EcoDistricts Summit 2011: Brian Geller on District Scale Sustainable Development and Seattle 2030 District Goals

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There’s only so much impact a single green building can make on its own. The solution, if we still want to reach ambitious goals on energy efficiency, waste reduction and carbon neutrality? Start looking at things from a district or neighborhood perspective. The EcoDistricts concept does just that. By addressing these challenges at a higher level—in city planning and regional development—impacts grow exponentially compared to ad hoc development of sustainable buildings and infrastructure. Brian Geller, Founder and Executive Director of the Seattle 2030 District, explains the benefits and advantages to this approach and outlines his vision for the cities of the future.

Social Enterprises: There seems to be a lot of momentum in cities, especially those in the Pacific Northwest, around district scale development initiatives. What is it that makes these kind of programs so attractive for city planners?
Brian Geller: District planning is becoming more popular because it’s a logical scale for resource planning. The green building industry has made huge strides in the last decade, and many of the possibilities designers see involve reaching outside of a project boundary to neighboring properties.

SE: Do you think this kind of “friendly” arms race in sustainable development between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver B.C. will drive adoption in cities outside our region? Like LA? Atlanta? Boston?
BG: I think it will, though different cities currently have different strategies for planning and organizing district-scale environmental movements. I imagine, over time, that some replicable models will emerge, bringing together the most successful elements of efforts in different cities.

SE: How does all the work during the planning stages translate into a public benefit? How do sustainable districts benefit the people of a community?
BG: District-scale planning is wonderful because working towards a few simple performance metrics improves a community in many ways. Reductions in building energy use, water use, and vehicle miles traveled sounds very abstract, but the results—healthier buildings with healthier and more active occupant, safer and more walkable communities and healthier waterways—these are characteristics urban planners have been striving to bring to the people living in cities for decades.

SE: What are the biggest challenges in working with so many moving parts, people and organizations? Is it managing relationships or managing logistics? And how have you worked through them?
BG: Managing relationships with other organizations is a challenge. Many organizations overlap each other, with similar missions. No one wants to create confusion in the marketplace, but no one wants to stifle new ideas either. It’s a delicate balance that requires regular and open communication. We also don’t have a template to work from, so we have to figure out a lot as we go.

SE: What drew you to working at the district scale? What is the “passion point” for you personally?
BG: My personal passion point is tapping into the energy and vitality that makes cities special places to live. According to the Brookings Institute, this country is about to experience its greatest demographic shift in a century, due in large part to more people living in urban areas, where quality of life has the potential to be very high if we collaborate to find solutions. This once in a multiple-lifetime opportunity is ours to seize, or squander.

SE: Tell us about the Seattle 2030 District. What are the goals and vision for this undertaking?
BG: The goals come from the 2030 Challenge for Planning. We want to reduce the energy use, water use, and CO2 from vehicle miles travelled 50 percent by 2030, with even more aggressive goals (carbon neutrality by 2030) for new buildings.

The vision is to create a model of simple goal setting and community engagement that other cities can follow, even though specific local implementations and strategies will vary from one place to the next. Our pursuit of the existing building goals is unique in that they are aggregated. We know some buildings will go farther than others, but believe that by working together, as a community, we can achieve these aggressive goals and make Seattle so much better in the process.

SE: What kind of advice can you offer city planners and administrators who are looking into district scale sustainability and development? What key aspects should they consider? What common mistakes should they steer clear of?
BG: Focus on relationships, on how people in different departments, or different entities within a city, actually work together. This is not a technical problem we have to solve, but a very human one, and  new ways of interacting and cooperating are needed in order to be successful.

Brian Geller is the Founder and Executive Director of the Seattle 2030 District, a public/private partnership working to address Seattle’s 2030 Challenge goals from a district approach. Brian will also be speaking October 26-28 at the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit in Portland, Oregon on the District Scale Initiatives panel. For more information on the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit, or to register, please visit: http://www.EcoDistrictsSummit.com. Follow news and updates on Twitter (@pdxinstitute) and Facebook.

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