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Seeking Solutions Outside the Building

Alan Scott, Posted 03/01/2017

Architects design buildings, and we understand that good design shapes people's experiences both within and around them. Many architects are also versed in high-performance building design and strive to create buildings that reduce utility costs and climate impacts, while improving the health and well-being of occupants and the environment. However, the opportunities for influence are limited when we approach them one building at a time.

The Living Building Challenge was the first sustainable building standard to popularize the concept of scale jumping, expanding the boundaries of strategies beyond the building to optimize performance, but EcoDistricts took that concept further and made it into a comprehensive protocol to address ecological, economic and social challenges at a neighborhood scale.

Standards like LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND), the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and its companion, the Living Community Challenge, all start with the physical environment-buildings and infrastructure-and focus on creating the conditions for healthy, environmentally friendly communities. This makes sense, as these elements are within the purview of developers, planners and architects, where direct impacts can be made. However, this approach assumes that the future occupants will respond to those conditions and act accordingly to fulfill the good intentions for a sustainable community.

EcoDistricts turned this around and advocates starting with people. The process begins with forging of public-private-civic partnerships to foster collaboration and to guide what is created. More importantly, these partnerships ensure that the initiatives that are launched are then maintained, improved and expanded over time as conditions change. While developers and architects are key to the infrastructure planning and implementation that supports a district, a shared vision and backbone organization, formed by community leaders and stakeholders, establishes the direction and governs the process as a vibrant and dynamic district evolves.

EcoDistricts is an organization inspired by recent urban initiatives from the Portland Sustainability Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative, but it has much older roots in works like Jane Jacobs' groundbreaking book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961). The EcoDistricts Protocol, released in April 2016, outlines the imperatives and priorities, and (most importantly) the governance structure and process required to create and maintain a vibrant ecodistrict. The protocol prescribes three cross-cutting imperatives: climate protection, resilience and equity. It also identifies six priorities: place, prosperity, health and well-being, connectivity, living infrastructure, and resource regeneration. 

It is up to each district team to determine how these will manifest within the district. Let's take a look at each of the imperatives and how some of the priorities fit in.


Climate Protection

Probably most familiar to architects and engineers, the climate protection imperative raises similar issues to those we address in buildings, energy efficiency, renewable energy and transportation alternatives, but takes advantage of scale jumping efficiencies. District energy systems, combined heat and power, and renewable energy systems can be designed and operated for optimal performance when serving the diverse mix of loads found across multiple buildings within a district. Similarly, district scale solutions offer greater potential to increase the ease, safety and desirability of walking and biking and improve access to citywide and regional transportation networks. These solutions significantly reduce carbon emissions while also reducing utility costs for district residents and businesses, improving air quality, and promoting active lifestyles.

Since cities account for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, this area has potential for significant positive impact.



Cities everywhere face potential disruptions, from social and economic shocks, to natural hazards like severe storms, flooding and earthquakes, and even slow-moving trends like drought, famine or sea level rise. Resilience is the measure of a community's capacity to withstand and recover from these hazard events. An ecodistrict can establish and maintain resilience through infrastructure and community. Architects and engineers can help on the infrastructure side by designing buildings to withstand structural, thermal and other stresses from potential hazards, and to remain habitable and comfortable in a prolonged disruption of utilities.

However, infrastructure is not enough; in fact, districts and cities derive much of their resilience from community bonds. Planners and architects can help here too by designing buildings and public spaces which support and encourage social interaction and increase community cohesion. Community bonds forged during good times support a resilient response during and after potential shocks.



Cities are most resilient when they have engaged and connected citizens, and strong neighborhoods are where most of these community connections are forged and maintained. However, acknowledging and addressing inequity, such as the displacement of established communities through gentrification when well-intentioned redevelopment occurs, can be an uncomfortable and even divisive topic. Embracing equity means identifying and connecting with vulnerable and marginalized populations and creating real opportunities for them to engage in the process, be heard and assume leadership roles. 

First and foremost, equity means creating the conditions for all people to flourish through civic engagement, access to education and recreation, and economic opportunity. Architects can embrace equity through meaningful engagement and inclusion while facilitating the public process in planning phases, and in the design process by recognizing, accommodating, and celebrating the diversity of cultures and traditions of the people who will live and work there.

Ecodistricts are now in formation, planning or development stages in hundreds of cities across North America and around the world. 

Architects are creative problem solvers at heart, and can lend their visionary perspective in multiple contexts; we are experienced at observing, listening to and documenting our client's needs, and then orchestrating innovative solutions. While ecodistricts present a different set of design challenges and require unique solutions, the facilitation, programming and design skills of architects and planners can be a valuable asset to an ecodistrict team. What do you think?


Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM, is an architect with nearly 30 years of experience in sustainable building design. He is a director with YR&G Sustainability in Portland, Ore. To learn more, visit and follow Alan on Twitter @alanscott_faia.

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