Community Driven Sustainability in the Rust Belt

Pittsburgh and Cleveland projects get big boost with EcoDistricts Incubator


It’s Day 1, the first morning of the EcoDistricts Incubator at the Millvale Moose in Millvale, PA, a former fraternal lodge in a Pittsburgh suburb across the river from downtown.  Millvale, previously home to steel and industrial workers, has been revitalizing after the industrial collapse took the wind out of the sails of many of Pittsburgh’s formerly vital communities.  The Moose represents Millvale’s resurgence with a funky mix of startup businesses and community organizing providing a second chapter for this historic meeting hall. In 2018, EcoDistricts began talking with Pittsburgh area urban and community development leaders about bringing the Incubator program to Pittsburgh, a region that was looking for new tools and strategies to promote neighborhood and district-scale sustainable development. After months of planning, the Incubator kicked off.


Participants representing 11 Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods and two Cleveland communities nervously enter the hall, find other members of their teams, grab coffee, and settle into tables labeled with their team’s name and set with resource guides.  Each team is comprised of a deliberately diverse set of participants: community leaders, volunteers, municipal officials, developers and real estate professionals. They’ve jumped through hoops to get to Millvale, submitting formal applications, drafting project descriptions, and finding funding. They’re glad to be here, but not quite sure what the three-day workshop has in store for them.  Some eye each other warily, having been on opposite sides of development divides in their communities that pit developers and residents against each other in pitched and protracted battles. Breaking down silos and empowering community leadership are two of EcoDistricts’ central tenets, and the work starts at these tables.  


The room quiets and expectations grow as Incubator facilitator Christine Mondor, principal of Pittsburgh architectural planning and development firm EvolvEA, takes the stage and welcomes the group to Millvale.  Christine, a prestigious AIA Fellow and named one of 25 “Essential Pittsburghers” by NEXTPittsburgh, knows nearly everyone in the room and Is a self-proclaimed “eternal optimist” when it comes to the power of sustainable and equitable design to shape communities.  Christine lays out the agenda: sessions by designers and engineers in water, infrastructure, and energy as well as experts in environmental justice, equity, and community governance, interspersed with tough, focused sessions of facilitated table work by each participating team.  The mix of “hard” and “soft” subjects are what makes the EcoDistricts process unique: community values and priorities for equity, resilience and climate protection must be stated in terms of measurable, quantifiable goals and objectives – and must be tied to actionable strategies.  “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is one of EcoDistricts founder Rob Bennett’s mantras, and Incubator was designed to put the tools for community regeneration in the hands of communities themselves.   


The Incubator’s hosts include the staff of New Sun Rising, the community development organization that attended the 2016 Incubator in Portland and brought its lessons home to Millvale.  NSR is now one of the leading practitioners of community revitalization in the Pittsburgh region and Executive Director Scott Wolovich and his staff consult with over a dozen communities that want to learn from Millvale’s example.  


“I want clean water, good food and dancing in my EcoDistrict”

The morning session opens with an exploration of what people want in their neighborhoods.  Parks, playgrounds, and safe, affordable housing, sure – but the needs of communities that have been overlooked in planning and underfunded in amenities and infrastructure go far deeper, with historic roots.  “We need flooding and stormwater management,” says a Larimer resident. “And ways to build multigenerational wealth for longtime low-income residents.” A Hill District resident says, “We need to learn how to reduce the potential for conflict between organizations with different agendas.” Each team is paired with a professional facilitator to candidly assess needs in each neighborhood and help build table-wide understanding of needs, barriers, and challenges.  The conversations are cut short as lunch is served and each team introduces itself to the group.


The afternoon features EcoDistricts founder Bennett introducing the EcoDistricts Protocol and explaining its use as a framework specifically developed to guide neighborhood regeneration.  “We already know how to build sustainable buildings,” says Bennett. “EcoDistricts was founded to get outside the building. The neighborhood is the ideal scope: small enough to innovate yet large enough to make a real difference.  Neighborhoods are the building blocks of our cities.” Touring neighborhoods on foot, seeing their layouts and meeting their residents first-hand, is another Incubator hallmark, and in the late afternoon Incubator participants split into groups to tour Pittsburgh neighborhoods representing a variety of project types from brownfield redevelopments to low-income residential communities to areas anchored by health or educational institutions.  All grapple with growth, displacement, inequity, disinvestment and the challenges of maintaining infrastructure in a city that grapples with flooding on a regular basis.  


EcoDistricts Certified – building a community of practice across the US and around the world

EcoDistricts was founded by Bennett in 2009 with a simple idea: to make urban neighborhoods the center of the global sustainability movement. What started as a pilot program in Portland, Oregon has become a growing movement of thousands of urban and community development leaders across North America and around the world making neighborhood-scale commitments to equity, resilience and climate protection. With more people moving into cities than at any other time in history and the impacts of global warming hitting low-income communities the hardest, the need for inspired leadership has never been greater. 


The backbone of the concept is EcoDistricts Certified.  It recognizes and celebrates its member communities’ commitment to sustainable and equitable regeneration, but more importantly, it supports these communities in learning from each other and disrupting the status quo of urban development.  EcoDistricts Certified declares that nearly a century of “business as usual” in planning and permitting that has created redlining, displacement, and stark inequities in urban amenities is at an end. This clarion call is taking hold – with 18 diverse and cutting edge neighborhoods and districts have committed to Certification from across the US and Canada.  And in November 2019, the small community of Etna, PA, one of the 2019 Incubator teams, became the first EcoDistricts Certified neighborhood in the country. Their journey to Certification is a story of perseverance, self-determination, and commitment to designing a long term roadmap and leadership team to deliver projects and measure impact over time. 


The work in the Pittsburgh region pioneered by committed evangelists at New Sun Rising, EvolvEA, the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, The Forbes Fund and other regional foundations has reached deep into City Hall as well.  The Planning Department recently adopted the EcoDistricts Protocol as their guiding framework for urban neighborhood redevelopment. This major step may have significant impact on cities across the country that see Pittsburgh as setting the standard for rust-belt urban revival. 


The Incubator journey – provocative, rewarding, exhausting

By Saturday morning, Day 3, the team members are old friends and are finishing each others’ sentences.  All that’s left is to fill out the surveys, clean up the compostable coffee cups, and head for home. Not quite.  Since EcoDistricts is committed to metrics and measurement, Christine Mondor insists on closure. A case study on Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood provides context, and teams are tasked with completing their project roadmaps and committing to a series of action items and next steps.  The Incubator concludes as it began – with presentations by each team – that amply demonstrate the progress made over three days of intensive, uninterrupted work. Participants are exhausted, but as Mondor heads off to another meeting as chair of the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, she’s all smiles.  “The energy in the room sustains me. I can’t wait to see what they all do next!”


Learn More

For eight years, the three-day Incubator has attracted teams from around the world that are committed to integrating equity, resilience and climate protection into their neighborhood projects. It is designed to support diverse, cross-sector teams, representing community and municipal leadership plus developers and A+E professionals whose projects are looking to applying the EcoDistricts Protocol to their efforts. The next Incubator is scheduled for Seattle in April 2020.


Incubator By the Numbers Since 2013

  • 104 Projects from 65 cities and 6 countries advised.
  • 53% of projects serve low income and underserved communities. 
  • 45% of participants receive financial aid to participate. 

If you’re interested in bringing the EcoDistricts Incubator to your city, please contact Teva Needleman at to learn more.

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