Posts Tagged ‘portland sustainability institute’

EcoDistricts ’11: Photos Are In!

November 10, 2011

Photos from the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit are in! We’re excited to share snapshots from the best moments of this year’s event. Many thanks to event photographer, Edis Jurcys Photography for capturing the spirit of a very invigorating and thought-provoking event!

Day 1

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Day 2

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

October 18, 2011

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 Find details on the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit and register at

2011 EcoDistricts Summit: Skanska’s Beth Heider on Building For 100 Years

August 26, 2011

Skanska VP Beth Heider believes in building for the next 100 years—not just the next 10. It’s a strategic shift in thinking that challenges developers and builders to look at costs over time and consider the future—as much as the present—bottom line when making decisions that will affect occupants and owners, as well as city and neighborhood vitality. With energy prices currently soaring and expected to rise even higher, performance becomes a key component of both building valuation and operational costs over time. In our interview, Beth outlines how the LEED system, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), continues to help us make more informed decisions going forward.

EcoDistricts Summit: How do you see EcoDistricts playing a role in the planning of sustainable cities going forward?
Beth Heider: From where I sit—using insights gained working for Skanska and with the USGBC—I would say we need to look beyond the drip lines of our high performance buildings and—in the lexicon of the Living Building Challenge—scale jump. We need to look at how buildings act in a synergistic way with other buildings around them and how they work within the infrastructure that lays the basis for a community.

If you look at the statistics, people are moving toward cities and more densely populated communities. I think we have a unique opportunity to take a look at what we’re doing in our communities from a sustainability perspective in a broader way. If we take advantage of that opportunity, it should have wide-ranging effects. It’s going to demand that we look at things in a new light and create political, legal, financial and design infrastructures that are different than those we have now.

As you know, LEED has a number of rating systems. LEED for Neighborhood Development (ND) addresses a collection of buildings and the infrastructure that ties them together at the district scale. Perhaps the greatest impact the LEED ND program will have is how it informs the other rating systems. For instance, the number of credits available for choosing a site wisely has increased in LEED 2009.

EcoD: The LEED platform has been a significant driver of both the construction and mainstreaming of more sustainable buildings. But so much of the day-to-day benefit after a building is “finished” comes from behavior change and interactions with a structure. How do we take the energy that LEED brings to a project and carry it out over the long term—so that we’re not just creating technically sustainable structures, but also using them efficiently? 
BH: One of the things we’ve learned in the green building movement is the importance of using a consistent lexicon—a consistent way to benchmark the energy and environmental performance of buildings. The LEED platform gives structure to the dialogue.

When we started to look at the performance of buildings—it differed from the modeled performance. The notable New Buildings Institute (NBI) study that was done a few years ago on LEED buildings revealed anomalies – something that you can only do when you have a basis of comparison.

EcoD: What did the results show or prove? 
BH: What we found is that there are three key things that influence the performance of buildings—and now I’m not talking about ecodistricts, but rather the individual buildings.

One is how the building was designed. Was it designed thoughtfully in the LEED lexicon? Were the points pursued part of an integrated strategy and appropriate to what the building was intended to do? How was the building designed toward environmental and energy performance?

The second thing is how a building is used by its occupants. That speaks directly to your question. It’s the same with cars. If you drive your Prius like it’s a Maserati—you’re not going to get great gas mileage. It works the same for buildings. Fortunately with your Prius, you have a video game built into the dashboard that provides constant feedback on how your actions affect the car’s performance. Toyota puts you in a position to understand the direct relationship between what you do and how that changes energy consumption—which means you’re in an informed position to make decisions. If you want to drive your Prius like a Maserati—fine, but there are consequences that have to do with energy performance and the connected cost of fuel.

The third component is how a building is maintained and operated. Again, using a car analogy, it’s no different than making sure your tires are inflated properly and your oil has been changed recently. If you have all of those things in play, your building—like your car—will function as optimally as possible.

All three elements play into the performance of a project, but the great contribution that LEED makes is a lexicon that allows us to have this dialogue. And that conversation has, in turn, informed how LEED has evolved. As we move forward, the Building Performance Partnership Program is in place to capture electric and utility costs (as of LEED 2009). This new data management platform allows us (USGBC) to link performance of buildings to the decisions that were made or attributes of a project. We can provide owners feedback about the relationship between the points they have elected to pursue versus how their building is performaning on an actual basis (rather than a modeled basis). And this is a huge step between connecting building performance with the design intent reflected in the LEED points system.

EcoD: Do you think there is potential for a tool that—similar to LEED—allows cities to measure their building performance on a municipal scale that would be publically available and encourage friendly competition?
BH: Having reasonable data that is consistent and well-gathered, and feeding into a common metric for municipalities is a good idea—though there are all kinds of challenges around how you verify that the information reported is correct and making sure there is adequate education so people are able to understand how to participate.

There is also the issue of voluntary participation—which is what the LEED program is—versus legislated participation—which you see in places like Europe—that mandates a building’s grade be posted on the building. I think there is a balance there that we have to get right in terms of ensuring broad participation but not creating a mandate that is invasive. We want people to participate in a way that is righteous and consistent.

One of the great things we’re seeing come together at USGBC is that ability to aggregate information. If you get a chance, go check out the GBIG (Green Building Information Gateway) tool, which is available as an app on your iPad or iPhone. It takes the information loaded into the USGBC platform for buildings in a growing number of cities, and lets you click on a building (as long as it’s under the LEED certification umbrella) and view what LEED points were pursued and its carbon index. That tells you where the building stands on its own accord, but also how it stacks up against other buildings around it.

The GBIG analysis lets you see the landscape and when you’re planning subsequent buildings you can then decide whether you’re comfortable with where your building measures up in the marketplace or whether you want to take a stronger market leadership position. You can see what that might entail by comparing your ideas to what has been done within the country or your region. This tool very quickly calculates that information so you know how to plan your next project. It helps propel the market forward and accelerates the ability of developers or owners to make informed decisions. This is the mission of the USGBC: Market transformation.

Emboldened by our own research and feedback from tools like GBIG, at Skanska, our Commercial Development group has decided that LEED Gold will be the floor for all our development projects worldwide. In some markets, we are exploring LEED Platinum and recently, a Living Building, because we’re able to clearly see where our buildings need to be now, but also ask where they need to be in the future, so that people will be interested in leasing them and buyers will be interested in acquiring the buildings.

EcoD: What’s the vision in how stakeholders will use the GBIG tool? Can it help drive district scale sustainable development? 
BH: Owners, tenants and developers need to see where they’re going next and what their portfolio will need to look like in the future. That goes for new and existing buildings. Informed owners, lessees, brokerage houses, banks and insurance providers now have the ability to make a decision about where they want to be 20 years down the road. They can see which buildings match up, not only with their commitment to the environment, but also from a risk profile perspective. Assuming foreign oil and energy prices continue to go up or should some kind of carbon metric be established, GBIG provides the market with crucial information.

When you’re in a retracting market, sometimes you don’t want to think about the future, because the now is difficult enough to handle. But buildings last a long time, especially buildings constructed for institutional clients and in cities, which are designed to last 50 to 100 years or more.

We need to be thoughtful about where each buildings is going to be positioned in the future. Its value could easily erode if other buildings around it are performing at a much higher level. The cost of ownership or occupancy could be so high that people won’t want that energy hog over there when they can have this higher performing building over here. If you’re planning for 100 years you tend to make different decisions.

The ability to provide “buyer beware” information on our buildings will make it easier for people to make informed decisions. I think there is far more acuity in the market than we like to admit. The market is much savvier in regard to the connection between energy performance and long-term value now and growing more so every day. One of the reasons is that the LEED rating system has been around long enough that we are beginning to see performance over time. Banks can base building valuations on precedence rather than projections—which is huge. There is enough LEED stock on the market that we are beginning to see building valuations rewarding those who are doing the right thing from an energy and environmental standpoint. And that makes sustainable engineering/design a more scaleable and viable option for any development—including district scale development—then if you’re doing it just because it feels good or is consistent with a brand.

Beth Heider is Senior Vice President for Green Markets at Skanska and the Chair Elect of the US Green Building Council. She will be a featured speaker on the Leadership Panel at the 2011 EcoDistricts Summit, October 26-28 in Portland, Oregon. To learn more about the 2011 Summit or to register, visit: For 2011 Summit and Portland Sustainability Institute news and updates, follow @PDXInstitute on Twitter and Like on Facebook. 

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.

Bill Reed: Why LEED Certified Buildings Won’t Save The World

September 13, 2010

Sustainability is not just about green buildings and carbon-neutral business practices. Bill Reed, co-founder of Integrative Design Collaborative, will tell you that. He’ll also clue you in to what it is about: Re-addressing the system through nature’s patterns, admitting there’s an awful lot we still don’t know (and even more things that we don’t know we don’t know) and designing our living systems to be both energy-efficient AND good for our well-being. We were lucky enough to sit down with Bill, who will Emcee the inaugural EcoDistricts Summit in October, about his vision for a better designed future and what it will take to get us there.

Social Enterprises: Can you give us some background on your work and why the EcoDistricts concept is exciting to you?
Bill Reed:
I’ve been doing environmental work since the 1970s in passive solar energy, planning and architecture. From a building perspective, we were one of the early members of USGBC and founders of the LEED program—which was meant to transform the marketplace. It was never meant to define what green buildings are. My life’s work has been a search for how we do green buildings and create a sustainable society—but as two separate initiatives. Green buildings do not make a sustainable planet. What I’ve been doing is figuring out how we can integrate design and create integrated systems.

SE: Is that similar to creating structures using bio-mimicry?
Bio-mimicry is about mimicking nature, but it’s not necessarily about integrating ourselves with nature. Integrated design takes into account multiple benefits from how all systems work together as whole—as an entire living organism. With building, you can either add parts to a structure—for instance you can add green attributes like sustainable paneling or efficient light bulbs—but that isn’t how to make a building effectively green because it’s lacking a sophistication of integration. The most simple example is making insulated windows a part of a structure, which does allow you to reduce the size of the mechanical system needed to heat and cool a building. Now if you integrate those systems (the efficient windows and the mechanical heating/cooling system) together you can actually save money on a building. So instead of just adding green components, you actually have to look into how they work together.

That’s the beginning step of integration. The next level is how humans are integrated with all life on Earth—and the green building movement doesn’t really talk too much about that. That’s why we have to get into community planning—and that’s why I’m excited about EcoDistricts. Communities and/or watersheds of students of design can achieve a sustainable condition. You’re not going to make a green or sustainable planet with 100 million certified LEED Platinum buildings or 100 million living buildings. They don’t make a green planet. They make buildings that are less damaging to the planet. But it doesn’t heal the damage that’s already been done or make things work together in a synchronistic way with the living systems that are exist all around us. You’ve got to go a step further to get the results we need.

SE: How do you see concepts like EcoDistricts, which are more focused on integrating systems into neighborhood scale projects, helping our cities be better at what they do—not only retroactively, but in future city planning as well?
When we talk about EcoDistricts, what we’re really talking about is a community. What we need to figure out is what the smallest system is that we can activate all the attributes of sustainability within—food, soil health, habitat health, watershed health, groundwater health—and still be self-sufficient. We have to define our terms. There’s no hard definition for an EcoDistrict or a place or a community, because all these systems are nested within one another. The work becomes about finding out how we work with complex, living, technical systems. How do we work with complex socio-ecological technical systems? This conference is an opportunity to explore that on a deeper level.

One thing that is very important is the shift from working with pieces to working with patterns. You can glue all the pieces of sustainability in the world together—energy, water, infrastructure, transportation, social—and they’re still just pieces. It’s like gluing Humpty Dumpty back together again. You can’t really glue Humpty Dumpty back together again once he’s shattered. The only thing you can do is to start over—from a living systems perspective—and begin a whole new chapter with a new egg. It’s the living system that puts Humpty Dumpty back together.

The thing is—living systems are incredibly complex. One reason we don’t work with living systems very effectively is because we try to treat them as if they’re a technical system. If you’ll let me get a bit geeky here, I’ll try to explain. There’s a difference between a closed system and an open system. A closed system is found in a watch or an automobile engine. You can map the way the pistons or gears work, and understand that system pretty easily. An open system, on the other hand, has multiple exchanges—which makes it very complex to map. The issue comes when we try to impose closed system thinking to open, living analytic systems.

You remember that  PowerPoint slide on the War in Afghanistan that made the cover of the New York Times a couple of months ago? It became a joke, because it showed incredibly complex diagram of the war, and somebody made this PowerPoint slide with a bunch of arrows connecting all the issues. And it was so complex that you couldn’t understand it. It was totally ineffective. That’s what we try to do with living systems. We try to draw all these arrows between pieces of them and it doesn’t work. The only way to really understand complex, living systems is through the patterns of life. The opportunity for a community or an EcoDistrict is to begin to work from patterns, not just from pieces and technology.

One analogy to help explain nature’s patterns versus human technology—in other words, who we are versus what we are—is in the way that we approach both types of places—communities and EcoDistricts—by assembling a bunch of data together. Typically, we look at groundwater work, human systems, plant systems, animal systems, archeology, anthropology, infrastructure, carbon footprint, etc. We gather all that data and present it to you in a 3-5 foot tall stack and say: ‘Here’s the EcoDistrict you’re working.’ But we can’t understand it from that kind of data. That would be like me trying to understand you by describing what you look like. Let’s assume that you’ve got dark hair, brown eyes; you’re about yay tall and you weigh this many pounds. That’s you. Well we know that this information doesn’t really describe “you” very well. What we really want to know is who you are, not what you are. We want to know what you are too, but who you are is more important. And the only way to tell who you are is to look at how you interacts in relationship to the multitude of  people you come in contact with—your partner, colleague, kids, parents, work colleagues, me, the dog on the street, strangers. Those relationships are invisible. But we can characterize the multiplicity of invisible relationships by learning how you behave within those relationships. There is a certain core essence or pattern to how you live your life.

So what’s required for the community, city or EcoDistrict that we’re working with is to begin to work with “who” those places are, and how those complex relationships work. And when people begin to shift their understanding from sustainability just being about “stuff” and physical things, into an understanding that they’re a part of a living, complex system—that’s the beginning of a truly sustainable condition for humanity.

Remember Easter Island? That island in the Pacific where the human population went extinct? Well Easter Island was carbon neutral. Carbon neutrality had nothing to do with whether they thrived or not. The reason they went extinct is that they failed to understand the systems that were supporting their lives. The other half of sustainability—beyond the technology—is the ability to understand how life works. There’s a technical system half which includes LEED and Living Building Challenge. Then there’s the living system half. This is the patterning half. The only way we can take advantage of the opportunity to weave those two halves together is to work at the scale of the community unit or “EcoDistricts.”

SE: How do you think shifting our focus to working in micro-systems and in patterns translates into better, richer, fuller lives for people? Especially people around the world who might be living in a ghetto or a disadvantaged neighborhood—who don’t have access to the typical areas of development and gentrification?
What’s critical to understand here is that it’s very difficult to understand something until you live it. When we speak of a living system, we are speaking of it as a whole. That includes human beings and should address the quality of life for them as well as for the bacteria in the soil, plant habitat and animal habitat. Once people are engaged with how life works in a community, they begin to change themselves as a community. That’s been proven many times. Research done in the early 1980s on community gardens that sprung up all over Harlem on vacant lots shifted people’s sense of responsibility, care and love, if you will, for the place they lived. And it shifted how they valued themselves within that system.

So this union of all life with humans is essential to understand. We aren’t separate from life. The question is: How do we start integrating ourselves again? When we treat life as abstract—as something there to serve us—then we lose touch with what the meaning of life is. You know, the two fundamental criteria for life—besides water, sun and soil—are nutrition and shelter. It’s sad, because the primary ways we’re destroying the Earth are through our shelter and agricultural systems.

SE: What’s the value in gathering a “small group of committed citizens,” as Margaret Mead famously said, to tackle these issues? What do you hope to accomplish?
Hopefully we give people more than just talking points and provide them with an experience in a different way of thinking. We learned from an old Harvard study that if we talk to people we retain 10 percent of what we’ve heard. If we share ideas with people, we may retain 20-25 percent. If we exchange understanding, through dialogue, process and co-teaching, we might retain 40-50 percent. But if we create a developmental process, we retain 70 percent. That’s because a developmental process requires on us to acknowledge that we don’t know all of what we’re doing and that we have to think deeply about our role in a given system. How we’re behaving. How we actually improve ourselves. Practicing development means we’re actually creating new potential. We’re discovering and working at discovering new ideas.

Hopefully at the EcoDistricts Summit we can share and exchange ideas and maybe do a bit of developmental work. But the best way is to actually practice something. To be on the ground and experience how things are working so that you internalize what happens. So what’s the role of conferences? It’s to expose people to new ideas and share experiences with them, so they can take them back and have the confidence to try things out on their own.

SE: How is the future that you envision difference than the one we see today? What are some of the key elements we need to manifest to thrive?
The key element, to me, is that we’re humble enough to know that we don’t know everything. And that we have the will to learn. If we could always be in that state of humility, we’d have world peace in an instant. We know what we know—that’s 5 percent. Maybe another 5 percent is that which we know we don’t know. The remaining 90 percent is that which we don’t know we don’t know. If we could actually engage in and have time to exchange in a way that we’re able to discover ideas and systems we’re entirely unaware of right now—we’ll be in a great position to create positive change.

SE: Anything else to add before we wrap up?
I think I’ve ended up launching into some pretty deep territory, but this is the situation we’re in today. Dealing with these issues of integration and patterning is where the sustainability movement needs to go. I’m hoping that all the technologies and infrastructure we’re playing with will lead us to address those very pressing questions.

In the context of this event, I’m delighted that Portland is leading the way in looking at community in a much richer context. And everything that I’ve spoken about today is not to say that all the technological work we’re doing is bad. It isn’t and we absolutely need to do it. But it’s not the end game. It’s an insufficient means to cover the whole story.

Bill Reed is the Principle of Integrative Design Collaborative, Regenesis, Inc., and Delving Deeper. He’ll also be Emcee at the inaugural EcoDistricts Summit put on by Portland Sustainability Institute, October 25-27, 2010, in Portland, Oregon. To learn more about the EcoDistricts Summit and to register, visit:

To learn more Bill Reed and his firms, visit our speakers page:

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: