Where should green planning efforts come from?

Photo of Portland bike lane courtesy Flickr user Eric Fredericks

Photo of Portland bike lane courtesy Flickr user Eric Fredericks

This week's post for High Country News's "A Just West" blog explored discussions that came out of last week's Ecodistricts Summit in Portland. Check it out here or read it -- and many other great stories -- on HCN.

Hundreds of urban planners, architects, developers,  environmentalists, entrepreneurs and policymakers danced around this  question last week as they convened on Portland for the second annual Ecodistricts Summit.

Hosted by the Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), the  event complements a maturing experiment to make five of the Oregon  metropolis's neighborhoods into "Ecodistricts," neighborhoods designed  to be more sustainable.

Though the ecodistricts concept is defined differently in different  cities, in Portland they are built around developing ambitious  sustainability goals that stakeholders in a strictly designated  neighborhood commit to meeting. These goals might include capitalizing  on district  energy to limit the need for power generation from outside the  neighborhood, encouraging transit oriented development and walkability,  or establishing neighborhood-wide building efficiency standards.

But backers of all sustainable growth projects need to focus more on  building community support, said John Knott, the president and  CEO of Noisette LLC, which is working on a sustainable restoration  project in the lower-income area of North Charleston, South Carolina.  Ambitious energy efficiency goals and other high tech solutions to  environmental problems will fail if they come without the buy-in from  communities who are just trying to make ends meet.

"We have a huge social mess we have created in the last 40 years,”  Knott said in the event's opening panel, referring to the segregation of  communities by income, lack of access to environmental amenities by  many low-income neighborhoods, and the problems of gentrification and  urban flight. “If we don't fix that, we will have a revolution and it  will be justified.”

It's rare to hear a developer publicly stress the need to  rearrange underlying social structures. As Knott noted, the problem of  poor planning and design doesn't just face urban areas. He believes  people will flee suburbs, putting further strain on central cities without solving growing economic imbalances.

Portland's own proposed ecodistricts weren't identified internally by residents clamoring for greener planning.  Among other motivations for their selection, each is already part of an  urban renewal area set for infusions of redevelopment funds.

One of them, the largely commercial Lloyd  District, will be one of the first to experiment with an ecodistrict  designation. It will model its efforts on the success of a previous  project, a transportation management association that corralled  investments in mass transit infrastructure and developed incentives that  encouraged office workers to take transit or ride bikes to work, said  Rick Williams, the TMA's executive director. Now the district wants to  replicate the TMA's success with a “sustainability management  association” to set the new ecodistrict's goals.

The first steps toward defining sustainable development goals for  the neighborhood won't include everyone who lives and works there,  though. Instead, Williams said, the first step requires targeting major  land owners to sign “declarations of collaboration” on the ecodistricts  project.

“We believe we have to start with developers because we know them  and because they have bigger checkbooks,” Williams said. “The real key  to this is getting key stakeholders in the room and defining targets  before we start talking about solutions.”

Williams is right. You can't solve a problem without defining it.  When we're talking about sustainability, though, are property owners and  major institutions really the only “key stakeholders?”

Probably  not. Green initiatives don't mean anything if behaviors don't change,  and it's hard to change behaviors among people left out of the  decision-making process. Some of the organizers of Portland's ecodistrict movement get this. Tim Smith, a principal and director of  urban design for Portland Architecture Firm SERA touts a concept of a  “Civic Ecology.”

“We're in danger as an expert class of creating a bunch of great  green hardware where we have an ignorant citizenry that is obliged to  buy this stuff, as opposed to having citizenry own their  sustainability,” Smith said.

Most people in the sustainability and environmental movements  know there's a need for equity, justice and economic opportunity, but  they don't have clear models for providing opportunities to marginalized  communities, said Alan Hipólito, the executive directory of Verde,  which works in the Portland neighborhood of Cully to build links between  economic health and sustainability though job training, employment and  entrepreneurial opportunities. Cully is not included among the five officially designated ecodistricts.

Hipólito was the first to explicitly discuss the risk of  gentrification, though it was implied by others during the three-day  event (a point also discussed in a post about the summit in  the Portland Architecture blog).

“Our sustainability movement makes investments in certain people and  places,” Hipólito said. “This movement has not prioritized diversity.”

He  said residents of his neighborhood have joined together at a grassroots  level to address Cully's lack of environmental wealth, mostly from  within, without being directed by outside organizations.

“From our perspective, it means investing in assets that meet  community needs as an anti-poverty strategy first that's going to  automatically build environmental benefits in an area,” Hipólito said.

Statistics  from the Regional Equity Atlas, a project organized by the Coalition  for a Livable Future, reveal that 18 percent of the neighborhood's  residents live in poverty, about twice the regional average. Access to  parkland is far below the regional average, and access to natural  habitats is even worse. That's why Verde gets developers to sign  community benefit agreements that provide well-paying jobs – many to  minority and women owned businesses – on projects that keep what  resources – even unconventional ones like district heat – in Cully.

“When you put all this together we suddenly discover we're making an ecodistrict, so we've decided to call it that,” Hipólito.

Portland  isn't alone among cities toying with ecodistricts. Denver's Living City  Block and the Seattle 2030 District, for example, share ambitious goals  to slash energy usage and promote economically revitalized urban  districts. Each also relies on partnerships with property owners, and  that top-down focus leaves me wondering how engaged those cities'  citizens will be in positioning their communities as models for global  change.

I'm not suggesting that large property owners and developers  shouldn't be engaged. Clearly they're important stakeholders, but it  seems like the most successful approaches – like the one already  underway in Cully – secure the participation of the entire community  first.

Photo of Portland bike lane courtesy Flickr user Eric Fredericks.