By Rob Bennett
Last month, leaders from Austin, Bellingham, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Guadalajara (Mexico), Mountain View, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Vancouver (B.C.) gathered at Ecotrust in Portland for the first-ever EcoDistricts Institute, a meeting to examine neighborhood-scale development projects in each of their cities.
The leaders at the institute are all developing EcoDistricts, which are also known as “green neighborhoods” or “green districts.” EcoDistricts integrate green buildings and smart infrastructure such as energy, water, waste, recycling, transportation with community action and civic entrepreneurism. EcoDistricts can be established within brownfield redevelopment areas, campuses or existing neighborhoods.
For the participants in the institute – which was funded by generous grants from the Blackstone Ranch Institute and Ecoworks Foundation – being on the forefront of a new era of urban innovation isn’t enough. They want to go faster, and that’s why they came to Portland. Each had an interesting story to tell:
- Austin is redeveloping a former industrial parcel on the southwest edge of downtown into a mixed-use neighborhood with affordable, dense housing, a new central library, improved transit and preservation of a historic art deco power plant.
- Bellingham is designing a new waterfront neighborhood on the site of an old paper mill.
- Boston’s newly minted “Boston Innovation District” is looking to reinvent itself as a center of advanced manufacturing and knowledge companies mixed with community amenities and housing.
- Charlotte’s South End EcoDistrict is an emerging mixed-use neighborhood filled with innovative small businesses and housing in repurposed industrial buildings.
- In Cleveland – a tale of two neighborhoods. On the west side, a tired inner-city neighborhood is in the need of new energy and investment, while on the east side, a new urban agriculture innovation zone is slated for farm incubation and related enterprises.
- Guadalajara’s residents of the Vallarta Sur neighborhood rejected a proposed elevated highway that would split their neighborhood, and instead are transforming their railroad right of way into a “civic park” that will spur revitalization and the creation of a digital business center.
- Mountain View – a Silicon Valley community endowed with a vibrant downtown and progressive technology companies – is poised to lead the way in sustainable corporate campus development that supports local businesses and a need for new housing.
- Philadelphia’s South of South Neighborhood is an existing mixed-income area, seeing new growth due to its proximity to the center city.
- San Francisco’s Central Corridor area is advantageously positioned for dense growth, new transit, district infrastructure and high-tech industry.
- The University of British Columbia is redeveloping a portion of its abundant land holdings to create new mixed-use neighborhoods. The newest hub is Acadia, planned to accommodate dense housing, amenities, shops and services.
Ten cities, ten stories. The reason for these projects in North America– and dozens more like them around the world – is more apparent than ever: municipal and business leaders must find effective ways to repurpose neighborhoods to take advantage of the growing trends in urbanization (millions of people coming to a city near you in the coming decade) and the changing economy that places a premium on knowledge and innovation. According to leading local economists like Joe Cortright and organizations such as Preservation Green Lab and ArtPlace, the cities that focus on rehabilitating and building vibrant, green and diverse neighborhoods have the best chance of thriving in the future.
After spending three days with over 60 leading green city leaders, I left feeling exhilarated and convinced, more than ever, that we’re on the cusp of an urban sustainability revolution. We are certainly seeing evidence of such a revolution here in Portland. People continue to flock here. Why? We’ve adopted a culture that’s ultimately led to a 26 percent drop in per person carbon emissions since 1990 while the city and economy have grown. This culture has also given rise to a true green economy, and we are becoming known as the city that builds other green cities. We have five EcoDistricts here today, with two more coming online this year. That’s all in addition to the launch of a North American EcoDistricts Pilot Program this year as well.
Even with the economy struggling to rebound and cities facing unprecedented pressure to do more with less, this year is shaping up to be a busy one for the green cities movement. The timing couldn’t be better.
Rob Bennett is executive director of the Portland Sustainability Institute.