A group of industrious young innovators from around the world have been working to build a model for sustainable urban living in a mountain valley outside Panama City, Panama for several years.
In late December, they will open their testing ground to visitors for a TEDx Adventure event.
If all goes well, they’re hoping to convince sustainability experts that some of their designs are worth implementing in other parts of the developing world.
The name of the effort is Kalu Yala, which roughly means "sacred mountain" in the language of the Kuna Indians of Panama. Its founders are hoping that in a few decades, the community will be the world’s most sustainable town.
Kalu Yala base camp. Photo courtesy of Kalu Yala.
CEO Jimmy Stice, a 31-year-old Atlanta-based developer, imagined the possibility as a 12-year-old boy playing SimCity, an urban-planning computer game. What if he could build the real-life perfect community, he wondered.
Nestled in a valley where two rivers meet near the tiny town of San Miguel, Kalu Yala brings together experienced urban planners and college students who are a little more green but no less enthusiastic. They work at three levels - building the city itself in the jungles outside San Miguel, in San Miguel itself teaching English and conducting health surveys as part of an effort to give back to the local community, and in Panama City on the business development aspects of the projects.
In short, Kalu Yala is a blank slate and open laboratory, a place to see what sustainability theories actually work when you try to implement them. It’s also a chance to show what can be accomplished when you think about community interaction and how you want residents to use a space before you build something and not after the fact.
“I want to build places that make people happier,” Stice said during a recent phone interview with Fusion, adding that he always felt “ripped off” as a kid growing up in the Atlanta ‘burbs by movies like Sandlot that depicted gangs of neighborhood children congregating at parks to play until dusk.
“There weren’t enough kids,” he said. “That’s why everyone joined [organized sports] leagues.”
A garden provides a sustainable food source at Kalu Yala. Photo courtesy of Kalu Yala.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and his aim is to build a place that not only houses, but engages and inspires, a high concentration of people.
A Fresh Canvas
Urban centers in the United States are developed, Stice pointed out. At best, individual neighborhoods are reimagined with new park spaces or condos. But Kalu Yala offers young people a fresh canvas.
There are dense jungles and rocky fields to grapple with, but if the people working on Kalu Yala can conceptualize an idea, they have far more ability to put it into practice in Panama than they do at home. There’s far less bureaucracy when it comes to things like building permits and inspections, too.
Kalu Yala residents teach English classes and provide after-school programs for local students. Photo courtesy of Kalu Yala.
That inevitably begs the question: Is this just a bunch of young white people angling for an adventure in the jungle at the expense of local populations?
Stice responds with an unequivocal “no.”
He took pains to clarify that Kalu Yala is working with local residents on some projects and reiterated that they’re teaching badly wanted English classes at local schools and conducting health surveys and projects.
He’ll admit not everyone was in love with the idea of Kalu Yala originally but is adamant that those who have had a chance to see it up close appreciate the idea.
Bringing in young blood
Stice and his co-designers and innovators have set up an internship program and invited interns from colleges around the world to test out their ideas at the site. Cheap labor? Perhaps, but former interns also say it was a chance to get away from their urban planning textbooks and into an actual case study.
You want to build a gravity-powered water system? Great, come on down. A permaculture farm and a challenge course to foster a sense of community? Perfect. The internships are technically unpaid and interns cover transportation to Kalu Yala, but once they’re in Panama, room and board are covered and there is financial aid available.
Former intern Sean Schmitz, a sophomore from New York who studies renewable resource management at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, said it’s “worth it.”
Interns dug by hand a pond to use for a hydroponics system. Photo courtesy of Sean Schmitz.
“We are the R and D team for Jimmy,” said Schmitz, who helped build the permaculture farm and the low-ropes challenge course.
It’s also a chance to work with renowned experts who stopped by to check out the laboratory community. Stephen Brooks, one of the preeminent permaculture experts in Central America, worked with interns to build a new farm at Kalu Yala. It’s designed to be the primary source of food for residents and he and the interns planted 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables that they then turned into meals like plantain burgers with pumpkin chips by the summer’s end.
The team met a 60-something local named Ramon who had been living a sustainable lifestyle in a jungle campesino for 40 years and implemented some of his ideas.
The tropics, Stice pointed out, are the most high-energy ecosystems with lots of rain and sun year-round, which lets people grow food and produce energy all year. Stice said Kalu Yala is different from big companies who send workers to extract valuable resources and leave because it will be “home” for the residents, not just a temporary stop.
A waterfall deep in the jungle outside Kalu Yala. Photo courtesy of Sean Schmitz.
Those currently building Kalu Yala are treating their own black water on-site and will produce their own energy and break ground on the first house next year.
“We try to be very grassroots and have respect for the vernacular knowledge, what’s been there before us,” Stice said. “But we don’t feel guilty trying our own ideas.”
They recently presented at an annual anthropological meeting in Chicago about waterborne illnesses. People in Panama, Stice said, have assumed that such illnesses are a part of life, but in reality, if they correct their water treatment process, people will be healthier.
If all goes according to plan, Kalu Yala won’t be the only sustainable community Stice designs. He plans to stay for another five years or so, “until it doesn’t need my direction,” he said, and then move on to a new development.
The current Kalu Yala living quarters. Construction of the first houses should begin in 2014. Photo courtesy of Sean Schmitz.
While the tropics are the easiest place to do a “copy-paste job” with the innovations from Kalu Yala, Stice said urban planners and designers from all over should be able to glean insight that could then be applied in a variety of settings.
Stice said he’d like to “validate it as a business and community model that gives people the ability to replicate it.”
And he’d like to do another to avoid the implication that he simply “got lucky” the first time around.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.