By Guest Columnist MELONIE THARPE, the EcoDistrict coordinator at Sustainable Atlanta
Ever heard of an EcoDistrict? If not, you are not alone. This Portland-originating term refers to a new neighborhood-level approach to sustainable development that integrates building and infrastructure projects with community and individual action.
EcoDistrict communities gather together their business owners, property owners, faith leaders, students and active citizens to discuss community-level needs, existing assets and tiered solutions to overcome challenges, change behaviors and bring in new resources.
In short, community members make decisions for the community, about the community in regards to sustainability. This scale is being tested around the country as the right bridge between building-level efforts and city level efforts – filling the gap at the community level.
The EcoDistrict framework can be used as an economic driver as well. Boston is using the tools of EcoDistrict planning to create a new Innovation District. It touts the first free-standing Innovation Lab in the world along with live-work-play elements key to attracting new talent and businesses to the area.
Neighborhoods like Portland’s Cully are using EcoDistricts as a fresh-start planning tool to assess community needs while attracting new investment in job training programs. “Green jobs” have been touted as non-exportable positions that don’t necessarily require a four year degree. Places like Cully are banking on this as they train residents in things like energy efficiency retrofitting and alternative waste management services.
Atlanta area communities could see similar benefits including jobs in waste recycling, green-tech and community-level project management. Less direct economic advantages could include blight and crime reduction as neighborhoods strengthen, bring in new families or businesses and band together to secure their community assets.
One community in Atlanta is already experiencing EcoDistrict success. Since 2012 Midtown Atlanta has undertaken a pilot version of the EcoDistrict concept called Greenprint. More than 1,000 members of the residential and business community participated in a process of setting sustainability priorities for the district. To date, the area has installed 50 public recycling containers, the first of their kind in Atlanta, and a 3,000 gallon cistern to collect rainwater for localized irrigation. Four miles of bike lanes have been installed with an additional 10 on the way.
Lessons from the pilot, along with research and collaboration efforts undertaken by a Sustainable Atlanta-led task force, has created an EcoDistrict framework perfectly adapted for the Atlanta metro region.
In late October, Sustainable Atlanta announced a call for pioneering communities around the region who want to be among the next EcoDistricts here.
Interested communities have until early December to apply for the BETA program. Only a few applicants will be selected for the process, working as a cohort to test the Greater Atlanta EcoDistrict model in varying metro communities including suburban and urban, campuses, commercial districts, and neighborhoods. Interested communities can find further information about the BETA benefits and commitments on the Sustainable Atlanta website.
As our region grows and changes – new infrastructure investments, changing community demographics, new businesses locating here – many different strategies will be needed to strengthen our neighborhoods into the vibrant, healthy, happy places that everyone wants to call home. EcoDistricts are poised to play an important role in preserving community pride while transforming our city into an innovative and sustainable leader — one that can compete with localized jobs of the future.
Sustainable Atlanta advances the health, prosperity and quality of life for all people in metro Atlanta by nurturing a balance between environmental stewardship, economic development and social equity. As a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit, we connect and leverage the work of public, private and community organizations and create tools to facilitate engagement, accelerate progress and share our region’s sustainability stories.