Rob Bennett: The EcoDistricts Summit + Portland’s Living Laboratory Leanings

Rob Bennett is a busy man—but not too busy to give us the scoop on Portland Sustainability Institute‘s latest initiative and event—The EcoDistricts Initiative and Summit (October 26, 2010). In our interview with Rob, we learned all about the City of Portland’s next chapter of sustainable urban development and how the EcoDistricts Summit is poised to showcase Portland’s aptitude at being a living laboratory for cities who want to dig deep into sustainability. It’s another great event that adds to Portland’s street cred as one of the top sustainable cities in the country—we’re excited to spread the word about it!

SE: What is the EcoDistricts Summit and what is the motivation behind taking on sustainability at the district level?
The rationale for both the EcoDistricts Initiative and the Summit is to shine a light on neighborhood scale innovation, and craft strategy to accelerate development, infrastructure and community action in an integrated fashion. With that we can, in essence, move from being really good at green building development—and having a strong national and international reputation at that—and at growth management and transportation related investments at a metro scale, and into bringing all of those things together to drive the next generation of neighborhood scale innovations.

Those were the big ideas behind the EcoDistricts Initiative—understanding there is are big opportunities for designers, engineers, civil engineers, infrastructure companies and utilities. And also recognizing that there’s a pent up demand for consumers and small business owners to make sustainable investment in their buildings and homes. Where you can link action at the community scale with larger investment opportunities there’s a magic that can happen if brought to bear carefully and thoughtfully.

With the EcoDistricts Summit, we have an ambitious agenda and we hope that it ultimately becomes a premier event at the national and international levels on how cities are implementing neighborhood based sustainability projects and investments. There’s a lot of progressive, leading-edge cities looking at how district scale projects and thrust can help them meet their climate goals and how they’re going to grow their economies.

Portland, for a long time, has been doing some very interesting stuff, but we haven’t packaged it as an economic development tool and we haven’t been able to accelerate it because it’s really complicated and requires a knitting together of cities and utilities and development interests to do the work.

SE: Other than Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), who are the main stakeholders in the EcoDistricts Summit and Initiative?
Our first tier, founding partners in the EcoDistricts Initiative have been the City, Portland Development Commission and Portland State University. That partnership has allowed us to develop five pilot projects within the City of Portland and bring resources to bear on those projects. As we get further along into project development and specific projects within each of the pilot districts, additional partners such as the utilities and business partners, like Gerding Edlen and Sustainable Solutions, etc. are going to become involved as well.

SE: The City has its hands in a lot of different sustainable projects. How does the EcoDistricts Initiative differ from the other things the City is doing and what are some of the specific components of the projects that are planned?
I think of the EcoDistricts Initiatives as a new, exciting project, but still aligning with existing efforts. What’s new about it is the integration of disparate projects and initiatives into a single unified strategy. From our perspective, the benefits to the City are creating a strategy and implementation framework to the work they’re already do—but optimized through integrated assessment of districts and the developing of governance, tools and best practices.

For an example, Portland Development Commission makes millions of dollars worth of investments in neighborhoods where there are urban renewal areas and they’ve been very effective in catalyzing those investments to increase the level of development and ultimately increase levels of property tax in those neighborhoods. They’ve never had the tools to do an integrated sustainability strategy to make sure those investments meet triple bottom line goals and have triple bottom line benefits that accrue to the district and the city as a whole. That’s an example where trying to leverage existing investments and strategies for multiple benefits pays off.

I think that it’s also very much a part of the City’s economic development strategy. As an example, when we started the green building program years ago, many thought of it as a conservation program first. They were focused on how we were going to get more efficiency in buildings and looking at the factors of conservation and behavior change that were needed to move the industry. But we originally saw it as an economic development strategy first. And that if the City could leverage investments in building construction and design to create a traded sector level of expertise at our design and engineering and product supply chain firms, that we would not only green up our building stock, but we would create a competitive advantage for our business community. And we see the same thing for EcoDistricts, where we’re using the pilots as a living laboratory and then ultimately trying to accelerate the businesses that do this well—and then export their expertise globally.

SE: What is the vision for when the EcoDistricts? What will they look like and how will they affect the rest of the City?
In some cases it’s going to be really visible and in others it’s quite subtle. On the more visible side of things, you’ll start to see neighborhoods with much more expressive green infrastructure. And we’re starting to see that in certain neighborhoods now. You’ll see streets that are being rebuilt to better manage storm water, to create micro-habitats and to create nicer, safer places to bike and walk. You’ll also start to see expressions of green buildings through ecoroofs and very visible uses of sustainable materials and plantings, etc.

Much of it will be invisible though. For example, if we’re able to start creating district energy or district utilities systems that manage water and waste and energy differently a lot of that will be delivered to buildings through pipes and infrastructure underground. And you won’t see any of that unless there’s a generation facility visible in the community. An example of that is in the Olympic Village District Energy Facility up in Vancouver B.C. where they’ve created this really lovely community amenity in that they’re using smoke stacks as part of an art installation. When the district is using more energy, they turn red and when they’re conserving more energy, they turn green. So there are expressive opportunities for EcoDistricts along the utilities lines.

Other subtle activities within the EcoDistricts are focused on engagement and community involvement. That can take the form of tool co-ops, buying programs similar to Solarize Portland, more community gardening and fruit gleaning programs—really all kinds of home based, community led efforts that already exist around the City, but that we hope to have a higher proportion of in the EcoDistricts.

SE: What will these initiatives allow the City of Portland to do in terms of its overall economic development and urban planning goals?
The pilots are really important because they provide the City with a testing ground for strategy. A really important outcome we’re hoping for is that the City will be able to take a more integrated infrastructure and investment strategy and put it into place. How do you build bike infrastructure, storm water, green streets, water and other utilities at a district scale so that the City can be more efficient in the way it builds and maintains infrastructure?

From a policy perspective, the City will also be able to look at where the neighborhoods are that need concentrated activity and action to help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. What we know is that the City has made a very ambitious commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, but we don’t yet know where the biggest “bang for our buck” areas are. Through the EcoDistricts Initiative we hope that the assessment portion of the program will provide a much more granular perspective of where the City needs to put its investments.

For instance, in Downtown, there are more emissions because of commute patterns and the buildings are bigger and house more people. Therefore we should probably have an emissions reduction strategy for Downtown that’s different than in my home neighborhood, which is primarily single family. And through EcoDistricts we get a framework and an assessment strategy that the City can hopefully—if things go as planned—roll out citywide.

We also don’t view the EcoDistricts Initiatives as an end product, but rather, it’s a means to an end. We envision, like LEED AP, and other tools that have been transformative, that developers of major projects—like the Conway site in Northwest or the redevelopment of the Post Office in the Pearl District or OMSI’s redevelopment—will use the EcoDistricts strategy and toolkit to create higher performing districts. We’re even looking at working with the Zoo on that kind of strategy as they move forward. We envision developers of major properties taking EcoDistricts forward.

We can also see neighborhoods that are really interested in early adoption of sustainable practices—like my neighborhood in Sunnyside—wanting to incorporate an EcoDistrict in their neighborhood. The toolkit that we can provide in the future can help bolster some self-determination and a road-map for these districts. So the City can support it with the districts leading the effort.

SE: Will Portland be sharing these experiences with other cities around the world to help their sustainable urban planning processes?
I believe so. The City has a long history of both doing innovative work and then sharing our lessons learned. We have pretty substantial track record of doing this with land use planning and transportation investments—most recently with the street car programs.

We have city officials from around the country and around the world coming to learn about our system and our planning of the system, our investments and how we financed the system and ultimately how we’re now creating jobs through Oregon’s Deal Works for the construction of street cars. We envision the same thing happening with the EcoDistricts.

This is all part of the economic development strategy where Portland continues to be viewed as a living laboratory. PoSI is positioning ourselves to be able to develop training as a part of the EcoDistricts Initiative, so that we can teach municipal leaders from other cities and policy makers and utilities managers on what we’ve learned.

SE: For the EcoDistricts Summit, who should attend this event?
We’re shaping the event for a mix of municipal and civic leaders. So we’re looking for a broad stoke of policy leaders from all over the country. And hopefully as this grows, we’ll appeal to an international set of municipal leaders, developers, designers, engineers and civil engineers, infrastructure and utilities managers to participate and share their best practices, but then also learn from what we’ve done here and what other cities and regions are doing around the country as well.

There’s a variety of emerging businesses in this space that provide products and services for sustainable infrastructure, for instance, companies that are developing or building components of the smart grid infrastructure—everything from electric vehicles and charging stations to those that are doing demand management and dashboards for computers. So there’s a whole range of companies that are getting into this green neighborhood space through district energy, smart grid, electric vehicles and even appropriate technology companies like bike builders, etc.

Part of the EcoDistricts Initiative is that it’s a large framework or vessel for a variety of activities, such as smart grid, in which there are already well-established trade associations and business leaders. We’re trying to shine a light on this idea on their behalf and provide a wider context for the work going forward.

Rob Bennett is the Executive Director at Portland Sustainability Institute and is running the show at the inaugural EcoDistricts Summit, October 26, 2010. For more information on the EcoDistricts Summit and to register, please visit: For additional details on the EcoDistricts Initiatives, visit:

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