BY MATHANGI MURTHY
This week from October 23 to 26th, the Portland Sustainability Institute will host the third EcoDistricts Summit. It is one of the few annual conference dedicated to district-scale sustainability initiatives. I recently spoke to Naomi Cole, the EcoDistricts Program Director of PoSI about the Summit, the EcoDistricts movement and what it has to offer this year.
Portland Architecture: Tell me about this week’s EcoDistricts Summit and what are the new and exciting events that are in store?
Cole: The significant difference between this year’s summit and the last year is that we are much more international in nature this year. We’ve got delegations coming from China, Vietnam, Sweden, Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan. We had a decent international turnout last year but each year the geography has expanded quite a bit. When we started, our first year was pretty much Portland folks, our close advisors, then we expanded and became more regional, then national and now international. We have had many people from different countries reaching out to us and wanting to be a part of the Summit. So I think the key flavor this year is that we have got representatives working on EcoDistricts from all over the world.
We are seeing a lot more projects being called ‘EcoDistricts’ and we will be able to hear many of their stories being told this year. We will be able to understand more about what is working, what’s not working, lessons learned, how much of it is ‘greenwashing’ versus deep district-scale sustainability change.
Tell me about the progress on the five pilot EcoDistricts Projects. What are the lessons learned from them?
The five pilot projects are moving along at a relatively similar pace – slow and steady. They are all where we wanted them to be at the end of their three year pilot. So each of the districts has a leadership group; either a steering committee or a formal board. They’ve all got a Chair, in some cases paid staff. They have all gone through some kind of assessment to prioritize projects and they are moving into project development phase.
To give you a flavor of what some of the projects are- the Lloyd District is doing a Commercial Retrofit Program, Gateway is doing a project called Re-energize Gateway which is a much more grass-roots weatherization and solar production program. Foster Green is starting to develop urban mobile gardens at vacant lots along Foster Road. South Waterfront is just starting to develop a Smart Grid and Demand Management strategy. So, they are quite varied and are related to energy. But each of the districts has its priorities and is starting to develop its projects.
In terms of lessons learned, one of the overall things we have learned from the five pilots and other cities is that being really clear about the program expectations, roles and responsibilities from day one is essential. To give an example, if the city of San Francisco is going to start an EcoDistricts program, they have to be clear about what are they going to commit to their pilot neighborhoods and what are the stakeholders expected to commit to in return. This is important because we are still figuring that out with the City of Portland. Now the pilots are independent, they have a clear direction and leadership they are starting to have a direct relationship with the city. So our recommendation to other cities is to design the program first and then pilot it. We were piloting and designing the program at the same time in Portland instead.
If we can prove that EcoDistricts work well in highly diverse neighborhoods such as Foster Green and Gateway, then it is really a translatable model. Each of the EcoDistricts has defined ‘EcoDistricts’ differently for its own context. In Foster Green and Gateway, it is really about sustainability as a way to improve livability and meet basic needs like lower utility bills, create local jobs, provide pride and a sense of opportunity in creating and shaping your own community. We have goals in our EcoDistricts performance areas around equitable development, around health and well-being to make sure that whatever projects that come out of the EcoDistricts goals meet multiple benefits at once.
These are huge, complex projects and we hope that each project meets as many community benefits as possible. We worked really hard to be inclusive around engaging people and around shaping priorities. The kinds of projects coming out of communities such as Gateway will ultimately be reflective of a different set of interests than communities like Lloyd District which has a lot of commercial property owners.
What EcoDistricts projects are in the pipeline for PoSI?
In terms of the projects in the pipeline, PoSI is launching a North American program. We received a grant from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) to design the program and we did a thoughtful research and design phase for the North American EcoDistricts program. We worked with a group of 15 cities and advisors to design a North American program with the idea that PoSI would provide technical assistance similar to what we did in Portland. We want to help a handful of cities each year to launch an ecodistrict neighborhood.
Some of the most promising cities and projects that we are working with are San Francisco and Washington DC. San Francisco has three neighborhoods they have identified as EcoDistricts. Washington DC has four and they have got clear staff time allocated to this project. They are also benefitting from a lot of lessons learned from Portland and our failures. They are ultimately making smart moves and learning from our mistakes.