City Building Gets a New Business Model: From the Neighborhood, Up

“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” – Abraham Lincoln

In August 2009, a group of 70 local sustainable development leaders gathered in Portland, Oregon to discuss how to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability in the city. It was a remarkable time for those in the city-building business: the economy was in free fall, real estate construction had ground to a near standstill, and business and government leaders were scrambling to find a way forward.

One thing was clear to those gathered around the table: a new generation of sustainable development leadership was coalescing around the necessity and power of neighborhood-scale action.

So, we started by drafting a simple white paper to posit a new kind of sustainability — one that went beyond an individual green building agenda and focused on the entire neighborhood. Our meetings grew into a yearlong process in which we studied other projects from around the world, picked apart rating tools, and debated key priorities and benchmarks. The result was an “ecodistricts” framework for neighborhood sustainability and the precursor to the EcoDistricts Protocol.

As we talked with leading community development practitioners and studied their projects from around the world, it became clear that there was a significant opportunity for district-scale development to be a catalyst for innovation. In the U.S. alone, there are over 30,000 urban redevelopment and special purpose districts, from large-scale brownfield sites to smaller main street associations, and 50,000 multi-block projects are approved annually. This represented an enormous and mostly untapped market.

In 2010, we embarked on a five-year phase of experimentation and peer learning in partnership with several district-scale projects throughout the U.S. and Canada. Through this effort, (our Target Cities program) we learned a few important lessons:

  • Neighborhood sustainability requires a new model for action, rooted in collaboration and inclusion, to co-create innovative projects
  • Economic opportunity, community well-being, and ecological health are fundamental ingredients for sustainable neighborhoods and cities
  • Rigorous, consistent and transparent reporting in the areas of governance and environmental and social performance is fundamental to effectively manage long-term sustainability
  • Social equity, inclusion and democracy are essential to sustainable neighborhood development

Introducing: EcoDistricts Certified

Now, after six years in the trenches, we’re pleased to introduce EcoDistricts Certified — the world’s first process-based sustainability framework and verification system for achieving people-centered, economically vibrant, planet-loving, neighborhood- and district-scale sustainability.

It couldn’t be more timely.

With EcoDistricts Certified, city builders have a powerful tool to transform urban redevelopment by bringing together city officials, community-based groups, real estate developers, financiers and major district stakeholders to formulate a shared vision and action plan that:

  • Celebrates and rewards innovation to encourage innovation and leadership
  • Encourages peer learning to build a global learning network that shares best practices and pushes one another to pursue continuous improvement
  • Facilitates transparency to get the best ideas in project governance, performative design, and project implementation into the hands of those who need it

EcoDistricts Certified starts with a simple premise: every neighborhood and district can and should develop a sustainability agenda. Using the Protocol as a guide, EcoDistricts Certified supports a full spectrum of new and existing neighborhoods and districts, including residential neighborhoods, business districts, institutional campuses, mixed-use projects, and redevelopment areas.

For municipalities, redevelopment agencies, and housing authorities, EcoDistricts Certified is a comprehensive framework for neighborhood- and district-scale policy development, planning, and project delivery. It details an important process for measuring impact related to public participation, transparency in government, stewardship of public investments, and public policy objectives.

For community development corporations, community-based organizations, and nonprofit organizations, EcoDistricts Certified is a vehicle for identifying and moving neighborhood- and district-scale priorities forward. It provides a practical approach to collaborative governance, neighborhood planning and assessment, and reporting progress to stakeholders and funders.

For real estate developers, business improvement districts, and institutional and corporate campuses, EcoDistricts Certified is a project implementation guide and mark of leadership that complements existing corporate and environmental performance standards. It provides an overarching platform for shaping project governance, selecting catalytic investments, and reporting sustainability performance over time.

ed-protocol-concentric-circles-illustration-(2)How Does EcoDistricts Certified Work?

At the heart of the EcoDistricts Certified is our 3:6:3 implementation framework that includes three Imperatives, six Priorities, and three Implementation phases that help projects 1) build dynamic and unwavering leadership, 2) develop a detailed sustainability roadmap anchored by performance metrics, and 3) measure impact over time. EcoDistricts Certified is supported by the Information Exchange — a digital clearing house of best practices, toolkits and all certification submissions to inspire a culture of peer exchange to accelerate innovative solutions.

The certification process begins with registering your district. Once registered, the formal submission process begins, requiring a district to submit an Imperatives Commitment addressing equity, resilience and climate protection within a year. After the Imperatives Commitment is endorsed, districts must submit Formation and Roadmap documents. Certification is based on satisfaction of all Protocol requirements. To maintain certification, a district must submit biennial progress reports beginning on the second anniversary of certification.

The Journey Starts with a Single Step…

For far too long, city building has been about brick-and-mortar solutions. But the world of urban redevelopment has drastically changed, requiring a more strategic and integrated range of solutions to unlock economic growth, enhance social vibrancy, and sustain ecological health.

The time to act is now. Billions of dollars are flowing into cities to fix crumbling infrastructure and rebuild neighborhoods. Hundreds of cities are adopting ambitious sustainability policies to curb carbon emissions, improve public heath, strengthen transit-oriented development, manage stormwater and promote mobility options. Community activists are taking to the streets to demand better schools, safer drinking water and local investments that lift people out of poverty.

EcoDistricts Certified is an invitation to our brightest and most ambitious city builders to design the next generation of neighborhood- and district-scale projects, from the neighborhood, up!

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