Posts Tagged ‘portland state university’

Robert Costanza Talks EcoDistricts + Neighborhood Scale Sustainability

October 25, 2010

Robert Costanza is the new head of Portland State’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, founder of the Solutions Journal, and he’ll also be speaking at the EcoDistricts Summit, put on by Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI). Robert has spent his career exploring sustainable systems and reaching for solutions that will allow us to live a high quality of life, while at the same time sustaining our planet’s resources. One of the most compelling concepts he has discovered is district-level sustainability.

SE: Since you’re new to this position and the area, can you give us a brief snapshot of where you’ve come from and what your new job at Portland State University (PSU) entails?
RC: I started out in engineering and then got a masters degree in architecture. Then I shifted and got a PhD in systems ecology with a minor in economics—I took economics as a foreign language actually. That systems training education has allowed me to look at the world in a much more integrated way. Ever since I adopted this philosophy, I’ve been trying to put pieces together rather than take things apart, or at least balance the two. I think that’s what we need more of in the education and management aspects of our system. Things are much more interconnected these days, or at least the interconnections make more difference, because the world is filled up with people and their artifacts. There’s no frontier out there anymore, so the goals have shifted significantly from capturing resources as fast as you can, to working together and trying to sustain things in a desirable way.

To do that well, we have to start working across disciplines. We have to transcend these disciplinary boundaries and also the boundaries between academia and the community. Those are some of the things I’ve been trying to do throughout my career.

SE: Is that part of the reason you created the Solutions Journal—to broaden the conversation?
RC: Yes. I also started the journal, Ecological Economics, back in 1989. We were trying to make economics into a life science and build bridges. The Solutions Journal is a further step to reach out of academia into the general public, and across a broader range of disciplines. It’s about starting a dialogue on how we solve these problems.

We’ve spent plenty of ink describing the problems and analyzing them—I think we have a pretty good idea of what our big issues are. Now we need to spend an equal amount of time and effort trying to figure out what the solutions are. That goes beyond the technical fixes and partial solutions. We also need to figure out how we redesign the system to make it really sustainable and desirable.

Sustainability is one thing—how long things last, and we certainly want the system to last—but we also want to create something good. I think we can improve our quality of life and reduce our resource consumption at the same time. In fact, in many instances we’re finding that it’s the maldistribution of resources that’s more of a problem than the actual rates of consumption. We can lower rates of consumption all together and everyone can actually be happier while consuming less.

I think we need to get past the “growth at all costs” paradigm of economics and more towards asking how we can improve quality of life and sustainability—so that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my work. Portland State University has offered me a real opportunity, because they have a deep commitment to sustainability and see themselves as a leader, as does Portland. That means the community/university partnership can  happen here much better than anywhere else I know of. It can also be a model for others to see how to do this kind of thing—and I think the world needs these kinds of models. It’s important for us to lead the way.

SE: Speaking of models and problem-solving, we’re talking because of the EcoDistricts Summit that’s coming up. This idea of district-scale sustainability that Portland is gearing up to study in five key areas around the city (Lloyd District, Portland State University, Gateway, Lents and South Waterfront), what bigger problems will this concept solve if successful?
RC: The primary issue EcoDistricts let us address is how to build a sustainable, desirable city environment. Often when people think of sustainability, they think of getting back to the land, self-sufficiency and a smaller-scale way of life. I don’t think that’s necessarily the right approach. I think cities can be even more sustainable than a dispersed rural environment. We have so many people on Earth now that if we spread them out like that, it would use up all the available land. I think we’re better off concentrating people in certain areas. The question is, how do we do that in a more sustainable way? We’re getting into lots of things with this—including transportation and energy. Where do we find new solutions for those problems?

Portland is a good distance down the road to finding solutions, with our emphasis on bikes and mass transit, energy efficiency, green buildings, but not quite there yet. I just moved into the Cyan building next to PSU and it’s great to have a green building so conveniently located for me. My commute is by elevator. I don’t even have to use a bike that often and I was able to sell my car because of mass transit and Zipcars and biking.

Showing models like the EcoDistricts as individual buildings and eventually on a city scale in Portland, is really important. The city, as a whole, is not there, but by tackling things district by district, we can make progress in manageable chunks. That’s good for us, plus we can show it as a replicable model for others to enact in the rest of the country and the world, really. And we can use things like the Summit and the Solutions Journal to communicate these successes and processes to others, so they can learn from our experience—not to mention learn from other cities as well.

SE: Is there a danger of these repeatable, neighborhood-scale sustainability projects stoking gentrification issues in areas that are currently underdeveloped? And if so, is there a way they can be used to instead create more equitable access to sustainable living with the right attention?
RC: In that ecological/economics paradigm I was speaking about earlier, we talk about four basic types of capital that are necessary for maintaining a high quality of life. There is conventional built capital—infrastructure and those types of things—there’s also human/talent capital—health, knowledge, ideas, that’s what universities are about, building human capital—then there’s also natural capital—the resources and services provided by the natural environment—and then there’s social capital which is all the interactions between people.

There’s psychological research showing that social capital is very important to people’s sense of well-being and quality of life. That’s something that living in smaller neighborhoods can contribute to positively, this sense of social capital, people working together. It provides a significant component of their quality of life, and yet we haven’t emphasized it yet. We’re focused on the built capital and monetary income. Which is funny, because the evidence shows that beyond a certain point, more income doesn’t lead to more happiness, in fact it can lead to less happiness, because you’re so stressed out trying to maintain your income and keep up with the Joneses.

And also the distribution of income is a problem, because that tends to destroy social capital—if there’s too big a gap in the money population issues start cropping up. There is some new research that shows, across many countries, that the higher the gap in income, the worse the whole range of social problems are—crime, incarceration, obesity, everything really, gets much worse if there is a large gap in incomes. I think these kind of small scale examples can show how we can build social capital and how that contributes to quality of life.

We did a research paper at the University of Vermont (where I just came from) not long ago on quality of life differences between intentional communities and regular neighborhoods. That study showed that quality of life is much higher in intentional communities. I actually lived in a co-housing community in Vermont with 17 households and very intentional construct. We were trying to build a community and share a lot of resources, and find the right balance between individual and the social whole. Humans have evolved to be social animals. We’re not happy as isolated individuals, even though the conventional economic paradigm thinks of people as completely isolated, autonomous units—which we obviously are not. So we’re getting past that. We’re trying to find a better model of what really contributes to well-being. And a lot of that is outside the markets and it doesn’t really get picked up in conventional economic analysis, but it’s exactly what we need to focus on now.

SE: Do you think that universities have a unique opportunity to exploit EcoDistricts in a positive way, being that they pretty much exist in their own little ecosystem anyway? My alma mater, for instance, used to have this farm—which is now the athletic complex—where they grew all of the food for the school.
RC: I think university campuses can definitely be models to try out some of these ideas. They also have an opportunity to be thought leaders and connect with the community. A lot of the courses that we’re going to offer are problem-based/solutions-focused courses. Instead of doing lectures, we go find a problem out in the community and get the stakeholders together with faculty and students, and try to solve the problem, with published results. You know, it’s an entirely different way to go about education. We want to help people learn how to solve problems, rather than memorize information and leave problem solving way off in the distant future. It’s a whole skill, which we unfortunately don’t teach people as much as we should—the complexity of real world problems and how you need to communicate across a whole range of ideas and perspectives, stakeholders, etc.

Robert Costanza is Director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, and a featured speaker at the EcoDistricts Summit in Portland, Oregon, October 25-27, 2010. You can learn more about his work at: Get more information about the EcoDistricts Summit and Initiative in Portland at: You can also follow PoSI on Twitter at: @PDXInstitute. Tune in for live tweets from the EcoDistricts Summit, October 25-27.


Rob Bennett: The EcoDistricts Summit + Portland’s Living Laboratory Leanings

July 2, 2010

Rob Bennett is a busy man—but not too busy to give us the scoop on Portland Sustainability Institute‘s latest initiative and event—The EcoDistricts Initiative and Summit (October 26, 2010). In our interview with Rob, we learned all about the City of Portland’s next chapter of sustainable urban development and how the EcoDistricts Summit is poised to showcase Portland’s aptitude at being a living laboratory for cities who want to dig deep into sustainability.

SE: What is the EcoDistricts Summit and what is the motivation behind taking on sustainability at the district level?
The rationale for both the EcoDistricts Initiative and the Summit is to shine a light on neighborhood scale innovation, and craft strategy to accelerate development, infrastructure and community action in an integrated fashion. With that we can, in essence, move from being really good at green building development—and having a strong national and international reputation at that—and at growth management and transportation related investments at a metro scale, and into bringing all of those things together to drive the next generation of neighborhood scale innovations.

Those were the big ideas behind the EcoDistricts Initiative—understanding there is are big opportunities for designers, engineers, civil engineers, infrastructure companies and utilities. And also recognizing that there’s a pent up demand for consumers and small business owners to make sustainable investment in their buildings and homes. Where you can link action at the community scale with larger investment opportunities there’s a magic that can happen if brought to bear carefully and thoughtfully.

With the EcoDistricts Summit, we have an ambitious agenda and we hope that it ultimately becomes a premier event at the national and international levels on how cities are implementing neighborhood based sustainability projects and investments. There’s a lot of progressive, leading-edge cities looking at how district scale projects and thrust can help them meet their climate goals and how they’re going to grow their economies.

Portland, for a long time, has been doing some very interesting stuff, but we haven’t packaged it as an economic development tool and we haven’t been able to accelerate it because it’s really complicated and requires a knitting together of cities and utilities and development interests to do the work.

SE: Other than Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), who are the main stakeholders in the EcoDistricts Summit and Initiative?
Our first tier, founding partners in the EcoDistricts Initiative have been the City, Portland Development Commission and Portland State University. That partnership has allowed us to develop five pilot projects within the City of Portland and bring resources to bear on those projects. As we get further along into project development and specific projects within each of the pilot districts, additional partners such as the utilities and business partners, like Gerding Edlen and Sustainable Solutions, etc. are going to become involved as well.

SE: The City has its hands in a lot of different sustainable projects. How does the EcoDistricts Initiative differ from the other things the City is doing and what are some of the specific components of the projects that are planned?
I think of the EcoDistricts Initiatives as a new, exciting project, but still aligning with existing efforts. What’s new about it is the integration of disparate projects and initiatives into a single unified strategy. From our perspective, the benefits to the City are creating a strategy and implementation framework to the work they’re already do—but optimized through integrated assessment of districts and the developing of governance, tools and best practices.

For an example, Portland Development Commission makes millions of dollars worth of investments in neighborhoods where there are urban renewal areas and they’ve been very effective in catalyzing those investments to increase the level of development and ultimately increase levels of property tax in those neighborhoods. They’ve never had the tools to do an integrated sustainability strategy to make sure those investments meet triple bottom line goals and have triple bottom line benefits that accrue to the district and the city as a whole. That’s an example where trying to leverage existing investments and strategies for multiple benefits pays off.

I think that it’s also very much a part of the City’s economic development strategy. As an example, when we started the green building program years ago, many thought of it as a conservation program first. They were focused on how we were going to get more efficiency in buildings and looking at the factors of conservation and behavior change that were needed to move the industry. But we originally saw it as an economic development strategy first. And that if the City could leverage investments in building construction and design to create a traded sector level of expertise at our design and engineering and product supply chain firms, that we would not only green up our building stock, but we would create a competitive advantage for our business community. And we see the same thing for EcoDistricts, where we’re using the pilots as a living laboratory and then ultimately trying to accelerate the businesses that do this well—and then export their expertise globally.

SE: What is the vision for when the EcoDistricts? What will they look like and how will they affect the rest of the City?
In some cases it’s going to be really visible and in others it’s quite subtle. On the more visible side of things, you’ll start to see neighborhoods with much more expressive green infrastructure. And we’re starting to see that in certain neighborhoods now. You’ll see streets that are being rebuilt to better manage storm water, to create micro-habitats and to create nicer, safer places to bike and walk. You’ll also start to see expressions of green buildings through ecoroofs and very visible uses of sustainable materials and plantings, etc.

Much of it will be invisible though. For example, if we’re able to start creating district energy or district utilities systems that manage water and waste and energy differently a lot of that will be delivered to buildings through pipes and infrastructure underground. And you won’t see any of that unless there’s a generation facility visible in the community. An example of that is in the Olympic Village District Energy Facility up in Vancouver B.C. where they’ve created this really lovely community amenity in that they’re using smoke stacks as part of an art installation. When the district is using more energy, they turn red and when they’re conserving more energy, they turn green. So there are expressive opportunities for EcoDistricts along the utilities lines.

Other subtle activities within the EcoDistricts are focused on engagement and community involvement. That can take the form of tool co-ops, buying programs similar to Solarize Portland, more community gardening and fruit gleaning programs—really all kinds of home based, community led efforts that already exist around the City, but that we hope to have a higher proportion of in the EcoDistricts.

SE: What will these initiatives allow the City of Portland to do in terms of its overall economic development and urban planning goals?
The pilots are really important because they provide the City with a testing ground for strategy. A really important outcome we’re hoping for is that the City will be able to take a more integrated infrastructure and investment strategy and put it into place. How do you build bike infrastructure, storm water, green streets, water and other utilities at a district scale so that the City can be more efficient in the way it builds and maintains infrastructure?

From a policy perspective, the City will also be able to look at where the neighborhoods are that need concentrated activity and action to help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. What we know is that the City has made a very ambitious commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, but we don’t yet know where the biggest “bang for our buck” areas are. Through the EcoDistricts Initiative we hope that the assessment portion of the program will provide a much more granular perspective of where the City needs to put its investments.

For instance, in Downtown, there are more emissions because of commute patterns and the buildings are bigger and house more people. Therefore we should probably have an emissions reduction strategy for Downtown that’s different than in my home neighborhood, which is primarily single family. And through EcoDistricts we get a framework and an assessment strategy that the City can hopefully—if things go as planned—roll out citywide.

We also don’t view the EcoDistricts Initiatives as an end product, but rather, it’s a means to an end. We envision, like LEED AP, and other tools that have been transformative, that developers of major projects—like the Conway site in Northwest or the redevelopment of the Post Office in the Pearl District or OMSI’s redevelopment—will use the EcoDistricts strategy and toolkit to create higher performing districts. We’re even looking at working with the Zoo on that kind of strategy as they move forward. We envision developers of major properties taking EcoDistricts forward.

We can also see neighborhoods that are really interested in early adoption of sustainable practices—like my neighborhood in Sunnyside—wanting to incorporate an EcoDistrict in their neighborhood. The toolkit that we can provide in the future can help bolster some self-determination and a road-map for these districts. So the City can support it with the districts leading the effort.

SE: Will Portland be sharing these experiences with other cities around the world to help their sustainable urban planning processes?
I believe so. The City has a long history of both doing innovative work and then sharing our lessons learned. We have pretty substantial track record of doing this with land use planning and transportation investments—most recently with the street car programs.

We have city officials from around the country and around the world coming to learn about our system and our planning of the system, our investments and how we financed the system and ultimately how we’re now creating jobs through Oregon’s Deal Works for the construction of street cars. We envision the same thing happening with the EcoDistricts.

This is all part of the economic development strategy where Portland continues to be viewed as a living laboratory. PoSI is positioning ourselves to be able to develop training as a part of the EcoDistricts Initiative, so that we can teach municipal leaders from other cities and policy makers and utilities managers on what we’ve learned.

SE: For the EcoDistricts Summit, who should attend this event?
We’re shaping the event for a mix of municipal and civic leaders. So we’re looking for a broad stoke of policy leaders from all over the country. And hopefully as this grows, we’ll appeal to an international set of municipal leaders, developers, designers, engineers and civil engineers, infrastructure and utilities managers to participate and share their best practices, but then also learn from what we’ve done here and what other cities and regions are doing around the country as well.

There’s a variety of emerging businesses in this space that provide products and services for sustainable infrastructure, for instance, companies that are developing or building components of the smart grid infrastructure—everything from electric vehicles and charging stations to those that are doing demand management and dashboards for computers. So there’s a whole range of companies that are getting into this green neighborhood space through district energy, smart grid, electric vehicles and even appropriate technology companies like bike builders, etc.

Part of the EcoDistricts Initiative is that it’s a large framework or vessel for a variety of activities, such as smart grid, in which there are already well-established trade associations and business leaders. We’re trying to shine a light on this idea on their behalf and provide a wider context for the work going forward.

Rob Bennett is the Executive Director at Portland Sustainability Institute and is running the show at the inaugural EcoDistricts Summit, October 26, 2010. For more information on the EcoDistricts Summit and to register, please visit: For additional details on the EcoDistricts Initiatives, visit: