EcoDistricts Summit ’11: PoSI’s Naomi Cole on The Compelling Nature of District-Scale

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The team at Portland Sustainability Institute are quickly becoming the global experts at district-scale innovation. Their EcoDistricts model drives sustainable development in cities through stakeholder mobilization, social and infrastructure improvements across a neighborhood, and integration of best practices into the broader citywide cultural fabric. Three weeks from hosting their third annual EcoDistricts Summit, Program Manager Naomi Cole, talks about the increased value found in working at the district scale and why cities around the world are looking to Portland for a roadmap to sustainable development.

EcoDistricts: How does the development strategy change when working at the district scale rather than on a single structure?

Naomi Cole: It’s an entirely different strategy at a district scale. When working on a physical structure, the overall goal is pretty clear: a successful structure, like a new or retrofitted building, bioswale or energy system for example. When working at an EcoDistrict scale, there are potentially hundreds of projects and strategies to achieve the overall goal of environmental and social performance improvements.

At the district scale, we consider projects in the built environment as well as programs around people and behavior. And most importantly, the mechanisms for achieving these projects become much more complex because there are many more stakeholders than in a single structure. At a minimum, we have neighbors, developers, institutions, a city and utilities. Development at this scale requires a new process for making sustainable cities. We created EcoDistricts to provide a framework and approach for creating sustainable neighborhoods that includes new models of governance, assessment, project innovation, finance and policy.

EcoD: What is the most surprising unforeseen challenge you’ve encountered since working at the district scale and what solution or solutions have you discovered to address it?

NC: The process takes a long time. Stakeholder engagement and buy-in is, in many ways, the most critical step, and that process is dynamic and difficult to control. After we built our EcoDistricts framework we thought we’d be able to progress relatively efficiently in our pilot districts. But the process of engaging neighbors, formalizing partnerships, committing resources and building local capacity is very process heavy and takes time. Engagement has to be done right in order to get to the next steps of assessment and project implementation, which is where we all want to be.

EcoD: What is the single biggest driver of success for the development of an EcoDistrict? Why is it so important?

NC: There are two equally important drivers for success and they are addressed by our first two phases of EcoDistrict development: district organization and district assessment. The district organization process is what I described in the last question — engagement, vision, partnerships, capacity, and governance of stakeholders in an EcoDistrict. If this is done right, the next steps fall into place. The second, and equally critical, driver of success is an effective assessment process to prioritize projects. The biggest question once an EcoDistrict is organized is, “what are the right projects?” An integrated sustainability assessment across a neighborhood is critical for determining high impact projects, low-hanging fruit, and long-term ambitious investments. An effective assessment provides a roadmap for ongoing district sustainability improvements.

EcoD: Are EcoDistricts just a sum of their parts, in terms of benefits, or do the positive impacts grow exponentially when addressed as a collective unit?

NC: Definitely the latter. In fact, we often say, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” to describe the value proposition for EcoDistricts. The intention behind EcoDistricts is a more integrated approach to developing our cities. By thinking district-wide across multiple areas of performance, we see opportunities for investments to do many things at once. Adding bioswales to sidewalks, for example, provides a timely opportunity to lay infrastructure for district utilities, saving huge capital costs by tearing up streets only once. A neighborhood building retrofit program can save energy while also improving comfort, saving on utility bills, creating jobs and increasing property value. We focus on the district scale because it’s a compelling size — small enough to innovate quickly but big enough for meaningful results.

EcoD: What drew you to working at the district scale? Why is this concept so enticing to you personally?

NC: Neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities, so it’s the next scale (beyond buildings) that we have to tackle if we’re going to achieve the kind of ambitious city and regional sustainability goals adopted around the world. My background is in architecture, and I was drawn to architecture because the built environment provides an opportunity to create better places for people and nature. After working on buildings for a few years, I quickly realized that we could only accomplish so much within the walls of a structure. The next opportunity for the sustainability industry is neighborhoods because of the compelling scale.

Social networks enable change, buildings have the potential to share systems, and public spaces are ripe to create community and provide ecosystem services. I like the complexity of the neighborhood scale because we are challenged to consider a range of social, technical, financial and political issues that don’t come up at the building scale, but feel more manageable to address than at a citywide scale.

EcoD: If you could paint a picture of this nation’s cities in 20 years — how does the EcoDistrict fit in? What kind of progress and results do you hope to see over that time as a result of district scale innovation and development? Is there an end game or set of goals PoSI is working towards?

NC: EcoDistricts are a critical step towards eco cities. They aren’t an end in themselves but an important step on the path towards scaling up what works in urban sustainability innovation to address the myriad challenges faced by metropolitan areas. So many sustainability successes are still seen as boutique projects and not transferable. Our goal is not for every neighborhood to become its own independent EcoDistrict. Through EcoDistricts, we aim to innovate at the neighborhood scale to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then we hope to ultimately make a particular practice, whether it’s neighborhood governance or assessment or finance, become the new norm for how cities operate.

EcoD: What do you think is so compelling about Portland’s EcoDistrict model? Why are cities around the world turning to the Rose City for guidance in developing their own district scale projects?

NC: I think the thing that’s compelling about our work is that we’ve created a framework – a “how to” approach – for getting to sustainable neighborhoods. Every city is looking for this. And while we know what we’ve got now isn’t perfect, it’s the best of what’s out there and it captures lessons learned and case studies from sustainable neighborhood projects around the world. While many cities work in specific neighborhoods with ambitious sustainability goals, we’ve taken a broad approach by developing a transferable framework that we hope can be adopted by cities around the world. In addition, as we respond to inquiries about EcoDistricts, we find that cities are equally interested in our expertise as they are in our leadership in creating learning networks and a place to share lessons learned in creating sustainable neighborhoods.

Naomi Cole is the program manager for Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI) and a featured speaker at the third annual 2011 EcoDistricts Summit, October 26-28 in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about PoSI and their EcoDistricts model at pdxinstitute.org. Find details on the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit and register at ecodistrictssummit.com.

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