Getting to Zero in Menlo Park

A Northern California Suburb Revamps Its Approach to the Built Environment

Guest author Diane Bailey is an environmental advocate, scientist, and the executive director of Menlo Spark.

What happens when a small Silicon Valley city flanked by Stanford University and Facebook headquarters sets its sights on a climate-neutral future? A zero carbon pathway and a fresh approach to the built environment emerge. But how?

About five years ago, two environmental quality commissioners in the City of Menlo Park, Chris DeCardy and Mitch Slomiak, resolved that this small city, a center of world-class innovation, could be a leader on climate action and needed to do more. In 2013 they convinced the City of Menlo Park to commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 27 percent from 2005 to 2020. Then they embarked on a feasibility study to see if Menlo Park could go even further, becoming climate neutral. It turns out to be entirely possible, leading to the creation of Menlo Spark, a nonprofit with a mission to reach zero carbon in Menlo Park by 2025. It also turns out that small cities have an important leadership role to play on climate action, because they account for more emissions and represent a larger share of the population than big cities.

We need bold leadership from cities and local leaders now, more than ever, to achieve a stable climate for our future. A recent C40 report found that serious action is needed by 2020 just to limit global warming to 2°C, deemed the upper “safe” limit by climate scientists and the Paris Agreement. Cities in particular are well poised to take ambitious action to lead the way. Small cities like Menlo Park can develop a framework for what zero carbon can look like in transit-poor, car-centric suburbs. Menlo Spark, together with assistance from Rocky Mountain Institute, has set out to do that.

The good news is that the City of Menlo Park just took a giant step toward that zero carbon framework by updating its General Plan to create a vibrant, modern, sustainable community. Cities don’t change overnight, but this plan creates a big opportunity with the addition of more than two million square feet of commercial development, 4,500 new multifamily housing units, and several hotels. The plan has a lot of forward-leaning policies that minimize GHGs from new development, promoting complete streets and mixed-use buildings to redevelop an aging industrial waterfront area and bring services to the disadvantaged community of Belle Haven. The accompanying zoning update also promotes a live-work-play environment that reorients streets toward pedestrians, transit, and bicycles, and includes leading-edge sustainability standards.


While the state of California is on track to usher in zero net energy (ZNE) homes by 2020 and commercial buildings by 2030, Menlo Park tailored a novel approach that ensures zero carbon buildings before the state ZNE standards kick in. To achieve a zero net carbon city, collectively, the buildings must produce or procure enough carbon-free renewable energy to offset the buildings’ carbon-based energy consumption annually, including the carbon associated with energy generation and distribution (i.e., zero net source energy/carbon). In contrast, a zero net energy building doesn’t take the composition of the grid into account (i.e., zero net site energy/carbon).

Menlo Park’s updated zoning now requires new developments to use 100 percent renewable energy, not only for electricity, but for all energy, including natural gas (based on energy use with conversion between kWh and BTU), gently guiding a transition to electric, fossil-fuel-free buildings. The policy has a lot of flexible options built in to ease the transition, such as purchasing renewable energy from the local utility, installing solar or other renewables within the City of Menlo Park, or purchasing renewable energy credits equal to the energy demand of the project each year. This is a remarkable step; Menlo Park is the first area that we know of to extend renewable energy requirements to cover natural gas uses, which account for more than twice the GHG emissions of electricity.

New buildings will also need to support local solar, starting with an on-site renewable energy feasibility study, and a requirement to install at least 30 percent of the maximum renewables feasible on-site. All new buildings will also need to monitor and maintain energy efficiency by enrolling in EPA’s Energy Star Building Portfolio Manager. The new zoning also ushers in these sustainability upgrades:

  • Buildings must be LEED Silver for 10,000 to 100,000 square feet, and LEED Gold for over 100,000 square feet. LEED standards will also apply to major renovations.
  • Electric Vehicle (EV) chargers are required for new parking facilities.
  • Recycled water (e.g., greywater) is required for large projects over 250,000 square feet and the projects must prepare an alternate water source assessment.
  • Zero‐waste management plans are required.

Menlo Park, just like the rest of Silicon Valley, has a serious jobshousing imbalance that exacerbates long commutes, gridlock, and a lack of affordable housing. The 4,500 additional housing units envisioned by this new plan aren’t a magic bullet that immediately corrects the imbalance. But it’s a significant amount of new housing near a big job center, so much so that transportation models predict a large reduction in traffic (vehicle miles traveled) relative to the status quo.

In response to community concerns about housing affordability and displacement, the plan encourages up to 20 percent below-market-rate housing for developments at a bonus zoning level. The plan also articulates a clear preference for the affordable housing to serve residents of Belle Haven who have been displaced. Here again, it’s not a silver bullet, but a solid start to addressing the local housing crisis.

To help improve mobility, transportation demand management (TDM) plans are required for developments greater than 10,000 square feet, to reduce car trips by 20 percent below standard rates, with the possibility to reduce car trips more when future transit improvements are in place. TDM plans could include, for example, participation in a transportation management association, preferred parking for carpools and vanpools, bike‐share programs, subsidies for alternative transportation such as free transit passes, alternative work schedules, car‐share memberships, and emergency rides home. Other requirements include public paseos (parklets) to improve connectivity, and bicycle parking standards.

Creating a model framework for a low-carbon city that could be inundated by rising seas in the next century may seem like a questionable endeavor. The elephant in the room of sea level rise is coming into sharper focus as the San Francisco Bay area grapples with the extent of its infrastructure and built environment that is projected to be flooded in the not-too-distant future. As the region begins to consider wetland restoration, levees, and other flooding protections, Menlo Park has specified minimum elevations above future flood levels for new buildings. For example, Facebook’s recent Building 20 has parking at ground level, underneath the building structure, effectively elevating it at least one story—a good example of how to create new infrastructure that is resilient to future flood levels.

If the latest developments in Menlo Park are any indication of what’s to come, we’re seeing zero net energy buildings, significant new solar installations, rooftop parks, blackwater recycling, electric shuttle bus fleets, and a serious commitment to supporting alternatives to driving. And we’re just getting started on our path to zero carbon, laying a solid foundation to become climate neutral by 2025 and helping other small cities do the same.

Image courtesy of Menlo Spark.