Building Vibrancy from the Neighbourhood Up: Part 1

A New Leap Forward for EcoDistricts

Denver, Colorado is a city with confidence.  This is confidence is buoyed by the arrival of nearly 4000 new residents each month, adding to a population count of 670,000, alongside nearly $4 billion of new investment in the past year alone. “We’re booming!” is the apt description by the City’s recently appointed Director of Community Planning and Development Brad Buchanan.   Yet this combination of assurances is promising a different outcome than what previous surges of growth have brought to the Mile High City and this isn’t growth for the sake of growth in the historical sense.   It is growth with renewed vision.   In 2015, population density in Denver was less than what it was in 1950.  Now the city is aiming to re-densify downtown and other designated “areas of change,” especially near new and planned transit stations. And furthermore the city is aiming to change its approach to urban redevelopment, through “silo-busting” within the city government in order to revise exclusionary zoning in favour of a form-based approach on a newly-mapped Blueprint Denver. It is deepening its understanding of how to grow the city ‘right’ through a community-wide planning initiative called “Denveright.” The Planning Department wants to be able to ask, and seeks to answer, the question: What is the experience of all people living and working in Denver?

One of the places that the city will be able to seek answers to this question in the coming years is in West Denver’s Sun Valley Ecodistrict. This poverty stricken and minority-dominated neighbourhood, with a median income of less than one-sixth that of the Metro Denver region, will receive attention from a new multi-stakeholder research and practice effort to advance integrated, resilient, sustainable and equitable development at the district scale.

Sun Valley is one example of a series of experiments in urban redevelopment at the neighbourhood scale being led by the Portland-based non-profit organization, Ecodistricts. This organization, with barely five years of history, held its fourth summit and research forum in Denver last week. Attending were about 300 urbanists and change advocates from the public sector, the design and engineering and development sector, consultants, researchers and community organizers of many stripes. The sense of common good will, despite the differences among all attendees, was palpable. We mingled with, preached to, and workshopped one another on our various concepts and partial successes in “disrupting urban redevelopment, from the neighbourhood up.”

A preponderance of the discussion focussed on a somewhat unlikely subject when it comes to assemblages of urban developers:  equity. The search is on for strategies to uproot the obvious, painful connection between improved quality urban realms and reduced options for the poor and racialized urban populations.  One spoke about devising strategies of “in-placement” in order to battle “displacement” – through explicit efforts to include the amenities, infrastructures, institutions and services in redevelopment that benefit the poor and racialized in the neighbourhood, pre-development. Others demonstrated through both personal anecdotes and professional experiences how equity can and must be a part of urban redevelopments.  What was clear is that EcoDistricts, as an organization, has assembled numemerous urban leaders on this front to promulgate this message, and intends to demonstrate through example it can be achieved via their new framework for redevelopment:  The EcoDistricts Protocol.

The Ecodistricts Protocol was released online as open access in April 2016, with the first certification training offered on-site in Denver in conjunction with the Summit. Ecodistricts Executive Director Rob Bennett describes the Protocol as a loose-fit, open source, performance-based, governance-focused, implementation framework for neighbourhood scale sustainability. Created through consultation with over 200 advisors and a slew of pilot initiatives, the Protocol does a compelling job of reflecting some hard-learned lessons from change agendas gone by. It is not prescriptive. It aims to be “neighbourhood typology neutral.” It aims to recognize that urban neighbourhoods are not like buildings, not like any kind of private property, nor like any kind of family or private social group, either. They have no clear beginning and no clear end. It has amassed over 1800 downloads to date and 63 designated “ambassadors” spread across 21 cities.   But more than this, it is described as a “theory of change” for urban redevelopment. That is: the Ecodistricts Protocol provides a means for multistakeholder groups to make a commitment to their home place, and to the community of change makers represented within Ecodistricts too. This is to be realized through an integrative process that is context-specific.

A commitment to create an ecodistrict begins with a multistakeholder collaboration, and with all partners’ willingness to commit to the three imperatives of equity, resilience, and climate action. This represents, in and of itself, a richer context and commitment to integration of diverse urban change agendas than I have encountered in other urban sustainability frameworks.  Also exciting within the Ecodistricts approach is an explicit commitment to publicness, transparency, and learning along the winding road of process. And, not least, figuring out how to measure impact.

By the end of the Summit, Bennett could summarize the “design challenges” before the task of improving urban redevelopment, as the following

  1. Engage and build trust through work to improve equity, relentlessly
  2. Accelerate a thriving urban ecology within conditions of urban change while respecting culture.
  3. Make partnerships and innovation in governance inescapable
  4. Pursue integrated infrastructure as a matter of resilience
  5. Eliminate policies, investments and decisions that are racist, inhumane and neglectful

Many growing cities at present, like Denver, are moving away from neighbourhood-based planning and toward comprehensive planning. Ecodistricts aims to keep the neighbourhood scale, the scale at which we live out the bulk of our lives, front and centre. With this agenda and the Ecodistricts Protocol, Ecodistricts adherents aim to bend the arc of the trillions of dollars of investment flowing back into cities around the world toward a better future, from the neighbourhood up.

~ Dr. Meg Holden

Continue to Part 2.

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