EcoDistricts iStock PhotoI’m pretty skeptical about big, high-profile efforts to alter the course of unsustainable behavior in our region. The Sustainability Gap—the difference between what politicians say and do on sustainability issues—isn’t getting smaller. So when I consider Portland’s EcoDistrict Initiative it’s with what might be considered an unhealthy amount of cynicism.

Is the EcoDistrict Initiative just another fancy, shiny, and new way of making change with little underneath it besides Power Points and ribbon cuttings? It’s too early to tell. But so far I’m impressed with the stated intent of the Portland model.

I’ll give an update later on the progress of EcoDistricts but first, here is an intro to how they work.

  • In any given day each of us makes thousands of choices that affect the kind of impact we have on the environment and climate. For example, we choose how high to keep our thermostat or whether to bike or drive to work. The principle behind EcoDistricts is to “hard-wire” our compact communities, so that no matter what the choices, a resident will have a positive impact. In short, all those smaller choices can be made without depending on people to “do the right thing.”

    Here’s how the EcoDistrict Framework put together by the Portland Sustainability Institute working together with the City of Portland puts it:

    The EcoDistricts Initiative is a comprehensive strategy to accelerate sustainable development at the neighborhood scale by integrating building and infrastructure projects with community and individual action. An EcoDistrict is a neighborhood or district that has committed to achieving ambitious sustainability performance goals over time. The process includes engaging the community to formalize a local governance structure; completing an integrated sustainability assessment and action plan; implementing projects to support goal achievement; and tracking and monitoring the results over time.

    It sounds a bit jargony for sure. But boil it down to this: if cities are built to be compact and walkable, with clean, 21st century sources of energy and waste management, the people living there will create less negative impacts on things like the climate. From turning on the lights or flushing the toilet to getting to work every day, all aspects of life can be designed to be more sustainable.

    A couple examples I’ve already written about are district energy and Transit Oriented Development. If people live in compact communities it’s possible to concentrate their demand for things like energy and transit in such a way that it makes more financial sense to provide more and better service. District energy is an old idea that can turn ground source heat or waste products into energy with little or no carbon emissions for entire neighborhoods. When people live close together transit gets easier too. More people closer together means fewer routes and less expense and emissions moving people longer distances.

    The neighborhood scale also offers better measurement of progress. Think about Walkscore, which Sightline inspired. Walkability can be measured much more sensibly at the neighborhood level than across a whole city. And other elements of an EcoDistrict like energy and water consumption can be usefully reflected back to residents. A governance structure that is locally focused can develop policies to maintain momentum on efforts to reduce energy and water use, for example.

    Setting goals for entire cities to be carbon neutral is something I am not sure is going to work for a number of reasons. But reducing energy demand, increasing efficiency, and measuring progress toward achieving those goals seems practically important, not to mention doing the same thing for water use from when it comes out of the ground or sky to when it becomes waste water or runoff.

    The EcoDistrict idea is going deeper in smaller geographic areas with comprehensive sustainability interventions, measuring success, and then making improvements. If success can be modeled the idea can expand. True cities are big things. But if density is already sustainable (less energy use, fewer emissions, and lower runoff impacts) then making density even more sustainable makes a lot of sense.

    The thinking behind Portland’s EcoDistricts is promising. What’s next is the execution. Aligning multiple interests, policy, and funding to make the districts happen is what Portland has to do next.

    Photo from iStockphoto