EcoDistricts Program Manager, Teva Needleman, called me a few weeks ago and asked me to speak as part of the Webinar Wednesday series. I said yes without even thinking about it or even confirming the webinar topic. I know that was kind of risky. But I feel passionate about the organization and the Protocol – it has become fundamental to my work – and I was honored. So, I figured it would somehow work out. “You pick the topic, Teva; whatever you think would be helpful,” I told her; “just let me know.” Teva’s answer? “Pitching EcoDistricts.” Sure, no problem, I thought. “Been there, done that.”
Soon, I got to thinking: That’s a tall task. Wait, that’s a very tall task. But you all, my fellow APs, were signing up to get advice on pitching EcoDistricts. I couldn’t disappoint you all and, besides, I promised Teva! So, I sat down and got to work.
Why a tall task? In this context – my full webinar title was “Pitching EcoDistricts to your Clients and Colleagues” – the word “pitching” implies the business connotation of the expression. In the business context, pitching is, according to a quick web search, “a presentation of a business idea by one or more people to an investor or group of investors or a potential client.” The term “elevator pitch” – a supposed necessity for today’s competitive business environment – is “a short description of an idea, product, or company.” Furthermore, it is “a description that explains a concept in a way such that any listener can understand it quickly.” And it goes on to say, “an elevator pitch is intended to explain who the product or service is for, what it does, why it is needed, and how it will get done,” presumably all in the few minutes it takes to ride an elevator.
What’s the problem set in our cities and our neighborhoods that we as designers and community development professionals seek to solve for clients and with our professional colleagues? Why is the EcoDistricts Protocol needed?
Well, you don’t have to look very hard to see that the great theme of the 21st-century so far is sudden, devastating collapse. Cities in the US, the UK, the European Union — all edging toward disaster. But it’s hardly just cities and countries politically. It’s the planet. Mass extinction of life itself. Heat waves, forest fires. People’s sense of optimism and faith in the future is imploding into nationalism, extremism, and fascism. Trust in institutions and a sense of belonging and purpose, all in sharp decline. Then, a year ago, a global pandemic descended, resulting in millions of deaths, a worldwide recession, staggering income, and job loss. Everything, more or less, as far as the eye can see, seems to be collapsing in on itself if one is brave enough to look.
As community development professionals, designers, and urban planners, we know this already. The communities we all serve have found and still find themselves in precarious circumstances: these multiple interlocking crises are, for many, especially in the global south and communities of Color in the US, existential. What’s happening is no less than the breakdown of multiple, interconnected systems – systems on which human beings are fundamentally dependent. We see ever-rising evidence of racism and racial injustice, economic inequality, democracy and representative government under stress, and environmental collapse. The collapses of this kind are evidence that we are under-nourishing and impoverishing the weakest things around us. We are “overconsuming” them in economic terms, which also means “underinvesting” in them. Whether it’s nature – insects or forests, for example – or humans – living-wage jobs or social contracts, for instance – we seem to be slashing through all the things that are the most defenseless.
This parallels the collapse of food chains, glaciers, and oceans, too, in a way that’s impossible to unsee once you’ve peeked through your fingers — failure from the bottom up. In nature, the insects die off first, the glaciers melt from the bottom, the oceans warm fastest. In our communities, individuals with low income or oppressed by racial bigotry perish first. The most vulnerable are hit the hardest and impoverished the quickest. The inner working of collapse from the bottom up is this: the most defenseless things — whether they’re animals, people, oceans, or coral reefs — are torn apart fastest and most ruthlessly.
The institutions we have traditionally trusted to make sense of the world are unraveling at an ever-faster rate, assaulted by disruptive technologies and renewed tribalism. We find ourselves in a “post-truth world” that confuses our understanding of purpose and meaning.
Our current systems, the interface of those current systems, and the net effects are unsustainable. Unsustainable, in this context, sad to say, means self-terminating. Self-terminating implies that these systems run to their end and then fall abruptly. We desperately try to forecast future catastrophic scenarios, but it’s challenging to predict catastrophes when we are living through them. We’re living through rolling disasters, moving towards complete non-viability.
Has the elevator arrived on your floor yet?
And we only just got started stating the problem set. So much for pitching EcoDistricts “briefly in a way that any listener can understand.”
Well, we don’t want self-terminating; that is not an acceptable outcome for anyone or anything, not to mention future generations yet to be born.
We want to change the world; we need to change the world. The methods of change we have pursued so far, primarily ineffective solutions, haven’t worked. Systems were, after all, designed to achieve the outcomes we get, and they seem too complex to understand fully, let alone change. The brittleness is built in. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.
We are looking for the shortest path to a fundamentally redesigned world system that supports the highest quality of life for all life in an ongoing way.
Well, perhaps, at this crucial and consequential time at the beginning of the 21st-century, rather than edging toward a cliff, we are simply on the brink of an enormous phase shift, a phase shift explained in core axioms and fundamental truths. Phase shifts such as these have happened in the past. Earlier societies, having experienced systemic collapse — the Roman civilization in Western Europe, for instance, in the fifth century AD — eventually emerged with a reduced population and instinctively built decentralized, low-cost, hyper-local economies that created more value with fewer resources; new communities which proved to be durable and, for long periods, sustainable.
Are our global macro systems, that is to say, from our world view to our economics to our systems of governance to our infrastructure, simply going through a long-awaited and desperately needed phase shift?
I think so. That’s another context in which to view the EcoDistricts Protocol. The Protocol is, in my view, a means of implementing a shift toward a world that is more resilient and sustainable, a world with more social cohesion and harmonic order; a world that fosters reciprocity and collaboration; a world that values local wisdom and truth; a world based on closed-loop systems and care for the commons. It’s proposing a structural change based on accepting the problematic and challenging core facts about our current fragile macro-global systems. It’s a language to talk about a phase shift and a frame to think about it. Moreover, the best current way – the only way, really – and the most direct way to change global macro systems is to start at the neighborhood or district scale and scale up to cities and regions. This fractal design system is how life and living systems grow and evolve and how they always have.
In any case, there is no going back to “normal.”
What do we shift? Everything. This is the challenge of our new century and the power of the Protocol. It is nourishing, reloading, nurturing, reviving, and endowing everything we can. Everything from basic incomes to trees to insects to glaciers to hospitals and healthcare systems to schools to retirement to rivers and forests.
Thankfully, we can explain these structural, fundamental axiomatic shifts somewhat more briefly, and I suggest that’s where we start. EcoDistricts is based on values, principles, and absolute truths. Equity, resilience, and sustainability are all fundamental axiomatic truths. I start there.
For me, the four following fundamental truths are inarguable, and they underpin every bit of advice I give my clients and colleagues:
One, the community a child is born into does more to influence that child’s future than any other factor.
Two, the neighborhood is the essential scale to implement positive change.
Three, people who are affected by design decisions should be involved in making those decisions.
Four, if a community itself articulates what it stands for and what it aspires to be as a neighborhood, it will have a better chance of creating and sustaining a more healthy, vibrant place with favorable economic, health, cultural, and environmental conditions.
But that’s not the way the majority of community development occurs. Clients understandably seek order and predictability; they often revert to creating plans and planning development as it’s always been done. Consultants do the same, albeit not as understandably. Neither seems ready for a messy, unpredictable planning process. Clients and consultants want to complete projects on budget and on time. They want attractive renderings and illustrations that inspire their constituents (and that moves philanthropy), timelines that show progress, a return on the resources invested, in short, a business case.
Clients and consultants typically break the problem into parts or issues looked at in isolation to maintain control. But that’s not the way systems work. Parts act differently when embedded in a system.
Furthermore, in our data-driven world, clients and consultants want to see progress on metrics and KPIs (or progress to be seen, that is, by others). Again, to maintain control, clients and consultants typically, and sadly in many cases, avoid real humans, unpredictable and complex as they are. There seems to be greater control and statistical significance in sanctioned data from data experts, performance metrics shown as numbers on a spreadsheet or dashboard.
But, for humans, what underlies those needs? The underlying needs, those that the renowned psychologist and mediator, Marshall Rosenberg, called universal human needs, are, among others, these:
Order and predictability for one thing. Clients and consultants each also yearn for dignity, respect, and gratitude. Clients and consultants both want neighborhood development imbued with integrity and creativity.
But here’s the critical point that many clients and, regrettably, many consultants miss or don’t sufficiently consider although you, as EcoDistrict APs, get: the humans – the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, the children and their teachers, the business owners and their employees, the senior citizens and their caregivers, whatever their race, ethnicity, gender identity, or neighborhood tenure – in every community we serve have those exact human needs as well. Order, predictability, dignity, respect, gratitude. If you start, as the Protocol requires, by committing to imperatives, you will have a better chance of satisfying these human needs for all, including and especially the most vulnerable among us.
Sure, clients and consultants desire autonomy, that is to say, the freedom to set a project’s goals. But the people we plan for rarely get that same freedom even though they are the people most impacted by our work. The residents and the business owners in our neighborhoods must also have the space to identify their dreams, goals, and values. And they, not just you, need to choose their means for fulfilling those dreams, goals, and values for themselves and their children.
We are all interdependent. We all need community and enrichment of life, acceptance, empathy, respect, trust, and support. As humans, we all need physical nurturing as well: clean air, good food, exercise, protection from life-threatening bacteria and viruses, shelter, and clean water.
You have these exact needs. We all do.
We must strive to fulfill those human needs equitably for all. And the truth is: there is enough in this world to satisfy the needs for all; we just don’t distribute it equitably. That is what underpins the EcoDistricts Protocol.
EcoDistricts, in its essence, is not a noun. It’s a verb. It is a process. It is about a just approach to governance and decision making and an honest approach to allocating resources.
As far as social systems go, economics, governance, law, language, the social contract fields by which we navigate collective agreement, collective decision making, joint resource allocation, all these things are beyond individual action. Most of the decisions we’re going to make will include allocating resources in some way. We can and must think of governance as how we make decisions that involve co-decision making, collaborative decision making, with equity in mind.
With that framework and understanding as a guide, let me offer you five specific, practical, and hopefully helpful suggestions on pitching EcoDistricts to clients and colleagues:
Suggestion #1: Select your clients and, for that matter, your colleagues carefully. You know this work is hard. This work is messy. It is risky, and this work takes time. Not all clients are up for that, even though that’s what systemic change, real change, requires. Be gentle with them. Remember, everyone, clients and colleagues, have values they believe are essential, and everyone has those universal human needs, albeit expressed differently. Think about clients’ values and the human needs in common with those they serve or plan. Start there.
Gauge interest and don’t try to force it. Look for clients that are innovation leaders in their fields and willing to acknowledge and address root causes. Ensure clients and your firms are equity-focused, ready to do the work to address race and racism; seek clients who are willing to focus on equitable processes, not standard solutions. I have had the great privilege to advise MetroHealth System and its community partners on community development in Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood. MetroHealth, healthcare giant is also a national leader and innovator in understanding the social determinants of health. They are keenly aware of the connection between zip code and health outcomes and are eager to play the long game of neighborhood development to achieve better health for all. Their partners in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood are trusted collaborators. Resident Ambassadors occupy an honored seat at the table as integral members of the District Team.
When you find the right clients and colleagues, you’ll need to talk the talk.
So, suggestion #2 is this: Do your homework. Study, and I mean really study, the Protocol, the history of EcoDistricts, and all resources you can find on imperatives, priorities, and systems change in general. I read voraciously and daily on a wide range of topics, including race and racism, economic inequality, job dislocation, workforce development, energy, climate change, and infrastructure. I seek to read source documents in scientific journals and long-form articles. I don’t rely on restating points made by others, even if they are reliable. When someone asks you about climate change, cooperative business ownership, land trusts or anaerobic digesters, for example, you should be able to muster an adequate, cogent response.
Learn about the means of community engagement. Add to the resources online. Know what EcoDistricts, the organization, does and how the certification process works.
With that knowledge at the tip of your fingers, you are ready to pitch.
Therefore, suggestion #3 is: Lead with the fundamental truths, consider universal human needs, and focus on shared axiomatic values. Believe in and pitch the “why” before you launch into the “what” or “how.” If you can, make the mission personal and, of course, make it urgent because it is.
Most importantly, focus first on the values you have, we all have, in common. Narratives that link to shared values and universal human needs will be more effective in shifting opinions and setting the stage for a progressive approach.
I often tell a personal story highlighting my journey as a white urban designer working in communities of Color and the hard realization of my implicit biases that led me to REI training and to EcoDistricts.
A meaningful explanation of the why will undoubtedly resonate but, after setting the stage, you still need to pitch the how and the what.
Therefore, suggestion #4 is: Show tangible value using real-world examples from the field. The case studies on the EcoDistricts website are an invaluable resource; I refer to them all the time. Become comfortably familiar with the case studies, especially the key accomplishments, for Seattle, Portland, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Cleveland, among all the others. Some key achievements are intangible such as developing a local community of practice with diverse participation and a common language. Some accomplishments are more quantifiable, such as increased attention and support from philanthropy or shortened timelines for entitlements. Know which neighborhoods are pursuing certification and which have been certified.
Of course, even the most receptive listener will have questions.
So, finally, suggestion #5 is: Be ready for doubt and possible objections. Based on my experience, here are the most common protests, and you should have a good answer, one that resonates for you, for each before pitching to clients or colleagues:
A client may say: “I don’t have the funding or resources to hire you.” You might respond: “I can train your people so they can guide the work themselves as part of their job. The value-added will be exponential. Besides, EcoDistricts is well known and respected by national philanthropies, and the rigorous independent certification process is considered highly desirable by philanthropy. Perhaps I can assist you in writing a grant request”.
A client might say: “EcoDistricts is an unknown; I want to go with a well-known “name-brand” certification like LEED.” You might say: “Yes, EcoDistricts, as a certification, is relatively new. But it is solidly researched and growing in reputation and visibility rapidly. Frankly, the EcoDistricts Protocol has been more than twenty years in development, piloted in the US and EU, and the community of practice has grown 200% percent in the last two years”.
A client or colleague may protest: “I am already committed to another rating system or certification standard.” You might respond as follows: “Because EcoDistricts Certified is certifying a process while most other certifications are certifying a design or a plan, EcoDistricts is not only compatible with but synergistic with other rating or certification systems creating a better outcome than either one alone.”
What if a client objects: “It’s too labor-intensive, too big a commitment, it’ll take too long.”? You might tactfully say something like: “You’re right; real change takes time and commitment. But the challenges we face are generations in the making and change, to be enduring, needs to evolve methodically”.
I have had clients and colleagues say: “I only want to focus on environmental sustainability, the ‘Eco’ of EcoDistricts, isn’t that what Eco means?” In this case, I might say: “Environmental sustainability is deeply interconnected to equity and resilience. You cannot achieve environmental sustainability without, at the same time, achieving environmental justice and anti-fragile infrastructure and communities.”
Some clients might say: “I know how to create change in my field; I am an expert.” You might say, “You are indeed an expert. We are all experts in our fields, but it takes cross-sector collaboration to achieve real change. Our challenges are too complex to be solved by any one sector or field.”
In conclusion, you, my fellow APs, have the correct credential for this era when everything is changing, shifting, and being reinvented. Don’t be afraid to break down and challenge existing assumptions and current thinking as you do your work.
The EcoDistricts credential makes you a rebel, a renegade, a badass. So, dare to think differently. Think boldly. Think creatively. You are the ones we have been waiting for to help us reboot the world’s operating system. We share the view that we have seen a civilizational-level crisis of ideas as the old operating system breaks down. New ideas are struggling to emerge – and the most transformative ideas always show up initially as insubordination.
Yes, the old is dying, but the latest is just being born.
Our current systems are ineffective. We can no longer stand for a band-aid, anodyne approach to racism, violence, environmental destruction, economic inequality, and other seemingly intractable problems. We must get to the root causes of the issues we face and provide new and better solutions.
Last but not least, never forget your commitment to equity, that is to say, practicing “power with not power over” in the communities you serve. You are now an authority on the EcoDistricts Protocol, the most potent theory of positive change for cities I know, and the process for creating more sustainable and enduring development paradigms. But remember: the residents and business owners in your neighborhoods are the experts in their communities. We must be genuinely committed to a new social framework for organizing all relations around life-supporting values of mutual respect and responsibility, non-violence, equality, empowerment, and caring. In that case, we must share the stage and co-create the future.
Onward, fellow APs!