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Playing Nicely With Others

Pilot EcoDistricts in Portland, Oregon, are blazing a new trail into shared energy, water, and cultural resources at the neighborhood scale.

March 2011

By Nadav Malin

Some environmental solutions are best pursued at a scale that is bigger than individual buildings but smaller than the whole city. In Portland, Oregon, for example, rainwater collection and reuse is very difficult for individual buildings given the region’s wet winters and long, dry summers. “In our green buildings, we were collecting water when there was plenty, and then needing it when it didn’t rain,” explains Rob Bennett, executive director of Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI). This experience led Bennett to ask: “At what point is it smart to have a building that is an island unto itself, versus part of a larger system?”

Pilot EcoDistricts in Portland, Oregon, are blazing a new trail into shared energy, water, and cultural resources at the neighborhood scale.
Illustration by Anna Parini
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That question is at the core of a visionary program, led by PoSI, that “aims to create consistent metrics and an approach for looking at the viability of district-scale projects,” according to Bennett. PoSI is coordinating pilot EcoDistrict initiatives in five Portland neighborhoods. In each district, the three-year program is assessing current conditions and needs, and building capacity in the community to choose and manage projects.

The initiative is focused on existing neighborhoods as opposed to new developments “because we want EcoDistricts to be about how cities function today, in areas that are already built out,” says Bennett. A successful EcoDistrict, he says, would have “empowered people, green buildings, and smart infrastructure.” The three inner-city districts and two less densely built areas are intentionally very diverse, representing a wide range of environmental, social, and cultural conditions, so the PoSI can learn as much as possible about the opportunities and barriers in each setting.

A key challenge in creating EcoDistricts is the lack of an entity with authority to marshal resources and make commitments on behalf of the neighborhood. Without such a body, there is no one that suppliers can contract with to create the infrastructure and provide services. Hence, one of the first elements of PoSI’s program is called “engagement to governance,” a process that helps a community figure out the structure that fits its specific needs.

As a model for this kind of neighborhood-scale governance, PoSI is looking at transportation management associations. Portland’s Lloyd District, one of the pilot project areas, has had such an association for 10 years now, and it has successfully instituted voluntary measures that fended off intervention from federal and state air quality regulators. Looking to that model, as well as to historic enterprise zones and urban renewal districts for ideas, Lloyd District has raised $300,000 per year for three years to hire a staff person and pay contractors who will identify appropriate EcoDistrict projects and perform feasibility studies.

Lloyd District is home to the old Trailblazers basketball stadium and an adjacent mixed-use neighborhood that is just being developed. Feasibility studies are now underway for a district energy plant in that neighborhood that would become the critical first node for a district energy network.

Pioneers in the field are learning not to draw a single boundary around an EcoDistrict, because not all systems share the same ideal dimensions. “It turns out that a potable system boundary is very different from a wastewater system boundary,” explains Clark Brockman of Portland-based SERA Architects.

It’s more helpful to define the geographical center of an EcoDistrict, according to Brockman, and then look to optimize various systems around that center. Eric Ridenour, also of SERA, concurs: “System lessons are telling us that we should keep that boundary loose enough, but have rules about how things opt in to share resources. If a property is willing to follow the rules and contribute to the system, let them play.”

SERA is part of a team designing a multitenant speculative office building called the Portland Sustainability Center, which aims to be the world’s first large-scale Living Building Challenge-certified project. That building is the centerpiece of another pilot EcoDistrict area, including much of the Portland State University (PSU) campus and its environs. This pilot project is defined largely by the fact that PSU owns about half of the real estate in the proposed district. The university has just hired an assistant director for real estate with primary responsibility for the EcoDistrict.

“PSU won’t consider it a success if it results in just a greener master plan for the campus,” notes Ridenour. Instead, PSU is seeking to partner with other owners in the district to expand opportunities for synergistic work. One such project that is already underway is Montgomery Green Street, which provides a pedestrian corridor and stormwater management infrastructure designed to absorb rainwater during storm events, not just from the street itself, but also from the surrounding district. Montgomery Green Street started on campus and will extend into the city over time.

In the residential neighborhoods of Lents, the infrastructure goals are less ambitious. The pilot program there seeks to bring people together to improve their community with more modest interventions, such as parks, greenways, and educational initiatives. Goals, activities, and interim results on all five pilot projects are well documented on the PoSI website, making Portland’s experiment a valuable resource for communities across the country seeking to green their infrastructure through shared resources.

This article appeared in the March 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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