This is a fictional article from the future.
May 10, 2019
Nearly six months after the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County, I went to visit Paradise City to see how the people were doing.
What I discovered was a city utterly transformed.
Like a phoenix, where before there was ash and ruin from the 150,000 acre fire, in its place I found a beautiful, vibrant community of people living, learning and working in mobile, “tiny” homes and utterly green co-creation spaces.
Newly elected Councilmember Karina Beckles greeted me warmly at City Hall and led me on an electric scooter tour.
“BCF (Before Camp Fire), this was primarily a residential zone,” Councilmember Beckles said, gesturing to a bustling, mixed-use neighborhood. “Immediately after the fire, we held a special council meeting at the Butte County Fairground where most of the residents were taking shelter,” she continued. “Each councilmember sat with a group of residents and we all discussed how to move forward.”
Beckles explained how everyone wanted to rebuild. The majority of residents called for a serious change in business as usual.
“We just couldn’t let another disaster find us so vulnerable,” she said. “And especially with the escalating effects of climate change and social inequality, we clearly needed to alter the path of our city and society.” In every group, Beckles recounted, people were sharing ideas for building a dramatically more sustainable, rugged and resilient city and, “really, an even more enjoyable place to live than BCF.”
Of course there were some nay-sayers, mainly people who just wanted the familiar comfort of their old lives back- big homes, sprawling neighnorhoods. It was understandable and the community was sympathetic. But the city council decided unanimously that it was their mandate to bring the city up to a fully sustainable model and ensure that they could confidently navigate future disasters.
The young people of Paradise especially wanted to take the devastation of their city as an opportunity to help restore environmental balance in this era of climate change, and also just to have a more beautiful, enjoyable city in which to live and work.
Beckles was one of those vocal young people, and her clear leadership got her voted in to the City Council in a special election two weeks after the fire.
“I’ve always been active in my community,” she said. “I love my city, I got elected to city council after the fire because of my involvement and connection with the people.”
Calling on intergenerational wisdom of their elders and youth alike, people in their 20’s and 30’s especially took the reins and jumped into building a new city.
After a short tour on wheels, Beckles and I parked our electric scooters and walked around one of the more residential areas for a closer look.
It was an oasis of tiny homes and creation spaces dispersed under towering redwoods. Each home we passed was unique. There were a few primary designs, but all had been adapted by their residents to meet their needs. Many homes and creation spaces were still being developed but all of structures had been built and were fully functional within two months of the decision to rebuild. The speed of rehabilitation was thanks to financial support from tech investors, building expertise and muscle from the international tiny home community, excellent Paradise City leadership, and, most significantly, the participation and enthusiasm of the city’s residents.
“We were all involved in planning and building our city, at every level,” said Layal, one young woman I spoke with. “Even, and especially, kids.”
Layal welcomed me in to see the living walls of her family’s tiny home. Their home was beautiful and airy inside, and while it was small by typical American standards, it was fully adequate and quite luxurious in many ways.
Their home, like all in New Paradise, was powered by 100% renewable energy. The family’s energy use was low, in large part because the space was small and complete with top-line, energy efficient appliances.
Each home was also mobile, powered by battery or by stationary biking or rowing. Multiple workout units could be engaged simultaneously for full family participation or friendly competitions. The stationary power machines could also be easily swapped between homes for alternating workouts.
To meet the need for spatial variety and enrichment, all homes and most public buildings had expansion options.
Two or more homes could easily be connected together with extension tunnels, so extended family could live together, or friends and families could have a shared living experience.
I met two such families with similar living and parenting styles who had connected their homes for the last two months. Their kids would spend time together, easily moving around the connected spaces. It was simultaneously enriching and fun for the kids, and helpful and restorative for the parents.
“I lost my partner in the fire,” said Isaac, one of the parents. “Connected living has been my lifeline for raising my young kids and rebuilding our life.”
There were also Extension Hubs, which most people just called Hubs. They were larger, public spaces that many people could connect their homes to for active enrichment. There were art hubs, kids’ indoor climbing/play spaces, large dining areas, co-working spaces, dance studios, music rooms, cafes, libraries, and more.
After rebuilding their homes, people turned their attention to environmental restoration, sustainable life innovations and climate change adoption. Work and school curriculum became very practical, and more fun.
The city council also launched a major effort to recruit the native people back to their community, to share their unparalleled knowledge of sustainable, eco-respectful ways and to help lead the city. A special Native Advisory Council was formed to guide the Mayor and City Council, and members were also invited to join each of the major city committees.
Disaster management and resilience was a key aspect of New Paradise.
One new measure was that they would have practice evacuations twice a year. They decided to use these practice runs as an opportunity to share their model with people in other cities, doubling the practice as an economic opportunity. For the evacuation, the people of New Paradise would drive their city of mobile homes and creation spaces to different fairgrounds and invite locals to visit and live with them during their stay.
I joined them for their first practice evacuation and fairground gathering in Yolo County two weeks ago. It was quite an event. I watched as that first evacuation practice organically developed into an incredible exchange of ideas, products and services. Since most Paradisians worked “remotely,” they sold and exchanged their goods and skills with the people from all over Yolo and Sacramento County who came to visit.
Already the cities of Davis and West Sacramento are talking about similarly converting their communities to help navigate extreme flooding and fire events while significantly reducing carbon emissions and increasing resident health and wellbeing.
The city of New Paradise is an example of a new wave of brilliant sustainable living and climate adaptation. The people took advantage of a very difficult situation sparked by human activity and climate change, and turned the disaster into an enormous opportunity.
This post is fiction, exploring how Paradise might be rebuilt as a sustainable, climate-adaptable city in the near future, in response to the very real and devastating Butte County fire.