One Planet Living Goes Big in North America

The tough environmental standard developed in the United Kingdom comes to Ottawa's ZIBI project.

Zibi Development


The most surprising thing about waterfront community Zibi is that it is happening at all. It is a massive real estate development being built on 34 acres of industrial land in the middle of the Ottawa River, just upstream from Canada's Parliament buildings. Being on the border of two provinces on land also claimed and contested by some indigenous groups, everyone has their fingers in this pie. It is such an important site as the river and the waterfall were the heart of the lumber industry. As Sean Lawrence of Kohn Architects tells Treehugger, "It's why Ottawa is where it is."

exterior of buildings and courtyard

Norm Li

Two Provinces, One Planet

Yet not only is the project proceeding, but it is likely to be one of the most interesting and greenest projects in North America. It is built according to the principles of One Planet Living, a "sustainability framework" developed in the United Kingdom by the Bioregional Group that is little known in North America.

As Greg Searle, then of One Planet Living North America, told Treehugger's Sami Grover: "We're rejecting Five Planet Living, which is what most of us in North America achieve in the course of a normal, high-consumption day, in favor of productive, practical ways to live within our one planet's natural limits."

Unlike certification systems like LEED, Searle said:

"We don't do checklists. We're not prescriptive, nor are we going to dictate to local experts how to achieve sustainability in humid New Orleans or frigid Montreal. We leave it up to the ingenuity of the design team, much like the new and very important Living Building Challenge does. We do ask design teams to hit some very simple, very ambitious targets."
One Planet Living Principles
One Planet Living Principles.


When we first covered One Planet Living years ago, "Health and Happiness" was at the bottom of the list and "Zero Carbon Energy" at the top. At some point, they turned the list upside down to stress the importance of these more subjective criteria. (You can see the One Planet Living Action Plan here.)

Zibi with historic building in foreground
Old integrated with new.

Norm Li

Sean Lawrence, a partner at Kohn Partnership Architects Inc., tells Treehugger how they have retained portions of the existing industrial buildings, even saving the terrazzo logo of the EB Eddy paper company found in the floor of a building, and are telling a historical narrative of what happened on the site from its indigenous heritage through to its industrial archaeology.

The buildings include co-working spaces and a large co-living project, and mostly rental housing. Lawrence tells Treehugger: "Ottawa is a government town with a lot of people coming and going as governments change, so co-living arrangements make a lot of sense."

But it was not easy: "It was an interesting challenge to fit within the constraints of the market and go this far to make it as sustainable as possible."

Toon Dreessen, president of Ottawa firm Architects DCA, also thinks co-living will work well in his city. He tells Treehugger:

"Co-living is a good opportunity for integrating more flexible living arrangements than normal; it allows people to forge community based on shared interests while being more than roommates or dorm living; it respects the privacy and personal space people need while allowing shared space for people to come together. In a time where the bonds of social cohesion are more important than ever, these environments create opportunities that bridge social isolation."
Retail and restaurant Space

Norm Li

Every resident will have access to 15 square feet of food-growing garden space, parking and driving space will be minimized, local and recycled materials will be used in construction, and the community will aim to be zero waste by "establishing a sharing culture among residents." They are improving existing infrastructure to ensure that the Walkscore and Bikescores hit a perfect 100. According to Zibi, the company "is working alongside the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau to make the National Capital Region a cyclist’s dream."

And then at the bottom of the One Planet Living principles, it will rely on zero carbon energy through a district energy system, recovering waste heat from a local paper mill and cooling with Ottawa river water. Zibi states:

"Zibi will be the first in North America to use post-industrial effluent energy recovery in a master-planned community.... Innovative development strategies, best-in-class property management practices, and sustainability focused community building will contribute to reduce energy demand and boost energy efficiency at all stages of the Zibi lifecycle. Zibi will also eliminate 100% of the community’s reliance on GHG emitting energy sources for building operations by 2025."

Lawrence tells Treehugger the developer has engaged in-house staff who are doing nothing but monitoring One Planet Living principles.

ZIBI siteplan
Site plan.


Treehugger has followed Zibi since it was initiated by Windmill Developments, the original promoters of One Planet Living, who are continuing to do OPL projects in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario. DREAM and Theia Partners are now co-developing the Zibi project but are continuing to implement the OPL vision. Thanks to them, One Planet Living will finally get the demonstration project it needs to take root and grow in North America: It is a wonderful, well-rounded, holistic program that properly puts health and happiness first. We need a lot more of it.