counters this issue, saying that Babcock Ranch offers homes in the high $200,000 (£158,344) range and in order to be sustainable, "you have to have a variety of housing types and prices", Pérodin points out that the real estate market is still a system geared towards the wealthy.

"Regardless of how new community developments like Babcock Ranch price their products, mortgage interest rates diminish the opportunity for low-income communities," she adds. "New community development can have ripple effects on their surroundings by driving up the cost of living in that region."

Developments that share Kitson's vision show no sign of slowing down, though – and even Babcock Ranch is still expanding. It may be the blueprint for now, but it won't be the standard for long – so Kitson hopes. "I've had developers from all over the world call and ask if they'd be able to use our playbook. The ultimate goal for me would be for people to not only look at what we do and copy it, but to do it better.

"That would be the greatest compliment in the world."


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