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Scaling Up

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Project Description

A small but growing handful of “eco-cities” around the globe are developing demonstration green neighborhoods to showcase the latest in green technologies and practices. These eco-cities or “eco-districts” expand on the one-building-at-a-time approach to effect greater change. Canada, China, Korea, Scandinavia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States all have transformative projects that integrate a variety of energy, water, transportation, and waste management strategies on a neighborhood scale.

While many international green district models are iconic demonstrations that help advance best practices, most of these projects are greenfield or brownfield developments organized by local public agencies or master developers. In addition to these projects, strategies that address existing neighborhoods are needed, and green development business leaders and the City of Portland, Ore., are rising to this challenge. The EcoDistricts Initiative, led by the nonprofit Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), seeks to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability in existing neighborhoods throughout Portland. This effort, along with others around the globe, is highlighting the need for a new set of partnerships and enabling tools to address sustainability at this larger level. Let’s take a look at several of these needs.

Comprehensive Assessment Tools

Existing rating systems at the neighborhood scale are designed primarily for developers. LEED for Neighborhood Development identifies metrics associated with sustainable community practices, but stops short of creating a roadmap and tools that cities and stakeholders can utilize to work together toward a common purpose.

Comprehensive district assessment is fundamental to inform decision making and develop implementation strategies. Eco-districts need to establish baselines on existing and expected performance, evaluate site conditions, and inventory community assets. To address this need, PoSI is developing metrics and protocols for setting goals, baselining performance, and prioritizing projects and community action over time.

Engagement and Local Governance

Local ownership, buy in, and stakeholder engagement in the development and decision-making process are essential to an eco-district’s success. The community must take a leading role in actualizing the vision and meeting goals to reduce the environmental impact of auto trips, to conserve energy, to create habitat-friendly landscapes, and to compost and recycle.

New types of district governance models are needed to help the community meet eco-district performance goals, guide investment, and manage success over time. One such strategy is the creation of sustainability management associations. Modeled after the transportation management associations that have been used successfully throughout the nation to minimize district congestion, this tactic shows promise in creating the robust governance structure needed to manage performance over time.

Scalable Investments

While geography doesn’t determine the viability of an eco-district, cultural and social perceptions do impact its ability to get funding. Access to capital combined with investment across property lines are significant hurdles to eco-district implementation, especially in the U.S., where cities rarely make district-level investments or take an integrated, long-term approach to resource management. European nations invest more in eco-district-type projects, like Bo01/Western Harbour in Malmö, Sweden, because their long-term view supports funding for green infrastructure.

China also is making significant investments. Sean O’Malley, managing principal of SWA Group’s Laguna Beach, Calif., office, is working on five new eco-cites in southern China. There, regional government funds the initial infrastructure, then sells the land to private developers who must follow prescribed green guidelines. “Although new, the eco-city builds on the existing industries, so it becomes a marriage between the city, industry, business, and universities,” O’Malley explains.

Local Policy Support

Eco-districts cannot succeed without significant public policy intervention to reduce obstacles and encourage innovation in the private sector. New performance-based zoning regulations and green building codes and incentives are critical to institutionalizing green districts’ best practices.

At Southeast False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia, the city updated and created new policies to support its ambitious sustainability goals. These goals encourage passive building design and district stormwater management, and they legalized in-building rainwater harvesting, which was previously illegal.

As the neighborhood becomes the fundamental scale on which sustainability goals are measured, we will have new opportunities to rethink interactions between individual behavior, buildings, and infrastructure. How do we move forward? Drawing upon lessons learned from international examples and local innovation, the Portland EcoDistricts Initiative is developing a set of recommendations to address existing barriers and incentives for distributed utilities; building and zoning codes; performance disclosures; enhanced demand management; and privacy. The first draft framework was published in March 2010, available online in the resources section at

Ralph DiNola is a principal at Green Building Services, in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at Rob Bennett is the executive director of the Portland Sustainability Institute. He can be reached at
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