Managing EcoDistricts

Mary Vogel's picture

Managing Ecodistricts

by Mary Vogel for Sustainable Industries

Note that it begins with a quote from this listserv--used with permission of the author.  I'd love to get your comments on the site.

And is there anyone who is willing to do a brief review of it for Planetizen?

I had a very frustrating conversation with an urbanist I respect about  "ecodistricts."  It took about twenty minutes to finally understand that he was talking about places with district heating or cooling and decent transit service.  Transit and district energy systems are a lot easier to understand when you use the more familiar terms.  I think the term ecodistrict should go the way of Naugahyde and New Coke.
R. John Anderson
New Urbanist listserv message

Since rail transit and district energy were the subjects of my last column, I don’t deny the important role they play in the re-invention of our neighborhoods.  But there is something more that’s needed to develop an EcoDistrict. I have covered in previous columns many aspects of EcoDistricts without naming them as such:  community engagement, green streets, streetcars, district energy, systemic financial reform, urban design for the pedestrian and retrofitting existing communities.

Bill Reed, Master of Ceremonies at the EcoDistrict Summit held Oct 25 to 27, 2010 in Portland helped move the definition along when he reminded us that sustainability is ultimately about sustaining all life. In order to reintegrate our building—and our communities—with life on Earth, we will need to redevelop a conscious understanding of the whole system of life-giving processes that shape the places we live, exhorted Reed.  The current trend of making buildings, cars, light bulbs, products and processes more efficient is simply the beginning point for achieving this goal. 

The Summit was organized by Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI) along six tracks: Engagement; Planning & Assessment; Buildings; Infrastructure; People; and Innovation.  It brought in an amazing array of people from all over North America and the globe to discuss creating the models to make neighborhoods more environmentally and economically sustainable.  PoSI expects its EcoDistricts Initiative to produce a set of tools and strategies that cities can use in support of integrated policy goals around climate change, green building, mobility, watershed and ecosystem health, economic development, financing and community wellbeing.

A panel session called EcoDistrict Pilots: Creating Sustainability Management Associations put on display some of the concepts and ideas being auditioned for this future toolkit.

Lloyd EcoDisCourtesy of Lloyd TMAtrict:  Rick Williams, as Director of the Lloyd Transportation Management Association (TMA) is already doing one big chunk of what I believe the Sustainability Management Association (SMA) should be about.  Indeed, Williams called the concept a TMA on steroids.  Currently the Lloyd TMA works to create a greener, healthier, more vital Lloyd District by reducing auto trips in this heavily commercialized area bounded by the Willamette River, I-84, NE 15th and NE Broadway.  It is structured as a non-profit, public/private partnership funded through a combination of Metro and federal grants along with membership from nearby businesses.  An SMA would need to expand the TMA’s mission to include energy, water and habitat resource management.

The real key is getting key stakeholders in the room and defining targets, Williams said.  He acknowledged that the City-County Climate Action Plan establishes goals and targets for the city and county.  “But are they the same ones we want for our district?” he asked.  For a district that has 70 acres of developable land within Portland’s Free Rail Zone, the question on the table is, “Is the nature of development going to change?  Is sustainability going to be a key driver?”


Portland State University EcoDistrict:  Mark Gregory of Portland State University (PSU) did not directly address the SustainaPlanGreenbility Management Association idea.  Instead, he focused on technology saying that the university is doing an inventory of its buildings.  As the smallest and most developed district (about 100 acres), he sees a great opportunity for combined heat and power (CHP) and district energy, but senses the district is too small to do a waste strategy (presumably to power the district energy) for the district as currently defined. Green streets along Montgomery and along College Avenues are part of the PSU ecodistrict vision too. 

Gregory’s most surprising statement was that “Equity is not a big part of the consideration for our ecodistrict as it is composed of largely students and wealthy condo owners.”  I wondered how he could include wealthy condo owners and not the tenants in all of the affordable housing apartment buildings on the university’s borders.


South Waterfront EcoDistrict:  Brian Newman of Oregon Health & Science University said that he can get most of the major stakeholders in his district around the conference table since there are just two major owners of undeveloped property in the area: Zidell Marine Corporation and OHSU.  Newman maintains that we are going to see a lot of change 

Courtesy of OHSU

happening over the next year at South Waterfront now that a new master plan for the land it acquired from Schnitzer Steel has been completed.  All four OHSU schools—Medical, Dental, Nursing and Pharmacy—will move there. The grade of the land is going to be raised 17 feet to get above high groundwater.  This will enable OHSU to treat all black water and stormwater onsite and to utilize district energy.  The area already benefits from Portland’s first streetcar line running from South Waterfront to NW 23rd Avenue and a tram to OHSU’s main campus.  It will soon benefit from even more public transit as Portland extends both its light rail and streetcar lines through the area.

 While South Waterfront has just established a new Transportation Management Association, I did not come away with a clear idea about how or whether a Sustainability Management Association will be formed to pilot the EcoDistrict.  From both Newman’s and Gregory’s presentations, I got the impression that they might see a manager’s first role in their university-dominated EcoDistricts as dealing with infrastructure development more than civic engagement or any other aspects of EcoDistrict development.  Newman did mention that residents currently living in South Waterfront are suffering from “planning fatigue” but whether this was from participation in shaping the ecodistrict concept, he did not say.


Courtesy of PDCLents EcoDistrict:  In introducing Jalene Braun, co-chair of Lents Neighborhood Association and recently hired PoSI consultant on the Lents EcoDistrict, moderator Naomi Cole of PoSI said it's critical to have a residential, low-income commnity as one of the pilots.  I was struck by the greater difficulty of her job--one that perhaps positions her to become the City's first paid Sustainability Management Association manager.  She is charged with engaging numerous individual property owners who may have a wider range of ideas on what the neighborhood's EcoDistrict should be and fewer financial resources to implement those ideas in comparison to an area like Lloyd District that can rely on pre-existing partnerships between building owners.

Braun can build on the fact that Lents has an active urban renewal district and the Foster Road commercial corridor has land availability.  She will likely build on the existing international farmer's market, its urban agriculture efforts, its active Johnson Creek Watershed Council, its new MAX light rail station, and its multi-use paths along the Springwater Corridor and I-205.  She will also rally her neighbors to take advantage of the City's programs such as Clean Energy Works for home retofit and street tree planting to further sustainability and ecodistrict goals.

 Is this Portland's version of transit oriented development?

Gateway EcoDistrict:  Ted Gilbert President of Gilbert Bros Commercial Brokerage lamented that with 600 undeveloped and underdeveloped acres and Metro Regional Center designation with zoning and transportation in place, very little has happened at Gateway. According to Gilbert the area’s single biggest challenge—and presumably a Sustainability Management Association manager’s challenge—is perception.  Gateway is perceived as a poor stepchild, despite the fact that there are more people in its retail area that earn $100,000 annually than in Bridgeport or Tanasbourne (upscale retail areas in the Portland region).  Gilbert believes that investment in infrastructure there will add more jobs and return on investment than in any other regional center. 

“Gateway represents the region’s best opportunity to do a transit-oriented district--something Portland has not done well yet; what we need are fresh eyes for what opportunity is presented here,” said Gilbert.  “If we could re-brand in terms of diversity, there is a 50 downtown Portland city block equivalent—an opportunity to make something more visibly dramatic happen” in an area that is “bursting with young families where we can’t find enough room to put all the kids.” 


Moderator Naomi Cole concluded the panel by stating that her organization, PoSI, has been developing a financing mechanism around the Sustainability Management Association concept.  It also has a Finance Toolkit available.  She said that creation of an EcoDistrict will take a tremendous amount of coordination, but ultimately will be guided by property owners in the districts.  

From the first I have found the EcoDistrict concept of value to urban designers like myself  because of its synthesis and integration of so many social, economic and environmental sustainability concepts.  But I left this panel wondering how many other tenants, besides myself, might be puzzling about their role in an EcoDistrict.  If Sustainability Management Associations are to succeed, they must find ways of getting more district occupants of all kinds into the act—as the Lloyd TMA does so wonderfully in getting commuters in their district out of their cars.  Otherwise, Anderson is right:  Naugahyde and New Coke move over!


Here are the captions for the images above:

* Portland Pilot EcoDistricts Map - Courtesy of PoSI
* Lloyd TMA web image - Courtesy of Lloyd TMA
* Portland Farmers Market at PSU - PlanGreen
* OHSU Aerial Concept Plan - Courtesy of OHSU
* Lents Town Center - Courtesy of PDC
* Gateway Transit Center - PlanGreen:
Is this Portland's version of Transit Oriented Development?

I'm sorry that they did not make it into the article.

Mary Vogel, CNU-A
A Woman Business Enterprise/Emerging Small Business in Oregon

Sustainable Industries PlanGreen Blog

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