The Time for Action: Five Keys to Integrate EcoDistricts into Cities

We all have a right to know what is in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, and the food we eat. It is our responsibility to leave this planet cleaner and greener. That must be our legacy. Rep. John Lewis, September 2019

American cities are at a crossroads. The past three decades have seen unprecedented innovation, investment and growth in our cities, but at a cost that we are only now beginning to comprehend. The paradox of cities is striking. They are increasingly diverse, open-minded, democratically engaged, innovative, and spur upward mobility. Yet, cities disproportionately produce the majority of greenhouse gases, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and trap a significant number of people in generational poverty and segregated neighborhoods. In fact, more than 70% of children who grow up in the poorest urban neighborhoods remain in these neighborhoods as adults.   

Every year, a growing number of cities make proclamations to address climate change, racial justice, housing affordability, public health, and infrastructure. And while there are many examples of successful eco-district development projects, they tend to be the exception in an era when we need them to be the rule, leading to what Joan Fitzgerald of Northeastern University and author of Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change calls “random acts of greenness.”  

While cities are uniquely equipped and qualified to promote district and neighborhood-level sustainable development, there is a need for cities to deepen their resolve in order to meet the moment. “Cities need to establish transformative goals and the performance-based metrics with which to measure their incremental progress towards achieving those goals,” says Uwe Brandes, faculty director of the Urban & Regional Planning Program at Georgetown University. The need for a performance-based approach to urban and community development is unpinned by an unprecedented social, economic, and environmental crisis rendering our cities vulnerable to far-reaching and lasting disruptions. 

The focus of this article is to explore opportunities for cities to step more aggressively into this work.

Let Crisis Be Our Guide

The unprecedented events of 2020 – the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating impact primarily on low-income communities and the police murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement – have brought the challenges cities face into vivid focus. At the same time, the mounting climate crisis, marked by increasingly severe weather incidents, is expected to generate an unprecedented era of worldwide social upheaval for years to come. How we build our cities – from large-scale redevelopment to neighborhood revitalization efforts – needs a comprehensive reexamination, from urban planning to building and infrastructure design, finance, and implementation. 

The COVID pandemic will soon be behind us. As the economy improves and investments in infrastructure and redevelopment restart, we must ensure the next generation of city-building will meaningfully tackle the issues that the past year exposed so vividly. And while our current openness to experimentation is inspiring, it is not adequate to the challenges we face. Bold change is needed to move from redevelopment that favors investor returns to a more muscular form of performative city and community-driven redevelopment that simultaneously tackles our most significant challenges and is dedicated to sparking a more inclusive and vibrant civic commons. 

Building Blocks

A robust EcoDistricts agenda for cities builds off the long history of district and neighborhood sustainability that led to smart growth policies, transit-oriented development, community development, and green zones. Our work is informed and inspired by the green building industry’s efforts to transform the real estate market and the environmental justice movement’s efforts to advocate for equity and justice. In other words, we recognize that our work stands alongside the decades of urban innovations and innovators who have been calling for inclusive, just, and sustainable cities, from the neighborhood up. 

The EcoDistricts community stands with our fellow urbanists and justice advocates calling for stronger neighborhood-scale planning and investment that builds community ownership and wealth, leads to better health, accelerates decarbonization, and increases resiliency. We understand that a larger number of comprehensive regulations and enabling policies to support local community and economic development is needed.  We know that most of our infrastructure investments are woefully antiquated and skewed to higher-income neighborhoods and business districts. And perhaps most importantly, we are calling for new indices to make decisions and measure progress beyond the traditional metrics of value capture and growth.  This starts with a commitment to addressing the underlying conditions that dictate the health and wellbeing of our cities – structural racism, economic mobility, housing affordability, ecological health, civic trust, and water, energy, and food security. 

Five Interventions

  1. ZONING OVERLAYS

Land use zoning is the primary tool that cities use to manage growth. And while cities are getting more creative in the use of zoning to promote sustainable development, there is a need to go further. We encourage cities to develop and adopt a zoning designation with outright or conditional use privileges for projects meeting EcoDistricts Protocol criteria. This moves cities toward a performative zoning standard for real estate development, public realm, and infrastructure investments that can be adjusted for existing neighborhoods and districts, and brownfield and greenfield redevelopment. Given that the EcoDistricts Protocol is flexible, it allows a wide range of neighborhood typologies to develop specific criteria that meet the conditions on the ground. The zone could be either an overlay, where eligible areas are pre-identified by the municipality or a floating zone that authorizes its use in any location that meets siting criteria.  

  1. LARGE DEVELOPMENT SITES ASSESSMENT 

Most cities have special masterplan requirements for large-scale development areas. These areas are typically designated for higher density, mixed use developments and lend themselves to requirements to promote sustainability and equity. Given many of these districts are in or adjacent to low income and BIPOC neighborhoods, it is important to create a transparent and effective engagement process when evaluating options, especially in assessing proposed uses and investments that can trigger displacement. The trust deficit is extremely high among communities of color and others that have a long history of being disproportionately impacted by urban redevelopment.  As part of the overall site rezoning or master planning permitting process, including zone changes and development requirements, cities can require that multi-block projects that meet a certain size or sensitivity threshold (e.g. sites over 5 acres or within or adjacent to communities at risk of displacement) to prepare an equitable and sustainable development feasibility assessment using the EcoDistricts Protocol. The Protocol offers practical guidance that can help cities develop 1) a strong vision for a redevelopment area, 2) collaborative governance, and 3) clear performance metrics. The assessment would help cities and district stakeholders develop specific requirements for the area to advance key goals and performance metrics that are typically not found in rezoning and master plans – specifically in the areas of racial equity, resiliency, climate action, and public health. This criteria and assessment will also lead to a more precise set of agreements and criteria among stakeholders who are responsible for the long term development and management of the district. 

  1. INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNING AND INVESTMENT

It is well understood that America has a decades-in-the-making infrastructure crisis. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, infrastructure spending in the US has fallen by half from 1 percent to 0.5 percent of GDP over the last 35 years, leaving more of the task to state and local governments. A chronic lack of funding to modernize aging municipal water management systems, local roads and sidewalks, digital infrastructure, district energy, and transit has left cities and neighborhoods vulnerable to the variety of threats that 2020 uncovered. The net result are cities increasingly unprepared for the impacts of climate change and an environmental justice crisis that continues to disproportionally burden poor and black and brown neighborhoods. According to the Surdna Foundation, “People of color and low-wealth people, particularly those living in frontline communities, are faced with disproportionate, negative impacts of environmental degradation, climate change, and failing infrastructure, and have been plagued by decades of disinvestment and racist planning practices.” COVID is further highlighting these disparities. The Pew Research Center reported in May that 44 percent of adults in households with incomes below $30,000 don’t have broadband, a critical component for effective distance learning and jobs moving forward. 

And while our spending and focus on those most at risk have not kept pace, cities have been increasingly active in applying new and innovative integrated infrastructure solutions, ranging from new streetcar and bicycling networks to green infrastructure, district energy, and urban agriculture. Once viewed as exotic or impractical, many of these solutions have gained widespread support among urban planners, designers, and developers as fundamental to city-building efforts. This has resulted in a significant amount of our innovative infrastructure spending on pilot projects or concentrated in brownfield redevelopments funded primarily by tax increment bonds and tax credit programs designed to incent private investment. While this has led to some excellent examples of next-generation infrastructure, most investments are bypassing the neighborhoods most in need of them. And making matters more complex, there is a growing backlash that such solutions fuel gentrification and therefore displacement of low-income and BIPOC residents.  

In order to scale integrated and equitable and sustainability-oriented infrastructure solutions, cities need to conduct district and neighborhood scale assessment in the areas of water, energy (with an emphasis on decarbonization), waste management, last mile mobility, and public realm and parks. The goal is to create a clear baseline of current performance and risks, set specific long term performance targets, and develop a comprehensive investment roadmap for each neighborhood and district. Each plan will differ based on the conditions on the ground and future growth projections. For instance, brownfield sites designated for high density and resource-intense redevelopment should have a clear plan for net zero energy, water, and waste; complete streets; multimodal transportation; and adequate parks and public gathering places. In other neighborhoods, the infrastructure plan should prioritize new investments in areas with deficiencies that impact equity– i.e. digital connectivity, safe streets, transit, access to basic services, parks, and open space, etc. 

  1. PUBLIC LAND DEVELOPMENT

Every city has a significant amount of publicly owned land. Cities, counties, states, and special-purpose public entities have the ability to shape equitable and sustainable development by creating rigorous development criteria for their most significant land holdings slated for redevelopment. Similar to our recommendation for large site development site assessment, we recommend that cities adopt policies and regulations that promote a comprehensive approach to equitable and sustainable development. There is an increasing number of cities that are adding green building, renewable energy, affordable housing, and minority and women-owned workforce agreements to such projects. These often come in the form of community benefits agreements, which have become an effective tool for communities to wield influence and mitigate harm. The regulation would require that developers bidding on the acquisition and development of municipally-owned land include a proposed approach for achieving EcoDistrict Certified, including a clear and inclusive governance partnership and community benefits agreement with local stakeholder organizations. Cities could also choose to include EcoDistrict Protocol Imperatives and Priorities, including specific objectives and indicators that match existing cities’ policies and regulations. 

  1. NEIGHBORHOOD PLANNING

Most cities have a rich history of developing neighborhood plans. For decades these have taken different forms, typically led from inside planning departments. We encourage cities to examine and modify their approaches to neighborhood planning, and to adopt the EcoDistricts Protocol as a framework to assess and create performance-based neighborhood plans. The Protocol’s six priority areas form the basis of a comprehensive equitable and sustainable development plan, with a focus on screening projects, programs and policy recommendations in the areas of equity, resilience, and climate risk. Using the Protocol as a planning tool provides a clear yet flexible framework to develop a baseline assessment and relevant performance metrics to activate larger city goals. Equally as important to the creation of a plan is the development of an engagement and governance model to oversee the implementation of the plan.

Let’s Build an EcoDistricts Agenda for Cities

Our recommendations above focus on key intervention points along the continuum of city-led urban development. We see a tremendous opportunity for cities to review their current district and neighborhood level policies and regulations, with an eye towards deepening their commitment and focus on 1) setting bold goals and performance metrics; 2) prioritizing collaboration over conflict – purposely shifting governance to be shared among all stakeholders, and 3) adopting robust regulations and enabling policies to capture the full range of benefits needed and externalities typically ignored.  We hope this article sparks a conversation and dialogue on the role cities can play in scaling the EcoDistricts movement.  Please be in touch with recommendations.  

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