Sustainable living + regionalism = ecodistricts?

Attempting to move beyond the “one building at a time” model of building sustainable communities, ecodistricts–sustainability at the neighborhood scale– are gaining ground.  Makes me wonder if ecodistricts could be a new driver for regional sustainability planning.

Ecodistricts bring together community members to tackle a sustainability issue at the neighborhood-scale.  (Boyd Cohen at Co.Exist has an informative blog post reporting back from a recent ecodistrict summit.) Rather than approaching sustainability one building at a time, ecodistricts stand at the intersection of people, infrastructure, and buildings.

In Portland, which is a leader in this form of development, the South Waterfront ecodistrict, for example, partners with the neighborhood nonprofit South Waterfront Community Relations in exploring plans for high performance energy, water, and waste systems for new developments. Another ecodistrict is working together to retrofit buildings in the community.

The vision originated in the green building community, which felt that efforts could only go so far at the building level. Ecodistricts also depart from greenfield or brownfield development projects in that they rely on bottom-up, inclusive management. They are not driven by master planners or public agencies but instead by a group of community members and organizations.

Naomi Cole, program director of the Portland Sustainability Institute, which is spearheading the development of ecodistricts in the city, told me that in Portland, ecodistricts range in size from 70 to 3,000 acres, and are typically defined by urban renewal area boundaries, which can knit together several neighborhoods. One ecodistrict, for example, includes six different neighborhoods.

The Institute hopes the six ecodistricts they’re developing will be a model for Portland and eventually go to scale with them. The Institute, which is a freestanding nonprofit, was created by the city and designed to be a regional charter with shared regional sustainability leadership. It brings together research, policy, and organizes the neighborhood leadership that create the ecodistricts, where it serves as an impartial intermediary between the neighborhoods and the city.

“Our thinking,” Cohen said, in response to my question, why districts? “is an ecodistrict that is bigger than a building and smaller than a city is more nimble. It’s at a good scale to innovate. You can understand the integration of different systems–infrastructure, social, and so forth—and its more manageable than a city scale.”

Boyd Cohen, quoting ICLEI’s Jeb Grubman in his blog post, noted how ecodistricts could ultimately become net producers:

“An ecodistrict in a local food-centric community could become a net producer of local food through a range of solutions such as rooftop and community gardens and vertical farms. Others could be net energy producers, leveraging smart buildings and smart grids as well as distributed renewables to generate enough energy to meet all the needs of the ecodistrict—while also selling energy back to the grid. By combining rich local networks with international networks of cities, ecodistricts can provide access to the world’s resources.”

Ecodistricts at the neighborhood level are not the end goal, according to Cohen. Up next: “Eco-cities. We see this model as a means to getting to sustainable regions.” This makes sense. As Cohen noted, some issues, like water and energy, are not contained within an artificial boundary. Water strategy will be informed by the watershed. A sustainable energy strategy will depend on the right combinations of loads and demand.

Ecodistricts at this broader scale will require new forms of governance as well, which Cohen sees as a new organization or partnership of organizations, depending on the ecodistrict needs.

So, could ecodistricts be knit together in a regional plan? “We’re trying not to get ahead of ourselves,” Cohen told me. “But the Portland metro region has that vision to be an eco-region. But I think it’s still a question for everyone, if eco-districts alone are going to get us there.”

Cohen is more optimistic. “Over time,” he writes on his blog, “leading cities will be composed of a patchwork of ecodistricts, all interconnected to each other as well as to ecodistricts and cities in other parts of the world. It’s entirely possible to imagine a future where every resident of a city lives an ecodistrict.”

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