Five Thoughts on Accelerating Change: the 2012 EcoDistrict Summit

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A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend the 2012 EcoDistrict Summit, an annual conference that focuses on district-scale sustainability and, this year, neatly blended my interests from teaching and practice.* Once again, the Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI) put together an outstanding program—three days stacked with interdisciplinary expertise, detailed case studies, and thoughtful discussion. Below, a few thoughts on where urban sustainability goes next, in the words of five speakers:

“Unloved places are the biggest target for sustainability.”

To kick things off: a renewed focus on the untapped potential of our cities’ ugly patches. Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia” and a professor at Georgia Tech, has spent the past decade collecting a database of nearly 500 retrofit case studies that look at the “re-development, re-inhabitation or re-greening” of underperforming or abandoned suburbia. Reviving dead malls doesn’t sound particularly innovative—until you consider that, among these 500 projects, she’s not seen the same financial model twice. (And that America’s suburbs hold two billion square feet of such properties.) Among the most interesting projects: Belmar in Lakewood, CO, where the Villa Italia mall has given way to a 22-block town center; McAllen, TX, where an abandoned Wal-Mart was renovated into the public library; and Phalen Village in St. Paul, MN, where a failed, 20-acre strip mall was torn out to restore Ames Lake, which in turn provided migratory bird habitat and new lakefront residential. 

“I see a huge, integrative horizon. And I’m struck by the fact that our government is not organized to be integrative.” 

During the past 25 years, Don Edwards, CEO of Justice Sustainability Associates in Washington, DC, has worked on many of the District’s most complex public planning projects. When asked about his takeaways from the Summit, Edwards observed the absence of an internal advocate for integrative planning in most cities—and predicted that it will remain difficult to move the needle on systems-based planning without someone bird-dogging the opportunities for collaboration. Edwards also asked the audience to “notice and consider the ‘micro-separation’ of our communities.” When working to implement district-scale solutions, there is no shortage of technical problems, but these are often the much simpler challenges. 

 

“We need to do a better job of integrating risk and capital.” 
Perhaps my favorite thought from the conference, and one that speaks to the need for creativity when implementing super-green projects. Rob Bennett, executive director of the PoSI, and Mark Edlen, CEO of Gerding Edlen Development, discussed two examples where partnership with the City of Portland and targeted incentives led to a win-win. A decade ago, GED’s Brewery Blocks helped change Portland’s development code to allow for the re-use of harvested rainwater, and, more recently, a project with an aggressive on-site water management system was allowed to reduce its stormwater SDCs. This, in turn, reduced the system payback from 80 years to 5 years. In Edlen’s words, these partnerships bridged what would have otherwise been the “philanthropic” portions of the pro forma, and allowed the more innovative efforts to be realized. 

“Novel ecosystems require novel approaches to public involvement.”  
Keith Bowers of Biohabitats and Jason King of Terra Fluxus drew me in with a compelling program pitch: landscape ecology, social capital, regenerative design, and functioning wetlands made from plastic soda bottles—all in one panel. Their discussion was framed around the concept of “novel ecosystems,” ecosystems that have no natural analogs due to human alterations of the global climate systems and other cycles. Our urban environments are all novel ecosystems, making cities a sort of uncharted territory, ecologically speaking. Bowers shared an overview of Biohabitats’ recent projects, including the 50- to 100-year plan to re-green Manhattan’s roofscape and a remarkable effort to repair Baltimore Harbor to a swimmable state. He and King made a strong case for projects that combine research, ecosystem mapping, community investment, and hands-on implementation. Never underestimate the power of an educated community with a little dirt under its fingernails, or a fleet of engineered wetlands assembled by schoolkids. 

“The way to do this might not have anything to do with ‘sustainability.” 
When the conversation turned to expanding the market, Nick Barham of Wieden + Kennedy offered some polite advice in conference-appropriate language. (Moments before, a W+K video short had underscored Barham’s thoughts about the tides of leafy green sameness that slosh around in the media.) He pointed to Tesla and Nest as two thriving brands that have advanced sustainable agendas without losing their identities to homogenous green campaigns. He advised EcoDistricts to focus on the aspects that have always drawn consumers to new products: performance, intelligence, beauty, design. It’s the beginning of a far more compelling story, and one much more likely to be remembered and acted upon.

* Kaarin Knudson, Assoc. AIA, is a Project Designer and Planning Specialist for Rowell Brokaw Architects, and teaches at the UO School of Architecture & Allied Arts. In spring 2012, Kaarin and Nico Larco co-taught an interdisciplinary urban design studio focused on East Portland’s Gateway EcoDistrict.