EcoDistricts Summit to Explore Sustainability on a Neighborhood Scale

The EcoDistricts Summit comes to Denver Sept. 13-15. The event has a natural local tie-in with Sun Valley, where EcoDistricts' urban regeneration concept has moved off of the drawing board.
Dubbed "the world's only conference dedicated to neighborhood- and district-scale sustainability," the seventh annual EcoDistricts Summit will explore sustainability and social equity in urban redevelopment.

"We're not doing it at a boring convention center," touts Eric Corey Freed,  director of business development at Portland, Oregon-based EcoDistricts. "We're doing it at the Denver Art Museum."

The summit takes place at the Denver Art Museum.After two days of speakers, "studio sessions" and networking events, participants will hit the town on Sept. 15 for tours of RiNo, Union Station, Sun Valley and other sites in Denver. "We expect to sell out," says Freed.

EcoDistricts is launching district certification and professional accreditation at this summit. The latter involves a full-day workshop on Sept. 15.

Freed says the events draw a wide swath of vocations. "It's engineers and commercial builders and planners and sustainability folk," says Freed. "The people are so interesting."

Registered participants include representatives from Mithun, CH2M, Integral Group, the NAACP, the City and County of San Francisco and Denver Water.

The idea behind the event

EcoDistricts was born in the Portland mayor's office in 2010. The holistic view of district-scale urban design gained traction, and the organization spun off as an independent 501(c)3 in 2013. There are now hundreds of ecodistricts around the world, including three in planning in Colorado.

"An ecodistrict is essentially a defined neighborhood that wants to bring everybody together around the issues of climate change, resiliency and social equity," says Freed. "For each ecodistrict, it's completely different because the challenges facing them are completely different. What we can do is provide tools for communities so they can develop a road map. We help communities and neighborhoods map out the how."

The commonality? "Being an ecodistrict has a galvanizing effect," says Freed. "It changes the outcome significantly."

In spring 2016, the EcoDistricts Protocol was released as a free download online. "Our goal was to get 500 downloads by the end of the year and we've had thousands," says Freed. "We've been having these fascinating conversations about how these tools can benefit more than just neighborhoods."

The protocol sets a variety of short- and long-term goals in six categories (e.g., livability, prosperity and health), then district residents and stakeholders regularly meet to evaluate progress. "Once they achieve certain goals, they revisit it and set new ones," explains Freed. "It's a very fluid thing."

"It starts to give everybody a clearer vision of how this district could evolve," he adds. "This is all essentially agreed upon in advance. It's very different than the combative model of development. This is an alternative to that."

Freed highlights Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in Seattle, a 15-square-block "existing neighborhood with a lot of character." It's also a 2030 District and the steering committee includes representatives from Capitol Hill Housing, the Bullitt Foundation, King County Public Health and Sustainable Capitol Hill.

"Capitol Hill had some unusual problems," notes Freed, citing ill-placed dumpsters that have since been removed and a need for energy-efficient retrofits on old buildings, "They have these very big sustainability goals that exceed the city's."

Another initiative is a "pollinator pathway" that offers habitat to bees, birds and bugs. "It's a very beautiful way to bring nature back into the neighborhood," says Freed.

EcoDistricts in Colorado

Beyond Sun Valley in Denver, EcoDistricts is also involved in two other Colorado initiatives in Boulder ("a charette for a series of projects," says Freed) and a 17-acre district made up of city land along College Avenue in Fort Collins.

Sun Valley is one of 11 Target Cities projects for EcoDistricts."In all three cities, we're working closely with the city, but we're also working with the housing authorities and sustainability and community groups," says Freed.

At more than 400 acres, Sun Valley "is a rather large one," he says. The district is one of EcoDistricts' Target Cities, a pilot program launched in 2014 with a commitment from the Clinton Global Initiative.

The EcoDistricts Protocol is intertwined here with the Denver Housing Authority's planned redevelopment of Sun Valley Homes from traditional public housing to mixed-income and mixed-use. Short-term goals included a B-cycle station (check), and one longer-term goal is more programming at neighborhood parks (a work in progress). But the biggest target is a "net-zero" energy footprint, with a no-waste goal and district-scale power generation.

"We're really excited about the Sun Valley project," says Ismael Guerrero, executive director of the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) and a speaker at the summit. "We've finalized our planning work. Now we're looking to fund and implement the vision. We're looking to start as early as next year."

Guerrero points out that it's one of several Denver projects with a net-zero target, along with the National Western Complex, the Denver Water campus and Pena Station NEXT near DIA. "Denver's really emerging as a model city to think about redevelopment not on a building-by-building scale, but on a district scale," he says.

DHA is currently working with partners to design and finance sustainable technology that can scale to the district level. "It can be a real model for sustainable development for the long term," Guerrero says. "We're looking to build a community not for 10 years or 20 years but for 100 years."

Brad Weinig, deputy director of Denver programs for Enterprise Community Partners, is part of the team working to develop district-wide geothermal, solar and stormwater systems in Sun Valley that "are not only greener and healthier, but they are an economic opportunity for the neighborhood in terms of jobs, reduced utility bills and asset ownership."

To finance sustainable infrastructure, "We really need to get to the next scale," says Weinig. "We feel like Sun Valley is as good of an opportunity as anywhere in the country to do this."

Weinig's million-dollar question -- "How do we bring all of these resources and make them play well together?" -- is what the EcoDistricts Summit is all about.

A speaker at the event, Guerrero says the summit "is going to be great to not only showcase what we're doing at Sun Valley but to learn from other cities that are on the same journey."

"It's a great opportunity to bring others to our community to learn from peer-to-peer exchange," he adds. "It's new territory. It's silo-busting. We can get people around a table and ask, 'How do we do this right?'"

Confluence Denver is a media partner of the 2016 EcoDistricts Summit. The event takes place Sept. 13-15 at the Denver Art Museum. Learn more and register here.
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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