EcoDistricts Summit 2011: Mark Holland on the Advantages of Neighborhood Scale Development

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Social Enterprises: What can we do to take sustainable building practices from dots on a landscape (LEED building here, LEED building there) and create cohesive sustainable communities?
Mark Holland: The first step is to expand the focus on sustainability from a “building” to a community – which means adding several additional elements.  I have structured my approach to this around what we have been calling “The 8 Pillars of a Sustainable Community”.  Buildings are one of the pillars – but the other seven outline the scope of planning, design and development of a community:

  1. Land Use – complete community land use patterns
  2. Transportation – low impact transportation systems
  3. Buildings – green buildings
  4. Landscapes – multi-purposed landscapes (ecology, arts and culture, recreation, food production)
  5. Infrastructure – innovative green infrastructure – energy systems, water supply, wastewater management, stormwater management, solid waste systems.
  6. Food – local food systems
  7. Social issues – individual and social health (with facilities and programs to support these)
  8. Economy – local sustainable economies

The key in helping develop sustainable communities is first to consider all of these core issues of a community through a sustainability lens – and then if the focus is on buildings, then identifying how a building needs to be designed to support the full range of goals across all the community elements.

SE: Can you give us a working definition of a sustainable community?
MH: I don’t usually spend a lot of time trying to create succinct definitions of sustainability or sustainable communities – and the thousands of definitions in play today across the world show similarities and differences in how it is expressed.

I look at it as a sustainable community is a one whose prosperity, social system and physical ecosystems are being consciously addressed, designed, developed and maintained to remain healthy and prosperous for the next century.

SE: What does the public gain from planning done at the neighborhood/district scale rather than a building-by-building scale?
MH: Many efficiencies can be achieved by thinking at the district-scale.  The building is one of the most important building blocks in a community, but other efficiencies and benefits can be achieved by thinking about larger systems.  For instance, a building-scale energy system may cost everyone money, but a district energy system can be an important asset, keep energy costs to a minimum, and provide better overall performance, because it can utilize many different sources of energy and balance loads across different buildings that have different uses.  Likewise, a building-scale stormwater management system may be onerous, but one managed at a neighbourhood scale may actually save money and provide significant habitat and community amenity. The same district-scale advantages can be applied to open space, recreation facilities, food production, etc.

SE: What are major hurdles to implementing a district approach to sustainable community development? How do you propose we clear those hurdles?
MH: In a new “master-planned community” context, the district-scale approach can simply be put on the table at the beginning, the necessary utilities involved from the beginning – and it will naturally unfold.  In an infill/redevelopment context, typically the local government has to play a role, or various roles, including:

  • Ensuring there is a good neighbourhood plan that ensures an overall sustainability performance on all the issues I identified in the first question;
  • A multi-stakeholder consultation and choreography role;
  • A financial role using “late-comer” agreements for infrastructure and facilities where needed over time;
  • A utility role as either “the” district utility provider or as a partner with the utilities, often owning the district energy/water pipes that are in the roads between buildings or parcels with different owners.

SE: Why should developers and property owners be on board with the district approach to sustainability? How can it benefit them?
MH: Everyone can optimize their performance and profit when we work at a district scale – as not every building has to take on the responsibility to be self-sufficient or overly complex – and as such, everyone wins.

SE: Can you speak to the idea of making sustainability more approachable and less dogmatic? Why do we need to do it and how do you suggest it be done?
MH: I always take my development clients back to first principles of the core performance accounts which are why we are not sustainable, including:

  • Climate change / air emissions
  • Water
  • Ecosystem health and biodiversity
  • Materials – resources, toxins, waste
  • Sustainable food systems
  • Social needs and health
  • Economic stability and prosperity

I always recommend that a sustainability strategy be created for each project that directly addresses these issues and that directions selected in each of the issues I noted at the beginning (the 8 pillars) be addressed with the unique costs/benefits/opportunities each project presents.  As such, in my experience, no two sustainability strategies are alike.

This approach ensures we address the core sustainability issues in a manner that passes the “straight face test” for each developer, community, neighbourhood, regulatory context, financial reality, etc. Sometimes LEED or another rating system seems to make sense – often we don’t use them (or just reference them) as it’s better to spend money and effort addressing sustainability issues in ways that may not deliver points. It also does away with the concept of pre-requisites as we can make any project perform quite well on most sustainability accounts with a little work.

SE: Some might argue that creating EcoDistricts is gentrification veiled as sustainability. How do we ensure that sustainable districts are developed across the spectrum and remain available, affordable and accessible to all people?
MH: The arguments against gentrification are nonsense.  Gentrification is just a fancy term applied to any kind of redevelopment in an infill context that is occurring because land value is cheaper in older areas (which is also the reason why rents are cheaper and these neighbourhoods are often the home of those of low income).

The only way to stop gentrification is through government intervention and requirements to provide subsidized/non-market housing – which can be achieved in many different ways – and should be pursued in each neighbourhood in order to provide a balanced social environment. Examples of very proactive developers (such as John Knott and the Noisette Project) are increasing where developers are finding ways to support a decent percent of less-than-market prices through other means.

SE: Are there any projects that you feel particularly inspired by lately? Ones that have solved issues and are very likely replicable by other cities/communities?
MH: I like the Dockside project in Victoria.  I worked extensively on the Southeast False Creek project in Vancouver (LEED ND Platinum) and think it turned out pretty good.  I am always inspired by the Noisette Project I mentioned earlier in South Carolina.  I like the projects that are now integrating food systems centrally into their design (we wrote the book Agricultural Urbanism last year on this topic).  We have been involved in a few of these – most notably Southlands in Delta BC, that DPZ did the site plan for.  I also really like the Pearl District in your fair city.

The issue of replicability is difficult – as each factor in a development is always unique to that place and moment in time.  I think it’s more important to look for inspiration in other projects, but to build each project uniquely with the people, champions and resources that are available to that project and place.  I believe strongly in “project terriore” – the unique interesting eccentricities of a place and the people – that get imbued into a project.

SE: What do you hope comes out of the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit? What do our cities and the industry (for lack of a better word) need from it at this moment in time? 
MH: I think the most important thing is to start thinking at the district scale for all things – and to better understand what should be required of developers at a parcel/building scale – and what is really best addressed by the local government at the district scale.

We can achieve much higher sustainability performance and make money doing it if we address core sustainability issues at the district scale first – and then define the responsibility / role of each building/site within that district as we go.

SE: Why is the kind of dialogue available at the EcoDistricts Summit valuable for those developing our cities to engage in? 
MH: Most of the work done on sustainable communities is focused either on the building scale or at the city scale – and yet the district scale is probably the most important.  An event focused on this critical scale to 21st century planning and development is a great opportunity – and on the leading edge.

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