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Building Sustainability, Block by Block

image_preview-2.jpg As a veteran of Seattle’s neighborhood planning process—both as City staff and as a neighborhood planner—I am intrigued by Portland’s Eco District Initiative. It has a nice ring to it. But, what is an Eco District? The Portland Sustainability Institute describes it this way:

An EcoDistrict is an integrated and resilient district or neighborhood that is resource efficient; captures, manages, and reuses a majority of energy, water, and waste on site; is home to a range of transportation options; provides a rich diversity of habitat and open space; and enhances community engagement and well being.

What’s the best way to achieve this utopian-sounding vision? One answer could be transit-oriented development. And Portland’s in luck because Futurewise has developed a blueprint for Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) that shows the way.

The City of Portland launched the effort in collaboration with the Portland Sustainability Institute to build on a growing interest in integrating neighborhoods and green buildings. The concept started by trying to figure out how to expand the footprint of green buildings beyond their lot and into the surrounding neighborhood. Green buildings surrounded by parking lots, for example, seem like a waste. Why not integrate transportation, green building, energy, water and social services to create a sustainable neighborhood? And the “innovation cycle,” theoretically, is much shorter at the neighborhood level, supporting more risky and unusual projects like switching an entire block to ground source heating.

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To be fair, the Eco District Initiative in Portland is just starting out, and a big part of the work is looking for good ways to measure success at the neighborhood level on things like reducing CO2 emissions, sustainable use of water, energy efficiency, and transportation.

That’s where the idea of Transit-Oriented Communities comes in. The folks in Portland would do well to take a look at the outstanding work done by a team assembled by Futurewise to consider the impact of Transit Oriented Communities (TOC).

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The TOC Blueprint grew out of the failure of efforts by a broad coalition of groups to pass comprehensive legislation (HB 1490) at the state level to support and incentivize [link] the development of more effective public transit and communities that foster it. The Blueprint was intended to gather together in one place evidence for the range of substantial social and environmental benefits of compact communities centered around access to transit. According to the Blueprint, TOC have the potential to:

  • Promote health by encouraging walking and bicycling, cutting air pollution, and reducing motor vehicle accidents;
  • Lower household expenses for both transportation and housing;
  • Reduce municipal infrastructure costs;
  • Provide a high return on public investment in transit infrastructure;
  • Help meet the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods;
  • Curb land consumption and thereby help conserve working farms, forest lands, and natural ecosystems, and protect water quality; and
  • Cut energy consumption and GHG emissions associated with both transportation and the built environment.

All this sounds very close to the Eco District concept. The point is that we already know that compact communities are more energy efficient, produce less Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) [link] and produce less CO2 emissions per capita than sprawling communities.  The work of the Futurewise team—including GGLO and Transit Choices Coalition—is truly a blueprint for how to integrate the key elements of compact transit-oriented communities for maximum benefit. Whether the work starts with green buildings, cost effective transit or land use, the most sustainable neighborhoods, districts and communities are compact ones, aggregating demand for public transit and reducing auto dependence.

This piece originally appeared on Sightline Daily.

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