• 10.31.11

In The Future, We Will All Live In Ecodistricts

International bodies, national governments, and even cities move at too glacial a pace to keep up with the latest innovations. But small groups in neighborhoods can start transforming where they live without outside help. It might be the future of sustainable urban planning.

Given the growing global population, the swelling of our cities, and the increasing impacts of climate change, we need to more rapidly reduce our global footprint. Many, including myself, have written about the importance of cities in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Cities move at lightning speed compared with nation states and the international community, but even our cities are not moving fast enough. This is why I am increasingly convinced that ecodistricts–neighborhoods within cities that embrace green buildings, cleaner and frequently localized energy, and smart infrastructure–are a critical component in rapidly transforming how we live, work, and play in our growing cities.


This past week I had the pleasure of participating in the EcoDistricts Summit, hosted by the Portland Sustainability Institute. Approximately 400 speakers and attendees came from Europe and North America to discuss emerging best practices in ecodistricts.

One key conclusion: Economies of scale become important in ecodistricts. Tom Osdoba, the Managing Director of the University of Oregon’s Center for Sustainable Business Practices, suggested that it makes more sense to blend efficiency with renewables at the district scale, instead of the building level. Someone else brought this point home by suggesting that “addressing sustainability at the one-building scale is a bit like addressing deforestation at the one tree scale.”

Llewellyn Wells, founder of Living City Block, argued that our continued efforts to go after the low-hanging building efficiency fruit often reduces the bigger gains from deeper innovation because once an investment is made in efficiency, it reduces the viability of a subsequent, larger-scale initiative. He also had one of my favorite quotes from the summit: “Don’t waste your time with incrementalists, they are the enemy of the future.” As one participant noted, a “sustainability Arab Spring” needs to happen city by city, district by district.

Keynote speaker Jeb Brugmann, the founder of ICLEI (one of the most influential municipal networks in the world) and the cofounder of The Next Practice, an urban sustainability consulting firm (full disclosure: I am in the middle of collaboration with Brugmann), explained how ecodistricts should be customized to their local condition and ideally become net producers.

For example, an ecodistrict in a local food-centric community could become a net producer of local food through a range of solutions such as rooftop and community gardens and vertical farms. Others could be net energy producers, leveraging smart buildings and smart grids as well as distributed renewables to generate enough energy to meet all the needs of the ecodistrict–while also selling energy back to the grid. By combining rich local networks with international networks of cities, ecodistricts can provide access to the world’s resources.

Ecodistricts are not only here to stay, but are likely to become the biggest form of city building. Over time, leading cities will be composed of a patchwork of ecodistricts, all interconnected to each other as well as to ecodistricts and cities in other parts of the world. It’s entirely possible to imagine a future where every resident of a city lives an ecodistrict.

Each district could self-identify and create its own unique specialty in sectors like agriculture, electric vehicles, social housing, or distributed renewable energy. Over time, the best practices in one district could be adopted by others in the same city or around the world. The EcoDistricts Summit–an the concept of ecodistricts in general–puts a fresh take on the evolution of sustainable cities by illuminating a path towards accelerated, localized, low-carbon sustainable development that ultimately results in our neighborhoods becoming producers instead of takers.

About the author

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., an urban strategist helping to lead communities, cities and companies on the journey towards the smart, innovative and low carbon economy. Dr.