EcoDistricts: The Path Forward

It would be difficult for me to overstate the value of the EcoDistricts Protocol in our current moment. The challenges we face as a society are numerous, interconnected, and daunting – climate change, systemic racism, discrimination, wealth and income inequality, lack of trust in institutions, political polarization, fake news, and more. And all of that is playing out amidst our continued global battle against COVID-19. Confronted with this picture, one cannot help but feel overwhelmed, anxious, and unsure where to start.

I spent much of my educational and early professional career considering problems at a national or, more frequently, a global scale. In our interconnected global society, it is most certainly critical to be able to view the issues that confront us through a global lens. That said, when it comes to taking action, in recent years I have become increasingly convinced of the power of concentrated time, energy, and resources at the local level. In my experience, the answer is to start in our own backyards and make changes from the neighborhood up. Human communities in cultures near and far have a unique ability to organize, make decisions, and collectively chart a better course forward for the people that comprise them. EcoDistricts can help to show the way.

I became an EcoDistricts AP in 2018, shortly after moving home to Cleveland after many years living in Chicago. I’d recently completed a graduate program in Sustainable Urban Development at DePaul University, and I was eager to apply those lessons learned in a place I cared about deeply. My time at DePaul was a foundational experience that nurtured my passion for work at the intersection of climate and the built environment. It expanded my understanding of sustainability as a concept, broadening my scope from a narrow focus on how to make a city green to fundamentally prioritize how to make it just.  Energy-efficient buildings and accessible parks are necessary building blocks of a green city, but the question of how to ensure those assets are open and available to all is where the level of difficulty is elevated.

Working on these issues in a legacy city like Cleveland presents some challenges that are unique to this place and others that are experienced by cities throughout the Great Lakes Region and beyond. The pernicious legacy of redlining, underinvestment in many of our communities of color, government corruption, aging infrastructure, urban sprawl, and the changing economic realities of our region have left folks here hungry for a new approach. The EcoDistricts Protocol gave me a framework in which I could deliver something new, something different, and, most importantly, something positive, uniting, and aspirational. Namely, a process that honestly, thoroughly, and relentlessly engages all members of the community at all stages of the planning and development process – ensuring planning happens with a community, not to a community.

I have had the honor of working on multiple projects in Cleveland over the last few years, some that are pursuing certification and others that have incorporated the underlying ideas of equity, resilience, and climate protection into their projects. I use the word “honor” very intentionally as these projects have frequently been situations in which I, an outsider, have been invited into the planning process and welcomed into a community with open arms. It is difficult to describe the feeling of being surrounded by actors of goodwill coming together with the explicit goal of working collaboratively to improve their neighborhood. All the challenges I outlined earlier clearly remain, but for this moment, in this place, I would witness folks rolling up their sleeves, having honest and frank conversations about difficult and emotional topics, and resolving themselves to making progress.

The feeling can perhaps be better articulated by a recent exchange that occurred during a District Team meeting of a project I am currently working on in collaboration with Irwin Lowenstein and ReThink Advisors. The District Team was in the process of establishing organizational capacity as they worked toward their Declaration of Collaboration. As part of the group discussion portion of the meeting, Irwin posed a question: How can we drive transformative collaboration between government and community?

This question is simultaneously simple and complex. It is simple in the sense that collaboration between the government and the community should be a baseline expectation. Local elected officials are chosen by the will of the people and, as such, should be responsive to the needs of their constituents. That said, the question also triggers a series of underlying questions: To what capacity has the government failed to collaborate with the community in the past? How much responsibility does the community itself own for those failures? What promises have been made? What promises have been broken?

What followed was truly remarkable to witness: two elected officials and two community representatives honestly, plainly, and bluntly discussing misconceptions, power disparities, lack of understanding, and other obstacles to collaboration – both historic and present. The difference was that this conversation was happening in the context of a process designed to be proactive, positive, and productive. At no point did the situation devolve into defensiveness, criticism, or worse. Instead, it was stakeholders of good faith having frank discussions about their circumstances and working towards a better outcome.

Watching this exchange unfold, I realized that there was a long way to go, but I could see the trust-building and the relationship improving before my eyes. What was astonishing to me was that such a seemingly obvious and simple encounter could be so powerful to witness. Perhaps it is indicative of the larger cultural distrust that permeates our governing structures, but, for me, this was clear, tangible, and inspiring progress, and I left that meeting feeling incredibly inspired to continue our work.

The challenges we face are real, they are daunting, and they will require a great deal of effort. By focusing on improving the process of community development through the EcoDistricts framework, we can start to chip away at the obstacles that stand in the way of progress, changing the system so that it works better for all of us. That is the work that I intend on continuing, and I know that together we can start to build the world that we all want to see.

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