Sustainable Atlanta picks three communities to become EcoDistricts

By Maria Saporta

Three metro Atlanta communities — the Atlanta University Center, Lakewood Heights and Lithonia — are part of a select group.

Sustainable Atlanta has selected them to participate in the first year of the Greater Atlanta EcoDistrict Initiative — a concept that is relatively new to Atlanta.

The Midtown Community Improvement District launched a pilot EcoDistrict in 2012 — approaching community development  with more innovative and sustainable building and infrastructure practices.

“The process of planning for our EcoDistrict allowed us to identify creative and comprehensive solutions to some of Midtown’s major challenges – energy, water, transportation, waste, and open space,” said Dan Hourigan, director of transportation and sustainability at the Midtown Alliance.

Hourigan added that community input was critical. “It helped us understand what sustainability means to stakeholders in Midtown and their level of interest in pursuing it,” Hourigan said. “We view our EcoDistrict initiative as an economic development strategy based in environmental stewardship, making Midtown an even more attractive place for people and companies looking to invest.  Implementing EcoDistricts in communities throughout the region is a great way to give citizens a voice for how they want to see their community grow.”

Sustainable Atlanta is a nonprofit that works with the public sector as well as companies and community organizations — seeking a balance between environmental stewardship, economic development and social equity.

By selecting the first three EcoDistricts, Sustainable Atlanta hopes to demonstrate that the initiative is a good fit for the Atlanta region’s diverse neighborhood types including urban residential neighborhoods, university centers and suburban communities.

Over the next year, Sustainable Atlanta will provide guidance and assistance to the participating communities. During the first year of programming, the three EcoDistricts will receive community-wide training to increase their civic engagement and develop the necessary skills to work on issues like land-use planning, prioritizing projects and being inclusive on the long-term.

Sustainable Atlanta will also connect participating neighborhoods with local and regional resources to provide additional support — ranging from local food production to energy efficiency retrofitting to youth-led park designs. Sustainable Atlanta also aims to leverage existing and innovative funding opportunities to move participating communities from only sustainable planning to full-on sustainable action.

“For many of the residents living within our neighborhoods, this place has been their home and that of their families for generations,” Tina Arnold, executive director of Sustainable Lakewood, said in a release.

“Becoming an EcoDistrict is important to making certain that our current needs are met, that our future needs are planned for, and that we have not harmed the environment while taking care of ourselves,” she added.

The EcoDistricts concept was developed in Portland, Oregon. It has quickly gained traction as a key tool in developing sustainable, resilient cities. Neighborhoods, rather than entire cities, counties or states, are provided planning tools and space to discuss the ideas for projects and programs to make their communities places that work for them now and for generations to come.

According to Sustainable Atlanta, the program is flexible, resulting in a variety of available approaches. Washington, D.C. is using the process to re-imagine an area near the National Mall, creating “complete streets” to allow cars, bikers and those on foot to better access our nation’s capital. The city of Boston is using EcoDistricts as the framework for its highly-praised Innovation District. The former industrial area is being transformed to meet the needs of the workers of the future.

In each case, the EcoDistrict approach allows communities to see what is important to them and how they can achieve common goals around sustainability and resiliency.

The three communities participating in the 2014 program will serve as the testers of the EcoDistricts model in metro Atlanta. Their experience and feedback will be used by Sustainable Atlanta to further adap t the program for the other selected areas in the Atlanta region. The goal is to creating a rich network of EcoDistricts in the Atlanta region. The 2014 class will soon join Midtown Atlanta as full-fledged EcoDistricts, with many more to follow.

For metro Atlanta communities and individuals interested in future Greater Atlanta EcoDistrict efforts, they should visit: Sustainable Atlanta’s website.

EcoDistricts are poised to play an important role in preserving community pride while transforming our region into becoming an innovative and sustainable leader — one that can compete for localized jobs of the future, according to the release announcing the three new EcoDistricts.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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