Urban Land Institute

Babcock Ranch

South Florida

On first blush, Babcock Ranch might appear to be just another massive, sprawling, Florida new town development, flush with hundreds—soon thousands—of single-family homes. But on closer inspection, this 18,000-acre (28 sq mi) town 15 miles northwest of Fort Myers is something very different, and it gained significant national attention when it survived the 140-mph winds and flooding of Hurricane Ian in late September 2022 virtually unscathed—and even sheltered residents from nearby communities devastated by the storm.

Thank you to Alex Wilson and the Resilient Design Institute (RDI) for permitting a reprint of the article “Babcock Ranch – A Solar Town Proves Resilient During Hurricane Ian,” which was incorporated as the Context and Climate Resilience Strategies sections of this project profile.


Babcock Ranch was a 91,000-acre (143 sq mi) property in southwest Florida when it was acquired by Kitson & Partners in a complex real estate transaction in which 80 percent of the land was immediately sold to the state of Florida. The property is named after Edward Vose Babcock, a past mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who purchased the land in 1914.

The private development company, Kitson & Partners, founded by the former professional football player Syd Kitson, stepped in and purchased the entire property in 2006, then immediately sold roughly 73,000 acres of the land to the state, with some of the funding from Lee County, to create the Babcock Ranch Preserve, which continues ranching operations that support the maintenance costs of the preserve. The remainder of the land is being developed in an environmentally responsible manner.

“Developers have an impact on the environment, and we need to mitigate those impacts,” Kitson told RDI. “What I set out to prove is that building a new town—a new city—can work hand-in-hand with the environment. I think we’re doing just that.”

Kitson & Partners, with input from public planning meetings held in 2006 as well as outside experts including the Rocky Mountain Institute, developed an environmentally sensitive master plan with a high-tech commercial center that would include an R&D hub for clean energy development, four villages and five hamlets that would ultimately comprise nearly 20,000 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial space—all powered by solar energy. Under the plan, roughly two-thirds of the remaining property would be permanently set aside as open space.

Approximately 2,000 dwelling units have now been completed at Babcock Ranch, with hundreds more under construction. Most are single-family homes, but some are attached villas, townhouses, condominiums, and apartments, according to Jennifer Languell, PhD, who has served as the green building and sustainable development adviser through her company Trifecta Construction.

Climate Resilience and Sustainability Strategies

Site design and wetland engineering

Several factors contributed to Babcock Ranch’s performance during Hurricane Ian. For starters, most of the land is about 30 feet above sea level—veritable highlands for South Florida!

As promised, nearly 12,000 acres of the 18,000 that Kitson & Partners retained has been permanently protected as wetlands, uplands, greenways, and preserves. “Our water management plan is one that uses the natural flow-ways within the community versus clearcutting and forcing the water to go where it doesn’t want to go,” Kitson explained. “We went back and looked at maps a hundred years old and found the natural flow-ways.”

Wetlands and lakes are integral components of the stormwater management system at Babcock Ranch. Photo: Kitson & Partners, courtesy of Alex Wilson/Resilient Design Institute and Lisa Hall.

The wetlands were designed to mimic natural flows and provide natural stormwater management, according to civil engineer Amy Wicks, P.E., the engineer of record for Babcock Ranch Community and vice president of Kimley-Horn, which provided surface water management design, master planning, landscape architecture, roadway design, water and wastewater engineering, and permitting services for Babcock Ranch.

“The water management system is a multifaceted design that utilizes a natural systems approach, coupled with redundancy to protect infrastructure,” noted Wicks. “While the system internal to Babcock Ranch starts with a series of rain gardens that ultimately lead to lakes for stormwater attenuation (detention), these systems then utilize a series of created wetlands and natural flow-ways for storage, similar to how natural wetlands act as storage during large storm events naturally.”

During extreme events, such as hurricanes, this distributed approach is highly advantageous, because it prevents blockages of culverts from causing flooding. “By having a system that operates both in series and in parallel, the system will flow a different direction with little effort,” she explained, “allowing it to function normally, even with blockages.”

Natural landscaping requirements

For a planned community in Florida, Babcock Range mandates native landscaping and minimal chemical treatments. “In common areas, Babcock requires 90 percent native vegetation, and for the homesites, 75 percent must be native,” said Languell.

A commercial center at Babcock Ranch with native landscaping that is resilient to storms. Most commercial buildings have solar modules on the roof. Photo: Kitson & Partners, courtesy of Alex Wilson/Resilient Design Institute and Lisa Hall.

“We require native plant materials here,” said Kitson. “We decided that we were going to go for something authentic. What did Florida look like 100 or 200 years ago? There’s a reason those native plant materials do very well in hurricanes and dry seasons and wet seasons—they’re accustomed to it.” Kitson, who doesn’t have any lawn area at his own Babcock Ranch home, described the native landscaping as beautiful. “I think if you drove through Babcock Ranch, you would notice almost immediately that this area is different.”

Yards at Babcock Ranch can only be 30 percent grass. Lawns are restricted, explained Kitson, because they don’t want the chemicals—including phosphates and nitrates—contaminating their surface waters. “Our lakes are crystal clear because of the limerock, and we don’t want to do anything that disrupts that,” he said. “There are no algae blooms here.”

High-performance, hardened buildings

All buildings at Babcock Ranch must be certified by the Florida Green Building Coalition’s Green Home or Commercial standards, which Languell described as similar to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating, but specifically designed for hot-humid climates. She noted that this is “the only certification program that contains a disaster mitigation section.” Under the building code, “homes are required to be designed to 160-mph wind loads,” said Languell.

Buildings are designed to the Florida Green Building Coalition’s Green Home or Commercial standards, which can include wind-resistant concrete construction. Photo: Alex Wilson/Resilient Design Institute.

Hip roofs are used on most single-family homes to protect against high wind, because of the better performance in high wind than gable roofs. Hurricane strapping, continuous structural connections between foundation and roof framing, and other structural requirements are rigorous—as mandated by the Florida Building Code, which Kitson credits with dramatic improvements in how well newer homes perform throughout Florida. Homebuilders who build at Babcock Ranch also have to either install hurricane-rated windows or supply homeowners with removable hurricane shutters.

Buildings, mostly built of concrete masonry units, are heavily reinforced with rebar and concrete-filled cores for strength.

Many homes include strong metal roofs for wind and debris impacts, and pervious pavers for stormwater management. Photo: Alex Wilson/Resilient Design Institute.

The average Home Energy Rating Score (HERS) for homes at Babcock Ranch is 58—which Languell said is “25 percent more efficient than the Florida Energy Code, which is fairly stringent.” Electric heat pumps are used for all heating and cooling, though natural gas is used in some houses for cooking and water heating.

Both indoor and outdoor water conservation is a community focus, according to Languell. “All plumbing fixtures must be at a minimum WaterSense, but we find that most builders are doing better than the minimum WaterSense conservation levels.”

Site elevation and protection strategies

All homes at Babcock Ranch are built “1 foot above the flood elevation of a 25-year event followed by a 100-year event,” according to Wicks. This standard was adopted to address the increased flood vulnerability when soils are already saturated from prior precipitation, and it equates to about 11 inches of rain followed by 14 inches of rain (25 inches total), she told RDI.

There are no basements to flood, because all buildings are slab-on-grade (which is standard practice for much of Florida). Fill dirt from creating the lakes was used to elevate house sites on the building lots.

Specialized floodproofing measures, such as flood vents and use of wettable materials (materials that can get wet and dry out without growing mold), are not required at Babcock Ranch, according to Wicks, “because we do not anticipate any flooding events.” She explained that “because of the extra precautions taken in the design of the elevations and the stormwater management system, floodproofing of the buildings is not necessary.”

Resilience also involves protection from winds. “All utilities are underground,” said Kitson. The Babcock Ranch–owned water, wastewater, and reclaimed water pipes were colocated with conduit for electricity and data utilities. With all utilities buried, risk of damage from storms is all but eliminated.

A solar city

Babcock Ranch bills itself as “America’s first solar city.” As part of the development plan, Florida Power & Light (FPL) operates two solar farms that generate 150 megawatts on 840 acres of Babcock Ranch. The FPL arrays produce enough electricity to power 30,000 homes—more than will exist at Babcock Ranch at buildout. The rest of the power is fed into the FPL grid.

The two 75-megawatt solar fields at Babcock Ranch comprise over 700,000 modules spread over 840 acres and owned by Florida Power & Light. The field includes 10 megawatts of battery storage. Photo: Kitson & Partners, courtesy of Alex Wilson/Resilient Design Institute and Lisa Hall.

Kitson describes the relationship with FPL as extremely positive. Kitson & Partners gave FPL 440 acres for the first 75-megawatt solar plant, and the company purchased another 400 acres to build a second array. More than 700,000 solar panels have been installed on these 840 acres. In addition to the large, ground-mounted solar array, most of the commercial buildings have extensive solar arrays on their roofs.

A 10-megawatt battery system helps with power management, but this is really part of what Babcock Ranch refers to as their “Living Laboratory,” according to Languell, which will showcase new and emerging energy technologies. “As battery technology is changing rapidly, we continue to work with Florida Power and Light to research and potentially test next-generation systems,” she said.

Value Proposition

Avoided losses

Babcock Ranch performed remarkably well during Hurricane Ian. The community never lost power or water service, and in property damage, a few young trees were downed that were quickly righted and some roofs saw minor dislodging of tiles or shingles. According to Kitson, “other than that, if you drove through here a day later, you would not know that all around us . . . there was destruction or that a Category 4 hurricane basically sat over us for over eight hours.” Given that Ian was the costliest hurricane in the state’s history, emerging unharmed from it creates significant value in avoided losses for property owners.

Awards and recognition

Babcock Ranch received major national attention after its success during Hurricane Ian, being featured in multiple news outlets. The community has also received multiple awards for its design, including two Edison Awards for sustainability and resilience, and was listed as the fifth best-selling master-planned community in the United States in 2022 by RCLCO and John Burns Real Estate Consulting, up from 14th of 50 in 2021.

Extended building life

As buildings are built out of the floodplain, using durable materials resistant to wind, they should incur less damage and repair/replacement costs over their lifespan.

Energy savings

Babcock Ranch’s sizable renewable energy resources and energy efficient home designs create notable energy savings, which should translate to cost savings as well for residents.

 Lessons Learned

  • Thinking community-wide creates greater opportunity. Babcock Ranch’s resilience to extreme weather is derived from the combination of its inland site selection, innovative stormwater management system, extensive backup power, native landscaping, and building hardening approaches, none of which would be as effective in isolation. Developments that can work at multiple scales will see better outcomes against multiple hazards.
  • Careful design attracts attention. A well-deserved reputation for resilience can be as important to a project’s success as its design features. Babcock Ranch’s rapid rise to prominence after weathering Hurricane Ian demonstrates that real estate developments prepared for extreme weather will stand out from the crowd and build significant market distinction.
  • Finding the right partners enables bold steps. A major aspect of Babcock Ranch’s ability to withstand disruption is the energy resilience provided by the network of on-site renewable energy and battery storage, enabled by the strong partnership with Florida Power & Light. Partnerships among real estate, utilities, and other energy providers can be critical to ensuring buildings and sites can stay operational during climate hazards.