Downtown DC EcoDistrict. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.
Downtown DC EcoDistrict. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.

Should San Antonio join Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Austin, and designate an urban core district or neighborhood an EcoDistricts’ Target City?

It’s a question urban planners, architects, community organizers, and public officials will consider next week when Rob Bennett, the CEO of the nonprofit EcoDistricts, comes to San Antonio to lead a half-day seminar and serve as the keynote speaker at a luncheon program organized by the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects and San Antonio chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

The workshop will be held at the AIA offices at 1344 S. Flores St. The luncheon program will be at Pearl Stable. There are still some spaces at the Wednesday morning EcoDistricts for Practitioners half-day workshop and at the Tuesday Sustainable Urban Design luncheon.

Bennett and his team in Portland take a “neighborhood up” approach to building sustainable communities, a holistic philosophy that connects and calibrates all the disparate efforts and initiatives that occur in cities engaged in “urban regeneration” and progressive 21st century community building.

As San Antonio prepares to spend millions of dollars of public funds, time and energy on long-term comprehensive master planning and multi-modal transportation planning, Bennett’s visit to San Antonio will provide an opportunity for many of the principals to explore what EcoDistricts is doing in cities across the country and decide if the time is right here.

“We provide support and leadership for urban change makers and innovators to accelerate sustainable district- and neighborhood-scale regeneration,” Bennett said in an interview, echoing his firm’s mission statement. “Our job in a nutshell is to help build a ‘neighborhood-first approach’ for the tremendous amount of city redevelopment that is happening now there. We want to help make sure the billions of dollars that will be spent in San Antonio in the years ahead are spent wisely.”

EcoDistricts is about more than blending new buildings with old, or making the neighborhood great for Millennials on bicycles.

A rendering of the Isles in Ottawa, Canada. Image courtesy of EcoDistricts.
A rendering of the Isles in Ottawa, Canada. Image courtesy of EcoDistricts.

“We are a nonprofit, one with the mission of trying to help urban regeneration get done in all its dimensions,” Bennett said. “You don’t just invest money in development. A neighborhood needs to be inclusive, the work needs to be performance driven, everything that happens has to be transparent, and the work needs to be rigorous. Our definition of sustainability includes issues like social equity and public health.”

Bennett said neighborhood regeneration needs to positively impact everyone.

“We’ve been watching San Antonio and everything going on down there, and from our perspective, the Pearl is a model of what can be accomplished with public-private best practices, where public incentives are made available to support a private sector vision and investment, and together drive the best possible outcomes. In any redevelopment project, however, you have to look even farther at every element in the surrounding neighborhood where people might lack the necessary tools to redevelop alongside, with assurance of the same outcomes.”

EcoDistricts began as the vision of former Portland Mayor Sam Adams and the Portland Sustainability Institute in 2009, which in turn, became EcoDistricts last year. At first, the focus was local, all about sustainability pilot projects in places like Portland’s Lloyd District and South of Market or SoMa.

A Portland streetcar in the SoMa EcoDistrict. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.
A Portland streetcar in the SoMa EcoDistrict. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.

“What started as a modest, local nonprofit has quickly grown into something with much greater ambitions,” Bennett said. “Target Cities is a North American pilot project involving 10 cities, including Austin, where the city council two weeks ago authorized participation. The district is downtown along Lady Bird Lake, surrounded by the new Central Library and the wonderful old Seaholm Power Plant.”

A very different kind of Target City pilot project can be seen in Atlanta’s AUC City EcoDistrict, a historic and dense enclave of African-American higher education institutions and a low-income neighborhood.

Readers can click on the link to Target Cities to see what EcoDistricts has underway in other cities, while participants next week will have to consider whether San Antonio would benefit from becoming the next Target City.

St. Elizabeth's East Campus in Congress Heights. Rendering by EcoDistricts.
St. Elizabeth’s East Campus in Congress Heights. Rendering by EcoDistricts.

“In each city, it’s different. None of these projects are the same, but they all are compelling,”Bennett said. “Leadership is some cases is driven by the city government, and in other cases it’s driven by private development or by grassroots community leadership. It’s meant to be a peer-to-peer process, and the EcoDistricts Protocol is a process and performance framework to guide best practices and shape projects over time. It’s about creating a more collaborative, collective approach to the work.”

*Featured image: The downtown Washington, D.C., EcoDistrict. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.