This month, more than 60 public oﬃcials, leaders from the green-building industry, and civic redevelopment entrepreneurs from 10 different cities gathered in Portland, Oregon, for the first-ever EcoDistricts Institute. Like many institutes, the attendees competed for spots at the three-day event, and each person was selected for his or her proven dedication to a singular mission: building green cities by accelerating district-scale sustainability.
Each of the leaders at the institute is developing EcoDistricts—also known as “green neighborhoods” or “green districts.” EcoDistricts integrate green buildings and smart infrastructure (energy, water, waste, recycling, transportation, etc.) with community action and civic entrepreneurship. Cities can establish EcoDistricts within brownfield redevelopment areas, on school campuses, or in existing neighborhoods.
The institute participants are eager to move urban innovation forward quickly—and are working hard to do so. Here is what each of them had to share about the progress they are making:
• Austin, Texas is redeveloping a former industrial parcel on the southwest edge of downtown, transforming it into a mixed-use neighborhood with affordable (dense) housing, a new central library, and improved transit. It is also preserving a historic art deco power plant.
• Bellingham, Washington is designing a new waterfront neighborhood on the site of an old paper mill.
• Boston’s newly minted “Boston Innovation District” is looking to reinvent itself as a center of advanced manufacturing and knowledge companies, mixed with community amenities and housing.
• Charlotte, North Carolina’s South End EcoDistrict is an emerging, mixed-use neighborhood filled with innovative small businesses and housing in repurposed industrial buildings.
• On Cleveland’s west side, a tired inner-city neighborhood is exploring new energy systems and investment; on the east side, a new urban agriculture innovation zone is slated for farm incubation and related enterprises.
• Guadalajara, Mexico’s residents of the Vallarta Sur neighborhood rejected a proposed elevated highway that would split their neighborhood; instead, they are transforming their railroad right of way into a “civic park” that will spur revitalization and the creation of a digital business center.
• Mountain View, California—a Silicon Valley community endowed with a vibrant downtown and progressive technology companies—is poised to lead the way in sustainable corporate campus development that supports local businesses and new housing.
• Philadelphia’s existing mixed-income South of South Neighborhood is dedicated to helping spur growth near the city center.
• San Francisco’s Central Corridor area is preparing for dense growth, new transit, district infrastructure, and high-tech industry.
• The University of British Columbia in Vancouver is redeveloping a portion of its abundant land holdings to create new mixed-use neighborhoods. The newest hub is Acadia, where dense housing, amenities, shops, and services are planned.
The reason for these projects in North America—and dozens more like them around the world—is more apparent than ever: Municipal and business leaders must find effective ways to repurpose neighborhoods so that they can take advantage of the growing trends in both urbanization (millions of people are bound for a city near you over the next ten years) and the changing economy, which places a premium on knowledge and innovation. According to leading local economists such as Joe Cortright and urban redevelopment organizations such as Preservation Green Lab, the cities that focus on rehabilitating and building vibrant, green, and diverse neighborhoods have the best chance of thriving in the future.
Even with the economy struggling to rebound and cities facing unprecedented pressure to do more with less, it is clear to me that this year is shaping up to be a busy one for the green cities movement. After spending three days with this group at the institute, I left feeling exhilarated and also convinced that—more than ever before—we’re on the cusp of an urban sustainability revolution.