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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DISTRICT-SCALE SUSTAINABLILTY RESEARCH: THE ECODISTRICTS FRAMEWORK

colin_colorBy: Colin Day | Urban Lab Coordinator

The City of Fort Collins recently adopted Climate Action Plan (CAP) goals to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2030 and attain carbon neutrality by 2050. As cities go, these are ambitious goals that only Sacramento, CA, has stepped up to match (and surpass) with a newly adopted plan. To meet the proposed time frame, Fort Collins must adopt a mix of highly innovative and large-scale programs that decrease carbon emissions across all sectors. IBE is assisting with the city’s goals by leading development of a variety of research-based approaches to district-scale sustainability projects.

ecodistrict

To spearhead this effort, IBE has adopted a framework called EcoDistricts, which is supported by a national organization of the same name. EcoDistricts offers a “new model of urban regeneration and community development rooted in a relentless commitment to authentic collaboration and social, economic, and ecological innovation.” Fort Collins was selected as just one of 11 cities to participate in the 2015 EcoDistricts Incubator, an invitation-only, three-day, project-based workshop. With seed funding from CSU’s Office of the Vice President of Research early this year, applying the EcoDistricts model to Fort Collins became a reality. Working with university researchers, industry partners, and the City, IBE is leveraging the EcoDistrict imperatives of equity, resilience, and climate change to maximize the City’s CAP goals.

IBE’s Urban Lab (which focuses on placemakers and vibrant urban settings) and the Built Environment Working Group (part of the CanDo coalition for public health focusing on the health outcomes of design) have helped bring focus to the EcoDistricts Initiative. But the team isn’t stopping there; it’s initiating new district-scale projects to improve building efficiency, resource use, air and water quality, social capital and wellness, and economic returns. One example is a new, collaborative project with CSU’s Energy Institute and Sociology, Psychology, and Construction Management Departments to research the efficacy of DC power systems through studying micro-grid systems, and both real and perceived barriers to deployment.

IBE has convened teams from all eight colleges at CSU to identify gaps and opportunities for research on district-scale impacts to climate change. New research will lead to collaborative projects that test innovative strategies. Successful approaches will demand leveraging new technologies by cultivating industry, university, and city collaboration; programming natural systems and vibrant urban settings into our city; and documenting environmental and social patterns.

Through continued capacity building, IBE will partner with public, private, and institutional teams to develop district-scale solutions, supporting metrics that quantify impact and contribute to the larger global dialogue on designing, building, and operating thriving neighborhoods. Given that IBE and CSU will be co-sponsoring the inaugural EcoDistricts Research Summit in Denver next year, this is only the beginning to how Fort Collins will serve as a national model for other cities.