NBM Exterior_View from Police Memorial
© Maxwell MacKenzie

New EcoDistricts Protocol Aims for Green Building at Scale

Want to get your neighborhood from here to there—where “there” is more social justice, environmental health, and economic growth? You’ll need directions.  It’s becoming clearer that we need to address energy, water, land use, environmental justice, and other green building issues within whole communities. Meanwhile, most of the work still happens one building at a time. We need to jump scales—at scale—but how?

The EcoDistricts Protocol, currently in draft form and due to be released in April 2016, may hold answers.

Not just another rating system

The protocol, touted by its creators as “a new model of urban regeneration,” might feel disorienting for anyone accustomed to the fixed targets set by programs like the 2030 Commitment or rating systems like LEED and the Living Building Challenge. Although it does offer a certification path, EcoDistricts is less a rating system than a self-benchmarking tool for stakeholders like government agencies, housing authorities, community development organizations, real estate developers, or business improvement districts. It’s uniquely about measuring the process of change over time.

“Nothing is more frustrating and disingenuous and limiting than having a specific set of targets and requirements before you can really understand the context” of a community, says Rob Bennett, founding CEO of EcoDistricts. He compares the protocol to corporate sustainability reporting, arguing, “Targets have to be created from within.” The intent is to provide guidance to help people and organizations convene, commit, and collaborate, and to document their actual performance on each EcoDistricts metric year after year.

So although it addresses many of the same issues seen in other rating systems, it deals with them differently. For example, LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED–ND) prescribes that “continuous sidewalks … are provided along both sides of 90% of the circulation network block length.” EcoDistricts uses a similar but simpler metric—“percentage of streets with sidewalks on both sides”—and requires stakeholders to set goals for improvement, then report their progress yearly.

For some neighborhoods, LEED–ND or even Living Community Challenge certification could be a goal of the EcoDistricts process. But others might have a different kind of goal, like a 10% walkability improvement per year for the next five years. EcoDistricts doesn’t specify the targets for you; instead, it provides templates and methods to achieve the agreed-upon outcome.

Giving social equity its due

To accomplish this, the protocol requires three phases:

  • District Formation—Setting up collaborative and inclusive governance, mapping existing assets, agreeing on a vision, and signing a Declaration of Cooperation
  • Roadmap—Setting performance baselines, and developing targets and an action plan
  • Action—Implementing the action plan, measuring progress, producing annual sustainability reports, and using results to inform continual improvement

ed-protocol-guide-PRE-REL-DRAFT_0One distinctive feature of the EcoDistricts Protocol is its focus on social equity in the community. “We recognize that much of the concern and complaints over decades now of urban renewal is due to lack of engagement of the community in a rigorous process,” notes Bennett. Thus the governance structure of an EcoDistrict “has to represent the interests of the stakeholders who make up that community.”

Three imperatives are given equal weight within the framework:

  • Equity—“Identify and acknowledge groups within the community most vulnerable to investment and development.”
  • Resilience—“Prepare [the] community for social, technological, economic, environmental, and/or political disruption.”
  • Climate—“Strive to minimize ecological impact, minimize energy and water resource demands, and achieve carbon neutrality and beyond.”

Once the district commits to these imperatives, it sets a baseline and measures its progress in six “priority areas.” As found in the current draft, these are:

  • Place, which includes metrics like voting statistics and freely accessible cultural activities
  • Prosperity, measuring such things as employment levels by race and number of startup businesses
  • Health and Well-Being, tracking everything from air quality and transit scores to fruit and vegetable consumption
  • Connectivity, looking at physical connections (crash statistics, vehicle miles per capita) as well as digital ones (free wifi hotspots per square mile, number of government services accessible by mobile phone)
  • Ecosystem Health, with such metrics as water quality, acres of tree canopy, and access to green space
  • Resource Protection, which includes performance metrics for greenhouse gas emissions, water efficiency, and waste

 “A signal to the A&E community”

Although the EcoDistricts Protocol is process-oriented, Bennett emphasizes that the final step of that process is measuring and reporting actual outcomes.

“It is a signal to the market and to the [architecture and engineering] community that the next generation of strategies needs to be performance-based,” he told BuildingGreen. For example, if you are attempting to move a whole district from natural gas to solar thermal, you have to report annual progress on the fuel-switching strategy. Hoping to reduce building energy use 30% over five years? You’ll need to ensure each building in the district is sharing its Portfolio Manager results.

Bennett thinks this unique level of accountability could ultimately bring together social, economic, and environmental change in the built environment. “What we’re hoping is that the protocol creates the conditions for innovation.”

How to get involved

The framework has been in the works for five years, with 11 neighborhoods in “target cities” already involved in its development. But as a formal protocol and certification system, it is in the very earliest stages, so certain details have yet to be worked out.

For example, it’s free to download the protocol draft (and will be free to download and use the protocol), but certification fees for the third-party certification are not yet determined. Projects will need to register and pay a fee to get access to the toolkits and templates that support the protocol. “We’re still finalizing our pricing structure,” explains Tiffany Meyer, director of marketing and engagement with EcoDistricts, “but we aim to provide a pricing model that is competitive and inclusive, as cost is one of the most common barriers of entry for many certification programs in the market.”

The certification itself will likely launch in fall 2016, but projects can pilot the protocol as soon is it’s published. Once certified, it’s also not clear how an entire neighborhood will be able to show it’s a certified EcoDistrict. “We are working on a deliverable that could potentially be placed throughout the district,” says Meyer. “We’ll have more information on this as we get closer to the launch of certification.”

For more information:  EcoDistricts

Link to original article here

Author:  Paula Menton

Featured Image:  Wikipedia.  Neighborhoods that have helped develop the EcoDistricts framework include the business improvement district in downtown Washington, D.C.