Eco-Districts – a global march to find a new model for urban regeneration

For two years Adam Beck, who previously ran the communities program for the Green Building Council of Australia, has been working with the EcoDistricts movement in Portland in the US. Now he’s about to bring this “code for new urban governance” and “new model for urban regeneration” to Australia. But what exactly is it, and how does it work? We asked Beck for a run down.

“Cities are not about the perfect vision, they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands,” Sam Jacobs of FAT Architecture said. This describes the business of sustainability at its best, I believe.

From 30,000 feet in the air, many things become apparent. The legacy of our urban planning and design decisions right there, in your face. Infrastructure investments sitting proud on the landscape. Subdivisions gone wrong. Buildings placed where they shouldn’t be. Open space evaporating. The sum of the parts limping, into the future, in need of bypass surgery. Want to know what 2050 will look like? No need to imagine it; it’s right here, now. And it needs lots of work.

I spend a lot of time in planes, visiting and working with cities across North America. Over the past 24 months I have touched down or passed through 36 cities, but who’s counting! While my carbon footprint is shot, my catalogue of city building experiences is not.

Tyler Brule, editor in chief at Monocle Magazine, recently spoke at an event in Sydney I attended, and said, “If you intend to participate in city building, you need to go visit cities, experience them.”

I would love to know how many urban planners in city government in Australia are sent around the world as part of their employee induction process to see, hear, learn and fall in love with those cities that continue to excite us, inspire us and challenge us. Wishful thinking, maybe. But such experiences and learning from other cities is part of what good city planning does.

Adam Beck

From within the belly of the beast

EcoDistricts vision embraces the idea that we can help cities create opportunities to accelerate urban regeneration efforts in our precincts, neighbourhoods and communities – in a way that is equitable, resilient and sustainable. The organisation was born within the City of Portland, Oregon. It was an initiative of a very visionary mayor, Sam Adams, who launched the EcoDistricts initiative in 2009. But it was more than an initiative, it was created by the Mayor as the Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), an incorporated non-profit (501(c)3), guided by a board of directors with an ambition to accelerate district scale sustainable development within the City of Portland.

Mayor Adams (Now Director of the World Resources Institute) in an interview with Next American City in 2009, said:

“EcoDistricts commit to achieving ambitious sustainability performance goals, guiding district investments and community action, and tracking the results over time. We recognise that technologies and strategies for enhancing neighbourhood sustainability, such as energy and water management systems, green streets, and resource conservation, are well known. However, the widespread deployment of these strategies has been slow to develop due to lack of comprehensive assessment tools, scalable project capital, and public policy support.

“The EcoDistricts Initiative focuses on removing these implementation barriers and creating an enabling strategy to accelerate neighbourhood-scale sustainability.”

The idea is to understand the competing demands placed on city government and the need to balance transparency with the community’s interests and with the politics that comes with planning and development.

It’s important to understand that one’s rules are another’s barrier. That private sector needs running room, flexibility and certainty. That budding entrepreneurial non-profits need support and encouragement – they need a reason to want to exist, signs and signals from government and private sector that collective impact is more than a geeky term, but a real opportunity for change.

Having spent the early years of its existence as an entity inside city government, 2013 was a watershed moment, when PoSI was shut down and a brand new non-profit organisation created, simply called “EcoDistricts”. The new organisation left the city, set up a new headquarters and recruited a new board to provide the guidance and governance necessary to build a movement and marketplace for this critical agenda – building sustainable cities from the neighbourhood up.

As any good non-profit organisation does, it seeks important start-up capital and support from the champions within industry. In late 2013 the organisation launched a founding member campaign to create a global green neighbourhood movement. Organisations such as Arup, Google, Lend Lease, US Bank, The International District Energy Association and the Green Building Council of Australia were among those that responded to the call.

The organisation’s programs and activities continued to evolve with an annual global conference focused on precinct sustainability, practitioner training across the world, and an intensive executive three-day training program called the EcoDistricts Incubator. Along with the recently launched Target Cities pilot program, these activities continue to provide revenue for the organisation, and an opportunity to advance what could be called the code for new urban governance. A new model for urban regeneration.

The Code for New Urban Governance

The Target Cities pilot program is a two-year partnership with 10 urban redevelopment projects across eight North American cities with an ambition to amplify and accelerate precinct-scale community regeneration and create replicable models for next-generation urban revitalisation.

The program was launched as a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment in June 2014, and is a fresh approach to building capacity, governance and leadership in the area of neighbourhood development. This approach is articulated in the EcoDistricts Protocol. Developed by PoSI in 2010, the Protocol has been five years in the making and is EcoDistricts’ blueprint for changing our cities. I call it an attempt at rewriting the code for urban governance.

From Austin to Ottawa and Los Angeles to Boston, the cities, developers and non-profit organisations engaged in the Target Cities program believe that the most efficient and effective means of transforming cities is through precinct-scale projects, and that the EcoDistricts Protocol represents a powerful new approach for building the civic-public-private partnerships that drive real change.

And this is more than just an idea, it has been translated into action – policy platforms, masterplans, and engagement activities shaped by the protocol – as we have seen in San Francisco, Seattle and Pittsburgh, to name but a few. Scaling up from the successful legacy in delivering individual high performing buildings in these cities is now considered the next challenge to embrace.

EcoDistricts is not alone. The Green Star – Communities rating tool led by the Green Building Council of Australia is a perfect example of industry stakeholders collaborating to identify the benchmarks for precinct-scale sustainable urban development of the future. EcoDistricts has been working closely with all the major relevant rating tool builders around the world to ensure the protocol aligns with, and in fact leverages, the value of these rating tools. Green Star – Communities, LEED for Neighborhood Development the Living Communities Challenge, SITES and STAR are but some of those rating systems that fit hand-in-glove with the EcoDistricts Protocol.

With the GBCA, EcoDistricts continues to collaborate to maximise the complementarity between the Green Star – Communities best practice performance criteria and the process management platform within the EcoDistricts Protocol. The search for a first joint project is underway.

The best, most innovative, inspirational and high performing precinct masterplan is only as good as the ability of a developer to implement it successfully. Navigating the politics, the barriers, the nay-sayers, the entrenched mindsets and the backward regulations is often where the hard work sits.

The ability to replicate a successful project, again and again, then becomes a function of the policy environment we create, the leadership structures we build and the willingness of the marketplace (all of us) to share, collectively fail and collaboratively redefine our approaches. As I often say, process ain’t sexy, but without it there’s no performance.

From country to country, city to city, these challenges and opportunities look very different. Some cities just get it, have a strong will to innovate and have political coverage from the mayor to adopt a precinct approach and take measured risks to push new approaches to sustainable urban regeneration. The City of Melbourne is a case in point with the Queen Victoria Markets, as well as Sydney’s Barangaroo.

As EcoDistricts spreads its wings beyond North America it expands through local partnerships with leadership organisations. EcoDistricts Asia Pacific is evolving, and for Australia the GBCA is heavily engaged. Many practitioners in Australia have already been trained in use of the EcoDistricts Protocol, however additional programs are being planned for the coming years with core partners that will help unleash the market for sustainable city building, from the neighbourhood up.

Adam Beck is director of innovation at EcoDistricts and lead an off-shoot of the group to Australia in June. He worked with the Green Building Council for three years and has been a sociology lecturer at the University of Queensland and a senior consultant with Arup and GHD.

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