BY BRIAN LIBBY
This week from October 26-28, the Portland Oregon Sustainability Institute will present the second annual Ecodistrict Summit, which is the premier annual conference dedicated to neighborhood-scale sustainability initiatives. Recently I spoke with the head of POSI, Rob Bennett, who previously has worked as the founding director of the city's Office of Sustainability as well as for the William J. Clinton Foundation, about the conference and the broader ecodistricts movement.
Tell me about this week's Ecodistricts conference and the issues surrounding this movement.
The conference is our major event. We felt it was important to have a learning event around this notion of green neighborhood development. It’s one we’re passionate about. We think the neighborhood is an important geography for urban sustainability. It’s small enough where you can innovate but has import and scalability opportunities to move those ideas and strategies out and replicate them.
Meanwhile there’s this explosion going on internationally along green neighborhood development. What are the good ideas? What are communities doing to green their neighborhood? How are they approaching the link between people, infrastructure and buildings?
We rarely talk about the occupant experience in buildings. In neighborhoods, the neighbor or business, it’s so critical to the functionality and the livelihood of a neighborhood. We have good examples of long standing neighborhoods like Alberta and Mississippi, and dysfunctional neighborhoods too. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in Portland and elsewhere to kind of re-inhabit the neighborhood and make it one of the most important scales of cities. If you get your neighborhood right, you get your city right. That’s what Jane Jacobs talked about.
I always find interesting the psychological dimensions of place and that how we feel about our place in it is tied often to neighborhoods. I’m a Portlander and an Oregonian, but I also live in Sunnyside and live near Burnside and 28th. I need it to thrive for me to thrive. I need to get coffee and for my kids to go to school and to buy groceries and not have to get into my car to do it. It sets your life course. If you live in a neighborhood without sidewalks or a school not within walking or biking distance, or a store without fresh food, that puts you at a disadvantage.
So at the conference, we’re going to bring together over 100 leaders and professionals from around the world who are going to share their stories. We’re breaking it into a variety of topics and look at the district scale and what’s working in exemplary neighborhoods. We’ve got cities like Nagoya, Toronto, Stockholm, Mexico city, New Orleans, Detroit and Seattle represented. It’ll be interesting to see how district cultures.
How do you address equity and the notion that some neighborhoods feel left out?
I think the fundamental premise of ecodistricts is healthy environment, healthy community. We need to take a more measured and systematic approach to how we look at the neighborhood and the combination of projects and programs we bring. So it is messy. Any time you’re talking about community development and ecological health, it’s messy. We’ve decided to shine a light on five pilot neighborhoods and take them through a systematic approach to identifying performance goals and initiatives they want to put together. You’ve got to do this with the community and the city. And it’s early days for us. This is a long play. We’d like to see a shiny neighborhood, but that doesn’t exist. So these are really kind of organizing principles and a performance specification.
What have you learned so far?
A couple of early lessons. We’re working in diverse districts from Lloyd and South Waterfront that are dense with high quality infrastructure, and in Gateway and Foster/Green (Lents). What’s been interesting working out in those neighborhoods is there’s not an obvious sort of consolidation of power or leadership that would stake an ecodistrict idea and own it. It literally is a knitting together of community organizations, businesses, nonprofit interests. It’s really creating a tapestry of organizations that are rowing in the same direction.
I have to admit we worried this could be a disaster. But we decided with ecodistricts it’s important to identify strategies tuned to the people living there. We are less interested in prescribing an outcome as a performance model and a process. We are very committed to ecodistrict pilots having strong performance goals. But we’re also committed to asking, ‘How do you achieve those goals and what is the most important?’ To date we’ve had success out in Gateway and Lents. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm. In the case of Lents there’s at least a dozen organizations that have signed on. They see this as a way for them to envision a healthy and a positive future. They feel like they’ve got a tremendous amount of ownership. It helps create a balance approach to city planning. It’s driven by the city almost exclusively. This creates more of a balance with the communities and their needs. We’ve been encouraged by that.
Another issue is we’re insisting on local governance. For Portland to meet its sustainability goals, you can’t just have climate and land use policy at one end and a green building policy at the other end. You need neighborhoods to sustain their own performance. I see this as a community organizer as Neighborhood 2.0. If we get this right and figure out governance and find a way to raise money that stays in a neighborhood, this becomes the fundamental things neighborhoods do. It isn’t pet issues. They have a fundamental responsibility to make their neighborhood better. You’re no longer suggesting it’s the responsibility of private development owners or the city. I think we all buy in to that.
Might private developers feel threatened by people organizing to decide what comes in or out of their neighborhood?
These are supposed to inform broader policy conversations, but not to create additional levels of regulatory red tape. What we’re starting is with this notion of local governance, and then looking at footprints for energy, water, etc. through community needs assessment you’d start to identify key projects that need to happen. If the neighborhood is interested in being carbon neutral by X date, you find that it’s in the energy use in buildings and the waste streams. We need to get so much more out of building retrofit strategies and for our new buildings to be high performing and maybe having a shared energy strategy. It would be a toolbox for how they meet their goals. That says nothing about red tape or additional regulations. It does provide additional information to say, ‘Our new buildings need to be higher performing than the current code.’ If there’s any regulations that were to come from ecodistricts, it would be that we’ve found ways and strategies to do higher performing buildings or infrastructure that needs to get codified citywide.
Having worked in the neighborhood system, you’re always reacting to that development proposal or that parking issue. You’re never looking upstream and saying, what do we need for our neighborhood to be more sustainable? If you get your principles right and get clear about the kind of outcomes you’re trying to achieve, when those projects come potentially you have a fuller appreciation of that project in context. At the neighborhood level now you have land use committees and those reacting to design. If you actually had neighborhood organizations acting on outcomes and not a particular project, that may help to create a more sophisticated neighborhood governance.
What’s POSI’s role in the Oregon Sustainability Center?
I would characterize our role today as provocateur and cheerleader for the project. We’re really focused on making sure it’s a good ecodistrict project with multiple benefits to the district. What happens with the program? How does it achieve its vision of achieving sustainability that teaches and inspires and is a useful community asset? We’ve certainly got the crack sustainability team figuring out how to make it net zero and talented development people. We just want there to be a robust learning program within it: things like the smart grid or the energy management systems and how that can inform other buildings at PSU, how the wastewater treatment facility can be scaled to include adjacent development. The real opportunity is to create linkage throughout the rest of the district. It really is going to require the tenants to look at how they use energy, water, and how they look at the building.
What do you see in the future for ecodistricts?
The short answer is there are sustainability solutions that cities need to implement: bike infrastructure, district energy, smart grids, increased stormwater and wastewater management at the district scale. There are a lot of tools in the toolbox. We want to be continuing to push those strategies so they have a robust business case. We’re committed to the long arc of sustainability in cities and really pushing them like we are with district energy and we are about to with bike sharing. In our partnership with PSU we hope to bring more research capability to POSI and identify and validate best practices that are being applied globally and being able to catalog those so we can move that stream of projects more quickly forward. We’re tying to be a tip of spear organization that identifies compelling projects. The more quickly we can assemble teams, the better off our mission is served.
One thing in five years that would be revolutionary for the city is figuring out this notion of better neighborhood initiative. How do you unleash power of culture and technology to have markedly more high performing and livable neighborhoods? There’s all kinds of cases like peer-to-peer car sharing: I’ve got something, I don’t use it very often. I want to be able to rent it out to my neighbors and has a benefit to me, like with GetAround. You spend $100 and install yourself in your own car. This company enables you to share your car. Your phone basically becomes a calendar tool saying when it’s available. It’s a rental mechanism and door lock. It tracks mileage, fuel. States around the country have adopted insurance policies. Whenever you’re using the car, you’re using that person’s insurance.
There’s all kinds of technology like that releases cooperation. As resources become more scarce and we become more poor, which I think is happening, the desire to have material good but for less is going to be paramount. Fruit gleaning, composting, solarizing…there’s all this energy, neighborhood-based energy to do community projects that improve livability and connectivity. We want to figure out how to capture that in a more systemic model that unleashes the technology innovators with the impulses of community building and sharing. That’s fun. I don’t know where it’s going to take us. But companies like IBM, Cisco and Nike are all very interested in this. It’s all about technology linking to have a higher quality of life.