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Where should green planning efforts come from?

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billlascher | Nov 03, 2010 11:05 AM

Hundreds of urban planners, architects, developers, environmentalists, entrepreneurs and policymakers danced around this question last week as they convened on Portland for the second annual Ecodistricts Summit.

Hosted by the Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), the event complements a maturing experiment to make five of the Oregon metropolis's neighborhoods into "Ecodistricts," neighborhoods designed to be more sustainable.

Though the ecodistricts concept is defined differently in different cities, in Portland they are built around developing ambitious sustainability goals that stakeholders in a strictly designated neighborhood commit to meeting. These goals might include capitalizing on district energy to limit the need for power generation from outside the neighborhood, encouraging transit oriented development and walkability, or establishing neighborhood-wide building efficiency standards.

Portland Bike Lane

Photo of Portland bike lane courtesy Flickr user Eric Fredericks.

But backers of all sustainable growth projects need to focus more on building community support, said John Knott, the president and CEO of Noisette LLC, which is working on a sustainable restoration project in the lower-income area of North Charleston, South Carolina. Ambitious energy efficiency goals and other high tech solutions to environmental problems will fail if they come without the buy-in from communities who are just trying to make ends meet.

 "We have a huge social mess we have created in the last 40 years,” Knott said in the event's opening panel, referring to the segregation of communities by income, lack of access to environmental amenities by many low-income neighborhoods, and the problems of gentrification and urban flight. “If we don't fix that, we will have a revolution and it will be justified.”

It's rare to hear a developer publicly stress the need to rearrange underlying social structures. As Knott noted, the problem of poor planning and design doesn't just face urban areas. He believes people will flee suburbs, putting further strain on central cities without solving growing economic imbalances.

Portland's own proposed ecodistricts weren't identified internally by residents clamoring for greener planning. Among other motivations for their selection, each is already part of an urban renewal area set for infusions of redevelopment funds.

One of them, the largely commercial Lloyd District, will be one of the first to experiment with an ecodistrict designation. It will model its efforts on the success of a previous project, a transportation management association that corralled investments in mass transit infrastructure and developed incentives that encouraged office workers to take transit or ride bikes to work, said Rick Williams, the TMA's executive director. Now the district wants to replicate the TMA's success with a “sustainability management association” to set the new ecodistrict's goals.

The first steps toward defining sustainable development goals for the neighborhood won't include everyone who lives and works there, though. Instead, Williams said, the first step requires targeting major land owners to sign “declarations of collaboration” on the ecodistricts project.

“We believe we have to start with developers because we know them and because they have bigger checkbooks,” Williams said. “The real key to this is getting key stakeholders in the room and defining targets before we start talking about solutions.”

Williams is right. You can't solve a problem without defining it. When we're talking about sustainability, though, are property owners and major institutions really the only “key stakeholders?”

Probably not. Green initiatives don't mean anything if behaviors don't change, and it's hard to change behaviors among people left out of the decision-making process. Some of the organizers of Portland's ecodistrict movement get this. Tim Smith, a principal and director of urban design for Portland Architecture Firm SERA touts a concept of a “Civic Ecology.”

“We're in danger as an expert class of creating a bunch of great green hardware where we have an ignorant citizenry that is obliged to buy this stuff, as opposed to having citizenry own their sustainability,” Smith said.

Most people in the sustainability and environmental movements know there's a need for equity, justice and economic opportunity, but they don't have clear models for providing opportunities to marginalized communities, said Alan Hipólito, the executive directory of Verde, which works in the Portland neighborhood of Cully to build links between economic health and sustainability though job training, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Cully is not included among the five officially designated ecodistricts.

Hipólito was the first to explicitly discuss the risk of gentrification, though it was implied by others during the three-day event (a point also discussed in a post about the summit in the Portland Architecture blog).

“Our sustainability movement makes investments in certain people and places,” Hipólito said. “This movement has not prioritized diversity.”

He said residents of his neighborhood have joined together at a grassroots level to address Cully's lack of environmental wealth, mostly from within, without being directed by outside organizations.

“From our perspective, it means investing in assets that meet community needs as an anti-poverty strategy first that's going to automatically build environmental benefits in an area,” Hipólito said.

Statistics from the Regional Equity Atlas, a project organized by the Coalition for a Livable Future, reveal that 18 percent of the neighborhood's residents live in poverty, about twice the regional average. Access to parkland is far below the regional average, and access to natural habitats is even worse. That's why Verde gets developers to sign community benefit agreements that provide well-paying jobs – many to minority and women owned businesses – on projects that keep what resources – even unconventional ones like district heat – in Cully.

“When you put all this together we suddenly discover we're making an ecodistrict, so we've decided to call it that,” Hipólito.

Portland isn't alone among cities toying with ecodistricts. Denver's Living City Block and the Seattle 2030 District, for example, share ambitious goals to slash energy usage and promote economically revitalized urban districts. Each also relies on partnerships with property owners, and that top-down focus leaves me wondering how engaged those cities' citizens will be in positioning their communities as models for global change.

I'm not suggesting that large property owners and developers shouldn't be engaged. Clearly they're important stakeholders, but it seems like the most successful approaches – like the one already underway in Cully – secure the participation of the entire community first.

 Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

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