As the concept of sustainable design spreads, and tools like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system expand in acceptance and application, a movement is taking shape that is driving sustainable design toward a more holistic and systemic approach: ecodistricts—neighborhoods that generate all their energy from on-site renewables.

With the emergence of carbon neutrality as a rapidly approaching target for many communities, paired with evidence that now-occupied green buildings are not consistently demonstrating significant energy performance improvements, eyes are opening to a new approach: an approach that views buildings not as individual entities but as interconnected structures capable of producing and sharing resources such as water and energy. Enter eco-districts, a visioning and investment strategy to manage growth and development in major redevelopment areas and existing neighborhoods. The objective is to test, accelerate, and establish the next generation of best practices in green development and civic infrastructure that can be scaled to create areas with low environmental impact and high economic and social resiliency.

The problem is that a building-by-building approach has long ruled, with individual structures viewed separately for certification, even in campus settings with contiguous ownership. For a variety of reasons—whether cost, complexity, or political will—it has been a challenge to engage the industry in an effort to look at the larger whole in any substantive way. The key is to set and pursue sustainability goals in shared and connective efforts at the neighborhood, district, or campus scale. It is only through such interconnectedness that a truly self-sufficient design will be possible in an economically viable and socially equitable manner.

As is so often the case, nature provides a blueprint of what an interconnected system of buildings might look like. In an ecosystem, all plants, animals, and microorganisms in an area function together with the nonliving physical factors of the environment, to create a unit of interdependent organisms that share the same habitat. According to the author of Biomimicry, Janine Benyus, in the case of mature forests, this interconnectedness manifests itself in canopy trees sharing CO2 underground with the root systems of shaded undergrowth, or plants using roots of differing depth to store and share water as needed seasonally.

Similarly, buildings can be viewed together as an eco-district, creating a system in which the whole is able to outperform the individual. An eco-district, explains Rob Bennett, founding executive director of the Portland + Oregon Sustainability Institute and a former policy manager for the Clinton Climate Initiative, is “a neighborhood that generates all its energy from on-site renewables, collects and recycles rainwater and waste, and prioritizes pedestrian, bike, and transit access. It combines mixed-use, mixed-income development; neighborhood-scale parks; schools, community centers, and services; and enhanced IT infrastructure.” In many respects, eco-districts can be viewed as the next iteration of the urban renewal districts that are now so common in many American communities.

Examples of such neighborhoods include the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon; LoDo (Lower Downtown) in Denver; and City Creek in Salt Lake City. Urban renewal efforts in these neighborhoods have spawned a slew of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified mixed-use buildings and other positive developments, including expanded retail opportunities, new mass transit, and the development of parks and cultural venues. However, these neighborhoods do not yet produce their own power or treat their water in a closed loop. Eco-districts intend to do just that—leveraging new technology and research as well as growing political and economic will to push the boundaries of sustainable design.

One example of a community-scaled approach to sustainable design is Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was all but destroyed by a category 5 tornado in 2007. After the tornado, the city council passed a resolution stating that all municipal buildings would be built to LEED Platinum standards, making it the first municipality in America to do so. This foresight led Greensburg to be one of the few places where “starting over”—however unfortunate the circumstances that prompted it— became an opportunity to envision and make manifest a new future.

For existing communities, eco-districts provide a similar opportunity to improve the performance of shared services and infrastructure and offer an otherwise unfeasible degree of performance for the buildings within the district. Eco-districts are being considered in a variety of contexts, from college campuses to medical centers to dense urban neighborhoods. In many cases, a single building project has served as the catalyst for exploring a systemic approach to sustainable design.

In Portland, Oregon, for instance, the development of a hotel adjacent to the city’s convention center ignited the exploration of transforming the surrounding Lloyd District into an eco-district. The neighborhood is home to a variety of development: commercial office, multifamily housing, two sports stadiums, limited greenways, and a number of public transportation options including light rail, bus, and streetcar. This variety leads to opportunities to trade resources between properties and occupancies, with synergies to be found between the demands and wastes of each.

The state of Oregon and the city of Portland have created entities to help foster both cross-jurisdictional development efforts and broader sustainable initiatives. For example, Oregon Solutions was formed to help address issues that require collaborative community governance, including efforts like eco-districts that require buy-in from governments, private landowners, developers, and business—transcending political boundaries for shared benefit.

The hope is that eco-districts will fuel further economic and physical renewal, coupled with true environmental benefits, including the following:

  • Improved waste management: reducing landfill volumes and minimizing waste collection by using waste to generate electricity and heat and contribute valuable nutrients.
  • Reduced carbon footprint: district thermal systems minimize distributed use of natural gas to generate heating and cooling; decreased vehicle miles traveled due to 24/7 uses and services in the district with inter-modal transit; increased vegetation and wetland conditions sequester more CO2 from the atmosphere. l Energy efficiency: reduced energy consumption achieves cost savings for district occupants; renewable energy used effectively to meet limited loads. l Water efficiency: drinking water not used for any use for which potable water is not required.
  • Stormwater management and pollution reduction: 100 percent of stormwater filtered within the district, and either reused or infiltrated so as to recharge natural waterways and aquifers; wastewater treated 100 percent within the district, eliminating spills of untreated sewage to waterways. l Habitat: open space planted with plant species providing shelter and food for avian and riparian species; creating connections across the district via habitat corridors to natural areas.

Many municipalities and organizations are now mandating carbon neutrality. But it is not possible unless the built environment as a whole contributes to the solution. Available technology simply will not allow all individual buildings in a city to support themselves completely in a cost-effective manner. While further research and development on the individual building level will likely improve results, these efforts need to be coupled with systemic approaches to sustainable design.

Eco-districts provide a framework for such an approach and, in many communities, policies are leading to their consideration and adoption. What such a district will look like, or how exactly it will operate, is still being debated and considered on a case-by-case basis. What is more certain is that such districts are critical to achieving significant environmental change in the built environment.