Laying the Foundation for Sustainable, Regenerative, Just Cities: EcoDistricts Summit 2016


katie_color.jpgKatie Vega

Sustainability Associate, Public Health


Sustainable. Regenerative. Equitable. Multi-generational. Community-driven. Collaborative. These six concepts stayed with me after my experience at the EcoDistricts Summit held at Denver University from September 13-15, 2016. The Summit is an annual conference hosted by EcoDistricts, a non-profit focused on developing a new model of urban regeneration and community development. The Summit convenes multi-disciplinary practitioners, researchers, experts, developers, professionals, academics, students, facilitators, and community members to collectively build a vision for a more sustainable and resilient future. IBE assisted in coordinating the Summit’s Research Forum, which took a deeper look at what’s needed to develop interdisciplinary teams across institutions to strengthen the bridge between collaborative research and practice.

As a new graduate and public health researcher, the EcoDistricts Summit was an incredible experience that inspired and challenged us to rise up and tackle existing and developing challenges in our own communities. My degree is in public health, but the Summit connected me to a large, diverse network of placemakers from the public and private sectors. During the three days, I saw firsthand how cross-disciplinary collaboration is the first critical step to better understanding topics like healthy community design, gentrification and displacement, clean energy and climate resilience, district-scale performance metrics, and urban regeneration. By opening the door to contributions from fields other than our own, we gain greater perspective on issues facing our increasingly urbanizing communities and can begin to develop truly innovative solutions.

During plenary sessions, examples of successful cross-disciplinary collaborations were shared from cities like Portland, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Panelists discussed the relationships that supported these neighborhood and district-scale projects, but most importantly, emphasized the community engagement that drove the efforts. Panelists argued that disinvestment in communities has led to increased gentrification and displacement in our cities and towns. In fact, the number of city tracts being gentrified has reached record proportions—such as in Portland, where 58% of eligible tracts have been gentrified since 2000, and Denver, close behind at 42% (ACS). Panelists shared strategies to create in-placement—from creating more affordable housing below 15% of Annual Median Income to launching Streetwyze, an online crowdsourced data tool that uses civic engagement to prioritize public investment.

One of the most important takeaways from the Summit was the notion that equity awareness should be institutionalized. This idea may seem like common sense, but the truth is that our city departments have placed most, if not all, of the responsibility for public health on a limited number of departments (such as Social Sustainability, Public Health, and the Housing Authority). In reality, departments across cities are responsible for the health of their citizens. A suggested approach is to engage leading community organizations in city planning processes and to invite community members to speak to City Council and individual departments. Perhaps by humanizing each department’s work, all city employees can be inspired to collaborate with fellow departments and community stakeholders to develop solutions that achieve health equity. No one person is responsible for all of the challenges rising in our urbanizing environment. Yet each person, no matter what field they represent, has important skills and experience to contribute toward solutions. This is the call to action that was put forth at the EcoDistricts Summit: We cannot take the weight of the world on our shoulders alone, but together—in collaboration with our cities, placemakers, and community members—we can create more sustainable, resilient, and equitable places.

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The relationship between IBE and EcoDistricts began almost two years ago when IBE was selected as a member of the Fort Collins EcoDistricts Incubator Team. Since then, IBE has been developing its approach to district-scale sustainability approaches in Fort Collins and Denver. As an EcoDistricts Summit partner, IBE participated in the Summit and assisted in coordinating the EcoDistricts Research Forum. Comprised of studio sessions, keynote speeches, plenary sessions, and tours of inspiring developments around Denver, the Summit provided an opportunity to network with community facilitators, professional landscape architects, and students from universities across the U.S., and to connect with a diverse group of advocates for healthy community development.

Resource
American Community Survey (ACS), 2009 – 2013. Retrieved at http://www.governing.com/gov-data/census/gentrification-in-cities-governing-report.html.
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