Today I downloaded the Ecodistrict(TM) Framework, produced by Ecodistricts (formerly the Portland Sustainability Institute), dated May 2013. Go here to download. In the past couple of years, I have worked on a couple of projects that we called “ecodistricts”, out on the west coast. These multi-building (re)development projects were unique from other developments in their unified vision and commitment towards the achievement of environmental goals. In that sense, a development’s self-identification as an “ecodistrict” has both engineering and political implications.

As an engineer, I focused on optimizing the water and energy sustainability aspects of the developments at this smaller-than-city, larger-than-building scale. In addition to the engineering however, the formation of an ecodistrict, even the intent to develop an ecodistrict, implies that urban sustainability goals may be better implemented on a scale other than the entire municipality for political and financing reasons. 

Planning cities-with all the complex, and often conflicting entities within their jurisdictional boundaries-involves many diverse actors. How much of what makes us believe that “districts” or “neighborhoods” are the optimal scale to implement sustainable development strategies stems from their ability to reduce political and economic complexity, as opposed to true espousal that infrastructure performs better at this scale rather than at others? Here, an interesting question arises. Is the district/neighborhood scale inherently “more sustainable”, or is this scale “more sustainable” simply because it is more likely to be implemented?

The multi-building, neighborhood scale is something that we seem to be moving towards. I was interested to see that “EcoDistricts” is now a trademarked term, and with its new Framework, it seems to be going the way of LEED and Living Building Challenge, which prescribe methodologies and performance indicators for sustainability achievement, except that it does it on the neighborhood scale. From the individual building scale, the district/neighborhood scale allows for more technological options that benefit from economies of scale and aggregation: multi-building lo-tech wastewater treatment, microgrids, pneumatic waste collection systems, bikeshare programs, rainwater capture, centralized cooling plants. But, and perhaps more importantly, this scale also uniquely opens doors to new political relationships (community building and local business partnerships), and financing methods (city-utility-developer PPPs) compared to both the individual building scale and the city-wide scale.

Also, I did some quick searches on the US Patent and Trademark Office and it seems although ‘EcoDistrict’ appears with the (TM) behind it now on ecodistrict.org, it is not yet officially registered. For reference, “LEED” was registered in 1996, “LEED Gold” in 2000, “One Planet Living” in 2003, and “Living Building Challenge” in 2006. Seems about right we’re due for another raising of the bar!

Thoughts and comments welcome below.

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