The TH Interview: Tim Toben of Greenbridge and Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute

Tim Toben is the former CEO of KnowledgeBase Marketing who, after taking a fishing trip with Bill McDonough, became convinced of the need for a new, innovative, green economy. He is now one of the partners of Greenbridge Developments, a LEED Gold certified up-market mixed use development in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (which we previously covered here). He is also the founder of Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute, which we covered here, and we have just discovered he is now working on the presidential campaign for John Edwards. In this interview he tells us why he came to view climate change as ‘the greatest social injustice in history’, and how Greenbridge came about as a response to this injustice. He also responds to accusations that up-market green building is often little more than ‘gentrification’ and, in true Treehugger style, he gives his list for top actions to take to live a better, greener life.

Treehugger: You were previously CEO of the extremely successful KnowledgeBase Marketing. What brought you to sustainability, and are your current interests principally driven by moral concerns, business concerns, or a combination of the two?
Tim Toben: After I sold KnowledgeBase in 1999, I spent three years reading, building a house, and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. In the fall of 2002, I accepted an invitation to go salmon fishing in Iceland (catch and release) with Bill McDonough and several of his colleagues. Days were spent in the stream, evenings with environmentalists and climate scientists who schooled us on the "Inconvenient Truths" that we all know today. I never imagined myself going back into the business world, but that became a moral imperative after that trip. The greatest social injustice in history is that 5% of the world's population contributes 25% of greenhouse gases. The question for us all was -- what could we each do to shift from a fossil fuel to a renewable economy. Part of the answer for me was to re-enter the business world, but this time in the field of green energy and green building. Proving that these sectors could be economically viable might draw in bigger players and investment capital.

TH: How did the Greenbridge project come about, and what role do you see it playing in the development of truly green living?

TT: I live in a fast growing (but still wonderfully rural) region of the country. I spent a fair amount of time complaining about sprawl developments, until McDonough convinced me that I needed to be part of the solution. It took me three years to find an urban property to build Greenbridge, but we did and McDonough has designed a remarkable project that will be NC's first LEED Gold Mixed Use Project in the heart of my hometown, Chapel Hill, NC. The Director of the State Energy Office testified that NC was watching this project closely and he hoped to see 1000 of them in the future, so we hope it is a model of sustainability. I recruited local people with similar social and environmental values, rather than traditional developers, to partner on the project.

TH: There have been some concerns, including in comments on this site, that projects like Greenbridge often amount to little more than gentrification. What is your response to such arguments, and what steps has Greenbridge taken to address such concerns?

TT: "Gentrification" is typically used to describe the acquisition of residential properties, redeveloping them, and selling them at inflated prices to folks that don't resemble the existing neighbors. An increase in property taxes and change in the racial and/or socioeconomic composition of the neighborhood can be a consequence. We searched for commercial properties only, outside of neighborhoods, and found seven small parcels that we assembled into a 1.5 acre lot. They were adjacent to an historically black neighborhood, where I'd run a business 25 years earlier. We made certain from the outset that we included leaders from the churches and adjacent community in our design process and that we surveyed the entire community of what they wanted to see on the blighted block we had purchased.

We radically changed the proposed design of the building based on neighbors' input:

- We rotated the building 90 degrees and split it to elimate the "wall" effect of a new building between neighborhoods.
- We lowered the height of the west building as a gesture of respect to the neighboring St. Paul A.M.E. Church.
- We created a public plaza to draw neighbors into the project, rather than repel them from it.
- We added a "Sustainability Center" to tell the story about a sustainable future -- local food, green energy, green building.
- We hired a film-maker to create a documentary about the elders of the community and what "sustained them" from the past 100 years, so that we could carry those principles forward into Greenbridge.

TH: As discussed in our post on the subject, Pickards Mountain represents the other end of the scale in terms of green living. How do you see the differing roles of Greenbridge and Pickards Mountain in terms of achieving sustainability?

TT: Young people today study and learn about global climate change and technologies to fight it. However, few have the opportunity to grow their own food, make their own fuel, or build dwellings from materials around them. At Pickards Mountian Eco-Institute (PME), we're creating a place for college students and others to do just that. UNC-CH offers course credits for these internships. It is practical, hands-on, authentic, and highly gratifying. It is also very primitive.

Greenbridge appeals to upscale professionals who want to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint. It is a dense urban project (100 residences on 1.5 acres) that could work in any metro area. Greenbridge serves the role of model urban green that demonstrates the social and planetary health benefits of intentional urban design.

Clearly, there is a vast middle ground between Pickards Mountain and Greenbridge that we have not yet addressed. That is certainly among our goals for the future.

TH: You have close personal connections with many leading environmental figures, such as Bill McDonough and Jeremy Leggett. How important are such visionaries in our current crisis, and who else would you count as your 'eco-heroes'?

TT: Visionaries and mentors are critically important. Jeremy and Bill are two of the best, but Amory and Hunter Lovins and Lester Brown are two more of mine. My favorite writer and mentor is Thomas Berry, the eco-theologian and author of Dream of the Earth, The Unverse Story, and The Great Work. Thomas argues that the heroes of this generation will be writers, artists, and musicians who move us to fundamental change -- incremental changes are just not sufficient under the current emergency.

TH: What are the most important steps that the average Treehugger can take to create a better, more sustainable world?

1. Grow as much of your own food as you can and buy local food and products.
2. Make your home energy efficient -- upgrade lightbulbs, insulation, weather stripping, crawl spaces, appliances. Buy greentags (renewable energy credits) for every fossil fuel kwh you use.
3. Support policies that promote renewable energy (Renewable Portfolio Standards) and energy
4. If you must drive a car or truck, use a vehicle that is fuel efficient and/or powered by biodiesel.
5. Tell the story about the transformation from a world powered by fossil fuels to a world powered by renewable energy -- in poetry, music, art, dance. Make it real for people who can't imagine their way out of the hole we find ourselves in.
6. Get involved with the presidential campaign of John Edwards. He is the only candidate that fully understands the problem and has proposed a comprehensive energy solution. Read it if you haven't already.

The TH Interview: Tim Toben of Greenbridge and Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute
Tim Toben is the former CEO of KnowledgeBase Marketing who, after taking a fishing trip with Bill McDonough, became convinced of the need for a new, innovative, green economy. He is now one of the partners of Greenbridge Developments, a LEED Gold