Building Vibrancy from the Neighbourhood Up: Part 2

Operationalizing the EcoDistricts Protocol

As urbanists attending the 2016 Denver EcoDistricts Summit, the Ecourbanism team was motivated and inspired by the variety of examples of urban regeneration success stories discussed by the many compelling keynote speakers, panelists, and session presenters.  As researchers attending the Summit, studying models of neighbourhood scale development, we sought also to explore the role of EcoDistricts as an organization that advances neighbourhood scale sustainable development.  How does this organization view itself in this role?  Beyond the text contained in the EcoDistricts Protocol, what is this organization’s work in implementing this framework and how does it see itself moving this initiative forward?

In a keynote presentation to Summit attendees in Denver, EcoDistricts CEO Rob Bennett stated that EcoDistricts is about “creating the things we wished existed”.  No easy task.  As a means to move this forward, the organization has created the Protocol and an accompanying certification process; the former as the guiding framework and the latter as a means to promulgate the work, ensuring commitment and providing accountability from adopters.  However the Protocol cannot stand on its own. It needs a vehicle for the mobilisation and operationalization of these values. It needs EcoDistricts as an organization to push it forward.  The Summit was a big part of that push.

In our forthcoming publication in the Articulo Journal of Urban Research titled “New Actors and Intermediary Roles in the Craft of Ecourban Neighbourhoods”, the Ecourbanism team explores the interplay between intermediary sustainability organizations such as EcoDistricts, their frameworks for advancing neighbourhood scale sustainability initiatives, and the governance of a transition towards sustainable neighbourhoods.1  We place these exploratory themes in the context of theories of collaborative governance and collective impact, models around which the EcoDistricts protocol in particular is specifically oriented.   In this article, we distinguish the EcoDistricts protocol as a ‘second generation’ sustainability certification system, through its focus on coordination, integration, process and governance.  This is in contrast to first generation certification systems (such as LEED ND) which focus almost exclusively on substantive outcomes.   EcoDistricts is distinctively ‘second generation’ through its focus on the process of community building to achieve its tripartite goals of equity, resilience and climate protection.  It is this latter focus of community building that came through prominently at the Summit.

Context Specificity

What became clear over the two days of Summit is that EcoDistricts views process differently than any development flowchart we might have encountered. It is much more about people and context than performance standards and metrics.  To address the five design challenges listed in Part 1 of this post, a certification stamp – the mantra of first generation sustainability frameworks – is likely ineffective, as research has shown.  Whereas, to achieve such goals, “context specificity” and democratic inclusivity of the existing and future residents of neighbourhoods appears to be the focus of EcoDistricts. This came through loud and clear in the way the Summit was organized and the examples presented.

Interconnectivity was discussed extensively at the summit.  Interconnectivity didn’t refer to physical connections and/or movement of people and things, although this was acknowledged as unquestionably a part of sustainable neighbourhoods.  EcoDistricts applied this concept of interconnectivity to social linkages:  between people, between institutions, and between neighbourhood residents and civic government.  Connectivity, both physical and social, was highlighted as a key ingredient of resilience.  In line with theories of socio-technical transitions towards a more sustainable society, EcoDistricts has recognized that in order to realize the Protocol’s three imperatives – equity, resilience and climate protection – change will be realized through a participatory process of innovation – from the neighbourhood up.

The conversations of interconnectivity ultimately pivoted around equity.  EcoDistricts sees equity as inseparable from sustainability and as a key ingredient to the Summit’s theme of vibrancy. The protocol is positioned as the tool to achieve this.  Yet at the same time, the organization doesn’t expect to separate neighbourhood regeneration completely from the system, multiple examples of investment strategies towards green technologies and climate protection as catalysts for regeneration were discussed (the net positive technology park in Denver spurred by Panasonic and the zero carbon energy pursuits of the City of Boulder were two prominent examples). But as evidenced by numerous panel conversations at the Summit about existing regimes and the state of equity in the here and now, placing an adequate emphasis on equity would characterize nothing less than a revolution and could prove to be the biggest obstacle faced in the pursuit of sustainable neighbourhoods.

All About Process + ‘Focused on Outcomes’?

Does EcoDistricts see its role to be that of an intermediary in an ambitious restructuring of urban governance?  Is it carving out a niche as a convenor and facilitator?  Bennett spoke of ‘connecting strategies and values’, and ‘highlighting best practices’ as well as ‘principles’.  This is not necessarily the role of a backbone organization, in collective impact theory, required to achieve the type collective impact EcoDistricts strives for ).2  It could be fair to think of EcoDistricts as a “Container for Change”.  If the organizational purpose of EcoDistricts then is primarily one of messaging, maintaining the strength of this messaging requires champions and examples of success.  The launch of the new EcoDistricts ‘ambassadors’ program and the ‘certified practitioners’ program are components of the former.  To achieve the latter, however, ongoing research into the types of neighbourhoods that have achieved, or purported to achieved, such successes is needed.  While EcoDistricts, as stated by Bennett, is ‘focused on outcomes’, the connection between the outcomes held aloft for celebration and the process actually needed to get there remains unclear.   Good work is certainly underway to rebuild cities that are ethical, resilient, and climate friendly (although surely not always in the same place), and EcoDistricts provides a forum to highlight this work, particularly where the three align; but whether or not the EcoDistricts Protocol itself is actually feasible in practice remains to be seen.

Ongoing neighbourhood scale research is required – in tandem with the roll-out of the Protocol.  The absence of discussion around this topic of ‘organizational how’ at the Summit indicates that perhaps EcoDistricts has yet to determine how to establish clear successes. Building upon the examples provided is a good start.  The 2016 EcoDistricts Summit was an inspiring event for witnessing the birth of an urban redevelopment movement with a consensus on the imperative message undergirding it. Connecting this message to the EcoDistricts process is the hard work that remains to be done.  We hope that our conversation at the EcoDistricts Research Forum can contribute to this hard work, as detailed in Part 3 (also forthcoming) of this blog post.

~ Daniel Sturgeon

 ….. continue to Part 3

  1.  Holden, M., Li, Charling, Molina, A., and Sturgeon, D.  (Forthcoming).  “New Actors and Intermediary Roles in the Craft of Ecourban Neighbourhoods”  Articulo Journal of Urban Research.
  2. Recent thinking on Collective Impact has downplayed the role of backbone organizations, which were previously viewed as critical to successful collaborative pursuits of social change spurred by multiple organizations.

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