EcoDistricts: All Green, All in One Place

[I was in Portland when the EcoDistrict project was launched and have been following it ever since.  It's still in its early days, but I think it's a great approach to speed the evolution of our cities. Originally posted  @SustainableCitiesCanada.]

You've probably seen pictures of London's BedZED , or Malmo's Western Harbour redevelopment. Showpiece green developments like those have put urban sustainability in the international spotlight.

But all around them is a larger city that also needs to evolve radically if we are going to make sustainable cities a reality. Otherwise the substance is missing; you've got the cherry on top, but no Sunday underneath.

The magic of developments like BedZED, or projects like Victoria's Dockside Green here in Canada, is that they do it all, and all in one place. Renewable energy, walkable vibrant density, multiple transportation options, urban agriculture, green buildings.... all woven together into a whole that is inspiring and effective. Rather than piecemeal interventions you get a picture of what a fundamentally different city could look like.

But how can you apply the same holistic approach to the neighbourhoods and districts that we already have? Portland (OR) is one of a small number of cities pioneering efforts to answer that question.

Building EcoDistricts
In 2009 the city launched the EcoDistrict program to accelerate the transformation of five existing neighbourhoods. EcoDistricts pursues the type of neighbourhood-scale interventions that you might expect, ranging from district energy to green streets. But at the core of the whole endeavour is the insight that to operate at a district scale the challenges aren't primarily about technology, they are about people.

Unlike greenfield developments, working with existing neighbourhoods means working with a complex mix of residents, businesses, developers, utilities and municipal agencies. The EcoDistrict process begins by building a framework that allows all these different players to work together and supplies them with resources and strategies to begin remaking their part of the city.

The Elusive "How": People
Portland aims to make the EcoDistrict approach something that can be applied in other cities (see their upcoming summit). How well it will transfer remains to be seen. At the same time, other cities will also develop their own approach to collaboratively transforming existing cityscapes. Montreal's Quartiers 21 and Quartiers Verts programs, for example, also use the neighbourhood scale as a place to test out innovative ideas and processes of public engagement.

In the end the specific process cities follow isn't as important as how they frame the challenge. We've spent a lot of time thinking about the “what” of urban sustainability; the “how” has always been a bit more elusive. Portland's EcoDistricts program shows that it is possible to mobilize the complex mixture of different people and institutions in a way that makes holistic green urbanism possible.

It will be interesting to see which Canadian city will be the first to do the same.


2 Responses to "EcoDistricts: All Green, All in One Place"

Anonymous said... 20 July 2012 at 10:50

Building Blocks of Sustainable Cities

? might be translated into francais ?

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.