It's the word that has been on everybody's lips this week in the architecture and sustainability communities: eco-districts.
About 300 people attended the EcoDistricts Summit 2010 at Portland State University this week to discuss the idea of accelerating sustainability gains by ramping up from individual buildings to whole neighborhoods. Activities included a series of roundtable discussions, panel sessions and skills training.
Concurrent with the sessions, the city announced the locations for its first five eco districts: Lents, South Waterfront, Portland State University, Gateway and the Lloyd district. Each of the five is already one of the Portland Development Commission's urban renewal areas, thereby allowing easier collaboration and coordination. This neighborhood-scale sustainable development will be focused on livability, green infrastructure, community decision making.
The Portland Sustainability Institute, host for the summit, will initiate eco-district development in two districts in the coming year: Lents and Lloyd. In Lloyd there has already been a “Declaration of Cooperation” among businesses and the mall owners, and in Lents POSI is in process of hiring two people to work in Lents to “do a deeper dive on the engagement process because it’s our deepest and biggest district,” Cole explained.
The Oregon Sustainability Center is a catalyst for PSU eco district. The building will generate all its own power and treat all its wastewater. Is there a chance for water treatment or alternative energy to serve the neighborhood beyond just the building?
At the at a Thursday meeting of the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment event, Naomi Cole of PoSI broke down eco-district policy and financing into what she called “hardware” (buildings and infrastructure) and “software” (community engagement, social marketing). There are also nine performance areas: equitable development, place making, social cohesion, air quality & carbon, energy, access & mobility, water, habitat & ecosystem function, and materials management.
"The idea is you start with an existing city, and you layer in a green infrastructure," Cole said. That can mean anything from bioswales and green streets to green buildings, community gardens and pooled alternative energy sources "People have access and mobility. You layer in habitat and natural infrastructure. It gets more green and lush."
Other cities have created such districts already, such as the Living City Block in Denver, the Green Impact Zone in Kansas City, EcoCity in Cleveland, Seattle's 2030 District, Dockside Green in Victoria, Southeast False Creek in Vancouver, and Treasure Island in San Francisco. But most all of these are new developments. To make an eco-district work in an existing urban neighborhood means dealing with barriers such as multiple owners, existing infrastructure that isn't green but not at replacement level, and a lack of assessment tools or finance mechanisms.
At the same time, Cole admitted that there is an element of unknown and that there are limited resources. “There’s hundreds of different projects that can come out of each of these eco-districts," she said. "But we don’t know what theyr’e going to look like.”
At the EcoDistricts summit itself, I attended a panel discussion called "Integrated Design at the District Scale" with Clark Brockman of SERA Architects; Alan Hipolito, executive director of Verde, a nonprofit devoted to promoting economic equity for disadvantaged communities; Alisdair McGregor of the internationally renowned engineering firm Arup; and Bill Reed of the Integrative Design Collaborative.
Initially there were interesting ideas explored such as Brockman's emphasis on flexibility to achieve sustainable solutions. He mentioned the GSA (Government Services Administration), with which SERA Architects is working on the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building renovation. The GSA, Brockman said, is "driving us to this paradigm of improvement every single week." But the clients seek desired outcomes, and don't enforce rigid means of how to achieve them. That's up to the designers.
However, the talk took a somewhat unexpected turn. It was seemingly supposed to center around the collaborative process necessary between architects, builders, engineers, and building owners and occupants to achieve successful sustainable design and how this approach could be applied to whole districts. But Hipolito's presence on the panel turned the conversation in a different direction. He asked a rather bold question: "Are eco-districts just another word for gentrification?"
The crowd laughed a little, but it was a serious question: When investing dollars and attention toward a holistic combination of new buildings, green infrastructure and potentially shared power, will that simply become about attracting private-sector investment and newer, more affluent residents to a neighborhood, or will there be what Hipolito called an "equity component" to eco-districts, a promise to use such means for aiding struggling communities? After all, an eco-district can sound a lot like urban renewal to a resident who fifty years ago lost his or her home and neighborhood to initiatives like the South Auditorium district or Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Quarter. Why not make eco-districts part of an anti-poverty strategy?
In another panel discussion, John Knott, President/CEO and co-founder of Noisette Company echoed some similar concerns. "Until we all buy in and change behaviors," he said, "it doesn't matter how many green bldgs we erect. The people make the difference." Knott also pointed out how over last 30 years the US as a whole has actually been disinvesting in the social and environmental health of our cities. The health of all people, whether rich or poor, is our shared responsibility, he said. Green buildings are good, but they aren't the end-all, be-all. All must understand the unique heritage and history of a neighborhood or district, and hold forth a common vision to which they can contribute. "I heard this week that the definition of sustainability is, 'Your well being is our well being,'" he added.
Looking at the five districts chosen, three of five (PSU, SoWa and Lloyd) are in the central city, where there is already much investment. Lents and Gateway are both home to much more diverse residential communities and many economically disadvantaged households, so eco-districts there could further the work already being done by PDC with its urban renewal areas there. At the same time, these latter two neighborhoods are also key transit nodes that are already part of Metro's 2040 Plan. What about some of the other neighborhoods that are struggling, like Cully?
Panel member Bill Reed was skeptical of Hipolito's suggestion. "Equity is not a checklist item," he said. "It's a relationship." An eco-district, he added, is about access to healthy and sustainable food, soil and water. It's not social welfare.
Still, Hipolito's argument for equity in eco-districts gave me pause. I thought about aspects of greenery and access to non-automobile transit that are already lacking in certain urban neighborhoods. Drive to outer southeast toward Gresham or outer Northeast toward the airport, and you'll find many, many neighborhoods without sidewalks. Aren't walkable neighborhoods a fundamental aspect of sustainability? Once you get outside of affluent neighborhoods like Irvington, Laurlehurst, Eastmoreland and Ladd's Addition, the tree canopy dissipates greatly. Could more sustainable good be done by, say, expanding the tree canopy city-wide, or restoring cancelled TriMet bus lines, or building sidewalks?
That said, we have to start somewhere. It makes logical sense for eco-districts to exist first in urban renewal areas for streamlining resources. And it's not as if these five districts will be the only ones; expansion will come. The knowledge gleaned and lessons learned in these first five eco-districts will also help the city and its private-sector parters do a better job with eco-districts in the years ahead. Still, Hipolito's message is a valid reminder that even the most innovative and proactive sustainable thinking and implementation has a responsibility to do more than just cut carbon, reduce energy bills or even transform concrete jungles into green infrastructure. Until people far beyond the realm of city staffers, the design industry, academia and the upper classes benefit from initiatives like eco-districts, the transformation will have been incomplete.