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giardino cerrito

el cerrito, ca



a generic, automobile-friendly consumer wasteland
is transformed into
an ecovillage with on-site wastewater treatment, a solar-powered piazza and public gardens


Bordered by San Pablo Avenue to the west, Fairmont Avenue to the north, BART rail tracks to the east and the Cerrito Creek to the south,
the El Cerrito Plaza is not unlike any other suburban shopping complex found anywhere in the United States. With the exception of a few creeks,
it’s evolution into a shopping center has helped destroy the area’s original ecosystem and any connection to surrounding ecosystems.

Here is an alternate solution that transforms El Cerrito Plaza into Giardino Cerrito -
a sustainable habitat that restores this connection via Albany Hill and it’s native vegetation,
while serving the commercial, residential and recreational interests of the city of El Cerrito.


Cerrito Creek/ Albany Hill - A Brief History


As recent as the 1850‘s, the ecosystem of El Cerrito and surrounding areas featured flower filled meadows and thickets with oak trees on the north side of Albany Hill. Nearly all the East Bay was open grassland and the creeks in this area were used by native americans for food, medicine and materials. Cerrito Creek, flowing from a deep ravine, was the largest of a number of creeks draining into a large salt marsh between Albany Hill and Point Isabel, west of today's San Pablo Avenue. On its banks was an Ohlone village, the last native inhabitants of the area.

The name the first europeans gave Albany Hill was “Cerrito de San Antonio” (cerrito means “little hill”). Made of Jurassic shale and sandstone, it is both refuge for and a reminder of what has been lost from the surrounding lowlands. Though threatened by the rampant spread of several invasive non-native plants, at one time or another, 134 native plants had been recorded on Albany Hill and near Cerrito Creek.

By 1903, 2 dynamite manufacturing companies moved to the northwest corner of Albany Hill where they planted eucalyptus trees to muffle the sound of their explosions. The eucalyptus encroach upon the rich oak forest on the north face, but those on the top of the hill provide wintering habitat for monarch butterflies - a rare example of an invasive species providing a benefit to the environment.

Built in 1958, El Cerrito Plaza was Contra Costa County's first shopping mall on a site which had previously been part of Rancho San Pablo, land which was granted to Francisco María Castro by the Mexican Government. An adobe hacienda, built in 1836, had burned down shortly before the Plaza was established.

The design of the mall was typical mid-century modernism primarily constructed of glass and steel; buildings grouped around open-air walkways and surrounded by parking. Central to the Plaza was Capwell's department store. With its blue and brown tile and modern lighting fixtures, Capwell’s was the largest store in the country at the time.

In 2001, the El Cerrito Plaza was redesigned for a pedestrian-friendly town center oriented around a new major public gathering space with upper levels of office and residential uses. But instead, ended up with a generic, automobile-friendly consumer wasteland oriented around asphalt parking lots; a naked space scantily clad in obligatory landscaping which provides the only humanizing element to the place.

   Giardino Cerrito Design Features

   - a net-zero energy ecovillage with a bioremediation wastewater treatment facility and
     agriculture designed according to permaculture methods

   - a large park connected to Cerrito Creek and containing various public gardens including      a small Redwood Forest and a Hummingbird Garden

   - Piazza del Sole with passive and active solar designed commercial and residential      spaces and PV fountains

   - Sky Garden bridge planted with an assortment of vines and native vegetation that
      connects Albany Hill with the park

   - an expansion of the visibility of Cerrito Creek and the park by revealing the creek’s path
     under San Pablo Avenue and around Albany Hill and by  replacing existing buildings      with additional trees and native vegetation or green roofs







The ecovillage is built on previously developed land that is not classified as a sensitive ecological habitat. Growth is expanded through reestablishment of the ecosystem and native wildlife, and a diversity of microclimates.

Twenty percent of the public space provides agriculture for the ecovillage including the restaurants or cafes operating in the Piazza del Sole.
This is in the form of a farmer's market or individually farmed plots which also serve the larger community of El Cerrito.


The ecovillage, including the Giardino Cerrito and Piazza del Sole, is a pedestrian/ bicycle oriented community. Pervious paved, pathways connect
the park and Piazza del Sole and the ecovillage as a whole. Delivery trucks that need to have access to commercial occupants in the Piazza are
limited to certain days and times. The mixed uses in the Piazza del Sole involve a balance of commercial and residential uses.
The first floor is commercial/ office space while the 2nd or 3rd floors are residential.


Corner of San Pablo and Fairmont Avenues:
Gateway to Giardino Cerrito


Along with rain water harvested from the roofs of the Piazza, greywater from the cafes, restaurants, shops and residents is recycled and used in toilets and irrigation of the public gardens. All waste water for the entire EcoVillage is treated with bioremediation and recycled directly or allowed to recharge
local aquifers.
Retention ponds capture rain water for purification without the use of chemicals.
Pervious pavement of the Piazza and ecovillage pathways filter stormwater as it percolates through to the ground.


Every building has operable windows for ventilation and natural lighting during
the day, and a patio, balcony or roof access for residents on the 2nd and
3rd floors.
Entryways have external and internal dirt track-in systems.

Meters for solar power generation/consumption throughout the Piazza,
awareness of bioremediation and the water cycle, and on-site food production
with general maturity of the park’s gardens allow one to witness the processes
of nature over time.

In the Piazza, the alleyways between the buildings contain more private spaces
with seating areas in which to relax.

Living green walls or PV cells embedded in the siding make up a
large percentage of the exteriror wall space.


Piazza del Sole


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Looking west through the Piazza

Looking east through the Piazza




Passive solar heating and heat rejection strategies comprise the design of each building in the Piazza. Stone or concrete flooring and/or interior walls provide the thermal mass needed to keep buildings warm through the absorption of direct solar radiation during the heating months, and the release of heat energy when the sun goes down. The exterior walls of stone keep buildings cool in the summer through the delay of heat migration through the building envelope.

Active solar power from integrated photovoltaic cells in the building exterior, rooftops and awnings provide energy needs, while solar thermal tubes provide hot water. Supplementary energy is provided by the municipal electrical grid. Excess energy is sent to the grid in which the entire ecovillage is connected for night time and non solar days.

The fountains throughout the park are solar powered. The solar discs on top of the fountains are wind activated. With full sun and the wind blowing the solar disc so it faces the sun, the fountains will reach a height of 30 feet, or, with no sun or the wind blowing the disc so it faces away from the sun, no fountain. As the sun gradually appears through the clouds, or as the wind blows the disc so it gradually faces the sun, the fountains will gradually rise,
and the reverse as well.
Meters placed throughout the Piazza del Sole show visitors how much energy is being produced, used and sent back to the grid, and what percentage of that energy contributes to the city of El Cerrito's daily energy needs.



- building durability of 100 years
- a cradle to cradle life-cycle of materials
- manufactured according to sustainable methods within a radius    of 1300 miles
- third-party certified standards

Looking southeast across the Piazza from a roof garden



A conscious attempt was made to reduce landfill waste as much as possible.

Materials from the original site recycled and incorporated into the construction of the Giardino Cerrito are as follows:

- brick and tile from the Chase Manhattan and Mechanics Banks reused as sitting walls, pervious pathways, building exteriors, etc...
- concrete walkways and sidewalks from all 3 buildings reused as aggregate for building foundations and pathways
- trees and plants from the Plaza reused and placed according to irrigation needs (native, drought tolerant species separate from exotic, foreign species   requiring regular irrigation)
- glass windows cut down and reused if possible or ground into a sand for a decorative, landscaping element
- other recyclable materials (wood, steel, etc...) used in the interior of the buildings are reused or broken down for recycling

The compost facilities of the ecovillage accommodate all food scraps produced by the restaurants and residents of the Piazza. Recycling of all
other materials produced are tied in with the city of El Cerrito.

A Community Recycling Center for recycling anything that the city won't such as electronics, appliances, batteries, etc..., is established to serve all
the surrounding communities.

Albany Hill also makes a regular contribution. Since eucalyptus trees are not native to northern California, the bark which falls to the ground does
not benefit the underbrush of smaller trees, bushes or shrubs and inhibits or prevents their growth in a eucalyptus tree forest. This in turn affects the
wildlife that feeds on these native plants. This bark is collected from Albany Hill and other local areas and made into a mulch for the park’s planting
beds, to the benefit of both parks.






A visual and ecological link with Albany Hill underlies Giardino Cerrito - over 100 species of native vegetation that once existed in the region can be found on Albany hill, much of which forms the basis for a restorative aspect to the design. The Sky Garden functions as a symbolic passageway where the native vegetation of Albany Hill migrates to the Giardino Cerrito.

Other features of the Giardino Cerrito include:
- Community Gardens for residents of El Cerrito to manage and plant gardens for food or aesthetic enjoyment
- Open pastures for recreation
- “Free Food” provided by various fruit trees throughout the park
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Fairmont Avenue Entrance

Underground Wastewater Treatment Facility


HUMMINGBIRD GARDEN (Honeysuckle Trumpet Garden)

A drought-tolerant variety of honeysuckle (Lonicera interrupta) native to california serves as a backdrop to this garden. With private alcoves
and seating areas, the garden serves as a refuge for contemplation.

A fringe benefit is that hummingbirds are attracted to flowers such as honeysuckle and trumpet vine for the nectar. The birds are attracted to colors
not smell, so a color variety of Trumpet vines could be planted.
Hummingbirds also require insects for protein. The nearby Cerrito Creek will attract the birds as well as some insects for them to eat, and nearby
willow trees will provide a place to nest.


California Redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) are one of the world’s largest living organisms and are only found in northern California and
southwest Oregon. According to one recent ecological study, due to changing weather patterns over the last 100 years, less fog is being
produced in the northwestern United States. Since fog prevents water loss from redwoods in summer, this will most likely impact their growth
and ability to reproduce.

A part of the ecovillage is a Redwood Forest. Though the trees will be grown from seeds, a juvenile tree will generally add five or six feet to its height
each year. It is easily capable of reaching a height of 120 to 150 feet during a person's lifetime. Once established, the trees will provide a cool
microclimate (possibly a difference of 15 degrees) with in the warmer climate of the park on hot summer days.


Promoting culture and interaction is one focus of Giardino Cerrito and the ecovillage as a whole functions as a community resource for sustainability - a living example of the future influencing the laws of the city of El Cerrito and surrounding cities (hopefully). Ideally, the ecovIllage serves as a new paradigm for the future suburban neighborhood.



Wetlands/ Retention Ponds



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