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Ecodistricts: Developing sustainable systems at scales that makes sense

by | March 9, 2014 0 Innovations, Urban Design + Planning

Have you ever wondered how (and when) the energy, waste and water systems in our cities were built? Like the growth of cities, the systems that support our urban lives have evolved incrementally over time. Together they make up a patchwork of infrastructure that is sometimes arbitrary and can be quite inefficient. Applying the principles of sustainability to existing cities, communities and neighborhoods will require transforming the urban fabric, one district at a time.

Download "Making Ecodistricts" (.PDF)

Download “Making Ecodistricts” (.PDF)

For the last 15 years or so, sustainable design in the US has focused on optimizing energy, water and waste systems at the building scale – this work created the Green Building movement that is now becoming the building market in urban areas across the country. But as we delve into work at district scale, it is becoming clear that energy, water and waste systems all optimize at a scale bigger than a single building.

A gap in the sustainable development model for cities and regions has been a vocabulary for focusing on solutions at a district scale, and a framework by which cities, property owners, planners and the community can work together to design and invest in systems in a holistic manner. The EcoDistricts concept seeks to provide the connective tissue between building-scale and regional-scale sustainable solutions.

“We’re not going to get to the sustainability and resource efficiency targets that we need from the built environment by working one building at a time. We need to move to a scale bigger than a building.”

– Clark Brockman, Principal Sustainability

Originated by the City of Portland and the Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), the EcoDistricts term refers to a conceptual framework for planning, designing, implementing and maintaining sustainable solutions at a district level.

SERA sees EcoDistricts as geographically defined areas, such as a neighborhoods, institutional campuses, or employment districts within which flows of energy, water, nutrients, resources, information, financial capital and cultural resources are localized, integrated and synergized.

an diagram of system loops

A city neighborhood or district can be seen as an urban ecology, made up of hardware systems (buildings, streets, sidewalks, parks and pipes) and software systems (flows of energy, people, food, resources, financial and social capital, services and information) that function together as a whole system. Building on this notion, an EcoDistrict seeks to enhance this urban ecology, improving performance of both the hard and soft systems.

But another key finding in our early EcoDistrict work is that different systems optimize at different scales. For example, stormwater collection and reuse systems might function best when shared by property owners within a several block radius of each other, or within a distinct watershed. Likewise, energy-efficient central-mechanical plants that provide thermal energy (heating and/or cooling) will more likely be most economical when scaled to serve a cluster of high-performing buildings rather than just one. The aims of net-zero building design have led to significant innovations; imagine the impacts of multiplying these efforts by considering whole net-zero neighborhoods. We need to redesign systems at a scale that achieves the greatest efficiency.

Not just infrastructure

Design and management of EcoDistricts require public discussion, shared action, and long-term community capacity building rather than implementation through one-off projects.

For EcoDistricts to become fully realized and to thrive, new types of public, private and community partnerships are required. Cities need to catalyze the process, the private sector needs to participate, and community organizations and citizens need to learn to be engaged local advocates. It’s a rich and messy process that requires patience, time and an open-ended approach focused on real, long-term results.

The complexity of assessment, visioning and implementation increases in direct correlation with the number of owners and properties in an EcoDistrict. A university district or corporate campus may have far fewer barriers for decision making, phasing and financing than a neighborhood with many commercial and residential property owners and uses. We have found that while it is easier to employ “hardware” solutions in districts with fewer decision makers and stakeholders, the implementation of “software” solutions through citizen engagement such as Civic Ecology, can be just as effective in communities and neighborhoods with a high number of decision makers and stakeholders. There is no one right solution or one right scale to implement EcoDistricts – each one by its very nature will be place-based.

EcoDistricts in practice

SERA has been an integral part of PoSI’s EcoDistricts Initiative since its inception to launch EcoDistricts throughout the Portland metropolitan region. In addition to providing leadership and technical engagement on PoSI’s EcoDistricts Technical Advisory Committee and Steering Committee, SERA prepared the first study for the Portland State University (PSU) EcoDistrict Pilot.

For the PSU EcoDistrict (now known as SoMa, for South of Market), defined geographically by the university campus and surrounding community, SERA outlined strategies for localized energy sharing and generation, waste water treatment and re-use, stormwater management, transit, local systems and economic cycles, and sustainable land use patterns and policies.

In addition to SoMa, four other pilot EcoDistricts have been identified in Portland. In 2011, SERA led a multi-disciplinary team in coordination with PoSI that performed Integrated Assessments for two EcoDistricts, Gateway and Foster Green. These assessments match existing neighborhood characteristics with viable opportunities across nine performance areas: 1) energy, 2) air quality, 3) water, 4) access and mobility, 5) placemaking, 6) social cohesion, 7) habitat and ecosystem function, 8) materials management and 9) equitable development.

We have learned a tremendous amount during our EcoDistricts work in recent years, with one key piece being that this work is still in its early days. Portland’s EcoDistricts program is already showing multiple successes, laying the foundation for momentum of EcoDistricts outside of Portland, considered one of the greenest cities in the US. SERA, together with other market leaders in Portland, are exporting our collective expertise to other cities around the country and the world. SERA’s recent work ranges from the University of Washington in Seattle, to a corporate campus in the Silicon Valley, to a whole community in Liwa, Abu Dhabi. The challenge for all of us is how quickly we all can build out EcoDistricts models, demonstrating that EcoDistricts are good business for cities. SERA is in the middle of that work right now, expanding the knowledge base for ourselves and our clients, looking forward to the days ahead as we see more and more successful EcoDistrict models implemented and flourishing.

The value of the EcoDistrict model is that it allows large-scale development to attain high performance through long-term investments, greatly reducing operation costs, resource consumption and environmental impacts over time at both the building and district scale.

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