EcoDistricts ’11 Scaling Innovation: Susan Anderson on the City’s Role in Developing EcoDistricts


Susan Anderson

The City of Portland has been a major driver behind the EcoDistricts approach to sustainable development—and the world is taking notice. City of Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability Director, Susan Anderson, lets us in on why the district scale works, its potential as a global standard of sustainable development and the key aspects for cities to get right.

EcoDistricts: What inspired the City of Portland to drive the development & adoption of a district-scale model for sustainable innovation—i.e., the EcoDistrict?

Susan Anderson: Essentially, EcoDistricts are small enough to act quickly but big enough to have a meaningful impact. They also offer the potential for collaboration at a multi-block scale, creating opportunities that aren’t possible either city-wide or on a building-by-building basis. Over the last 10 to 12 years Portland has seen incredible strides taken in building performance—we’re beginning to see net-zero energy buildings, for example. But we also know that a district-scale approach creates opportunities to link buildings and achieve performance together that is much better than each building can do individually. The whole district can be much more than the sum of its parts. Solutions like district energy, for example, become feasible.

Working at district scale also taps into a powerful identity—the neighborhood. In Portland, neighborhoods provide a strong organizing identity that connects and motivates residents and businesses. Creating an EcoDistrict can both benefit and contribute to neighborhood identity, and the community development that results can create a powerful positive feedback loop.

Just as we’ve seen success at the building scale, we see even more options for a district. At a community-wide level we make plans, policies, investments and run programs, often quite successfully. We also know how, in most cases, city-scale change happens slowly. EcoDistricts offer the promise of delivering projects on a much-accelerated timeline, and one that is driven by the businesses, residents, and property owners in a district, not by the city.

EcoD: Why do you think this model is working in Portland? Is it something unique about our city culture or do you believe the EcoDistrict model can work anywhere?

SA: EcoDistricts clearly have promise in almost any urbanized area, and district-scale approaches are delivering great results in a number of European cities as well as places like Dockside Green in Victoria, British Columbia. Portland’s culture of collaboration significantly elevates the opportunity here. We already have strong neighborhood-level identities, and Portland businesses are famously collaborative, sharing ideas and recognizing the potential to do better individually by working well (and more) collectively. Portland also has a great foundation of relationships and organizations, like the transportation management associations, which have both delivered results and established relationships.

EcoD: What elements have to be in place for EcoDistricts to be successful?

SA: The basic ingredients to a successful EcoDistrict are simple: multiple sites in close proximity, a shared commitment to improving performance and an open mind. From there, it can get very technical, very quickly. Districts that have a variety of uses and structures, for example, are likely to have more opportunities to share and assist one another—think of a school and a church sharing a parking lot, for example, or the classic energy example of a skating rink and an indoor swimming pool. The ice rink is constantly trying to keep the ice frozen and get rid of heat, and the swimming pool has a constant need to keep the water warm. Instead of each facility handling its energy needs on its own, a pair of heat exchangers and a pipe connecting the two can result in huge cost savings.

You’ll rarely find two districts doing the same thing. The opportunities and priorities are almost certain to vary, and that’s perfectly appropriate. One size doesn’t fit all. The critical thing is to establish goals and a mechanism for working together, and then start with a doable set of projects, building momentum as you go.

EcoD: What role do cities play in transforming EcoDistricts from lofty ideas into reality? And specifically, what role has the City of Portland played in the development of the Five Pilot EcoDistricts currently underway?

SA: EcoDistricts don’t necessarily require a role for the city government, and there is a great deal the private sector can do without the city’s involvement. Often, however, city regulations may complicate options, and the city needs to be ready to explore ways to meet the outcomes that regulations are intended to accomplish in ways that may depart from the prescribed pathways. And as owner and steward of the right-of-way—streets, sidewalks and public spaces—the city frequently does have a role, since sharing physical assets often means crossing the right-of-way.

During this initial pilot phase in Portland, the city has been quite involved in supporting the districts. The Portland Development Commission has provided funding to the Portland Sustainability Institute to facilitate the initial processes to establish the five pilot districts. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has helped gather and analyze data to establish baseline performance information. But it is the district property owners, businesses and residents who have put in the longest hours, sorting out how they want to organize themselves, what their priorities are and how they want to proceed.

EcoD: How does the development of an EcoDistrict(s) affect the vitality of a city? Does the impact stop at the borders of the district or does it permeate the rest of the neighborhoods as well?

SA: The distinct focus of EcoDistricts is to improve energy and resource conservation at the district level. Other elements of EcoDistricts bring forward long held approaches and practices related to asset-based community development and community empowerment. The real implementation of these elements can support a culture and practice that can spread to other districts and neighborhoods, thereby affecting parts of the city outside designated EcoDistricts.

What we do not know is the potential for a community-driven approach to EcoDistricts to accomplish maintained results and the pace at which these results can be accomplished. It is likely that sustained results will take some level of staff or expert involvement in developing and implementing these community driven initiatives. It is also very possible that the community driven objectives will go beyond the resource conservation objectives that are at the heart of EcoDistricts.

The city lacks resources to staff and support these kinds of efforts outside a limited number of districts. It is important, then, to have an approach to EcoDistricts that allows for learning and consideration of what is actually exportable to other districts given city resource limitations.

EcoD: Can EcoDistricts help cities do better by marginalized and/or income districts? How can gentrification be avoided in the process of uplifting these communities?

SA: The benefits of community development efforts including EcoDistricts should be linked to addressing the barriers to opportunity faced by marginalized populations and low-income districts.

Gentrification refers both to the increase in property values that come from neighborhood improvement as well as the involuntary displacement of residents and businesses if and when the property values in a neighborhood rise to the point that they are no longer affordable for current occupants. Increase in values is almost an inevitable result of success of community development efforts once they reach a certain level. The strategies to avoid the injustice inherent in involuntary displacement must be developed and put in place as part of a long-term EcoDistrict or community development strategy. The effectiveness of those anti-displacement strategies are limited, so there is a dilemma built into our approach.

A basic question may be: Are there levels of accomplishing the objectives of an EcoDistrict approach that will be less likely to tip a neighborhood into market-driven involuntary displacement? It seems like that is possible, but we have yet to analyze this in depth.

EcoD: What aspects of the process do you feel city planners most need to be attentive to in order to contribute to a successful EcoDistrict?

SA: There are several areas:

(a) Being skilled in and thoughtful about what it takes to have a successful and truly community-driven initiative develop.

(b) Having useful measures of progress and success that help evaluate the effectiveness of the approach and justify the expenditure of resources needed to realize results.

(c) Cultural competence and community organizing skills.

(d) A level of knowledge of technical approaches to district-scale resource conservation practices sufficient to identify and bring technical resources to an initiative where necessary.

(e) An understanding of the economics of community development and investment, especially related to resource conservation.

EcoD: What do you feel are the most significant impacts that EcoDistricts make on a city? What are the value propositions that you feel no city should be able to ignore?
SA: EcoDistricts offer the promise of a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. They also have the potential for placemaking that combines a new geographic identity with extremely high performance, and that combination can create a destination—a place people go to enjoy, appreciate and be inspired. A successful green building is a powerful articulation of a host of issues—water, energy, waste, toxics—all of which are important but can be abstract until they are embodied in a structure that people can experience. So too can EcoDistricts offer an experience—a place people can walk through, look at, touch, hear—that is vastly more powerful than the same features spread out across a city. Arguably, the only way we ever will get those features throughout the city is by first concentrating them.

One final value proposition of EcoDistricts is in showing what is possible. The world is searching for solutions to urbanization, to resource scarcity, to poverty, to climate change, to a host of issues that are growing in urgency. We need examples of what a super high-performance district looks like, what technologies it uses, how it links natural and built environments, how it can be financed. Whoever develops these solutions will be well positioned to export their expertise and products to cities throughout the world, and that means jobs in the near term and environmental and social benefits for decades to come.

Susan Anderson is the Director of the City of Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability (BPS), and a featured speaker at the third annual 2011 EcoDistricts Summit, October 26-28 in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about the City’s role in supporting the development of thriving EcoDistricts at Find details on the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit and register at

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