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Ecodistricts Shaping Sustainable Cities

Map of San Francisco's first ecodistrict, which is the Central Corridor, a 24-square block area south of Market Street
San Francisco’s first ecodistrict is the Central Corridor, a 24-square-block area south of Market Street, centered around 4th Street, which will undergo a fresh planning and rezoning process to manage growth around a new Central Subway underground light-rail line. San Francisco Planning Department

A new urban planning movement, centered on rezoning and infrastructure that supports environmental sustainability is gaining converts across the United States. One of the most recent of these "ecodistricts," as they are called, is being developed in San Francisco, where public-private activism is the key to achieving a successful result.

July 16, 2013—Advocates envision ecodistricts as the building blocks of an environmentally conscious city. "The concept is really to use California's sustainability challenge as a public engagement mechanism and focus on the neighborhood scale instead of the citywide scale," says Scott Edmondson, a planner-economist for the San Francisco Planning Department. "If you're trying to reduce environmental impacts and increase efficiencies in things like energy and water use, it's a lot easier to do at a scale larger than a building site but smaller than a city as a whole."

The Portland Sustainability Institute, now renamed EcoDistricts, an organization promoting the planning tool, describes the concept as a neighborhood or district with a broad commitment to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability. "Ecodistricts are designed to achieve ambitious sustainability performance goals, guiding district investments and community action," its website states.

An ecodistrict is defined by its community; there is no optimal size. Property owners, businesses and residents join together to identify, prioritize and implement sustainable development projects in the district. This might be anything from a network of protected bicycle lanes to the collection and reuse of rainwater to large energy-saving schemes. Districts are already established or in the planning stages in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Vancouver, B.C. and a dozen other cities. Boston is hosting an eco-district "summit" workshop in November.

Architecture, design, and engineering firms have leaped aboard the ecodistrict bandwagon. Alisdair McGregor, Ph.D., P.E., a principal of Arup, says the Americas division of the giant engineering/design firm has identified energy, waste, and water—the big three components of ecodistricts—as “a real growth area.”

"For many years, we've been looking at how to make more efficient, lower-energy buildings, but there's a limit how well you can do this building by building," says McGregor. "So if we look at things on a district scale, can we use the synergies between the different functions that go on in the district to overall produce a much smaller carbon footprint development? That's really the starting point."

San Francisco's first ecodistrict is the Central Corridor of the city, a 24-square-block area south of Market Street, centered around 4th Street, which will undergo a fresh planning and rezoning process to manage growth around a new Central Subway underground light- rail line. Once an industrial area, it has attracted high-tech firms and is considered an ideal Petri dish to grow development that achieves greenhouse gas reductions, zero waste, renewable energy, water conservation and other sustainability goals.

"One impetus for the Central Corridor was the subway line; another was the drive to give tech companies development space—not high-tower office space, but six to eight stories, and south of Market was right for that," says Edmondson. The plan for this ecodistrict will propose changes to allowed land uses and building heights and will include a strategy for improving the pedestrian experience in the Central Corridor.

Edmondson says the planning department has identified four types of ecodistricts for San Francisco:
1- The Blank Slate—A large amount of undeveloped land typically owned by a single property owner.
2- The Patchwork Quilt—A mix of land uses composed of undeveloped, underdeveloped, and developed land owned by different property owners. The Central Corridor is this type, featuring many different owners.
3- The Strengthened Neighborhood—Existing residential neighborhoods and their commercial corridors. Typically located in parts of the city that are not planned to accommodate growth.
4- The Industrial Network—Focuses on business involved in production, distribution and repair. The goal is to align these industries so that their operating and distribution systems can work more efficiently.

As Edmondson explains, ecodistricts really depend on the interest and energy of local stakeholders to move the ball forward on sustainability goals. Some projects—incorporating solar panels or establishing community gardens, for example—might just require permits. Other actions, like installation of permeable paving, will require interaction with departments of public works. The goal is to optimize efficiencies at a district scale, when it make sense.

Can ecodistricts be established anywhere in any city? Probably, say most of the experts. But does the district scale always work? No. Arup's McGregor notes that it's difficult to do transit plans at district scale. Some years ago, Arup was asked to put in bike parking and separated bike trails at a community college in Silicon Valley. But the engineers discovered there were no safe bike trails leading to the campus. Until Santa Clara County addresses this need it made no sense to do bikeways on a campus scale.

The Central Corridor contains the elements for a successful ecodistrict, McGregor says. "They are looking at mixed use, which makes a difference both on the energy side and the transit side," he explains. "In the West Coast climate, it's cool in the morning so you have residential buildings needing heat in the morning and commercial buildings rejecting heat. So you can take that rejected heat and pump it back into residential, and you'd really have energy savings." In McGregor's view, mixed use is "almost essential" to create an eco-district. "It certainly makes a lot of things work better."

Edmondson says that the draft plan review for the Central Corridor ecodistrict is underway and should take about one year. Implementation—mainly zoning changes—will follow and infrastructure options will be discussed.

"Ultimately, ecodistricts are the building blocks for an eco-city," says Edmondson. "You would still do citywide planning. But ecodistricts pose an interesting challenge of asking what is the right scale for development."



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