Since its founding, the U.S. has seen its population steadily move from rural to urban environments: the 1790 U.S. Census reported a 95 percent rural to 5 percent urban ratio, the 1890 U.S. Census, a 28 percent to 72 percent ratio, the 2010 U.S. Census, a 20 percent to 80 percent ratio. While urbanization has produced large-scale economic and community development throughout the country, it has also created challenges with water and sewage, air quality, vehicle traffic, energy systems, and natural resource consumption. In an attempt to address these urbanization issues, groups of architects, engineers, urban planners, government officials, academics, and community leaders have begun to develop a possible solution: eco-districts.
An “eco-district” is a defined urban area in which collaborative economic, community, and infrastructure redevelopment is explicitly designed to reduce negative and create positive environmental impacts. Eco-districts were developed in order to scale the success of green building initiatives. By focusing on buildings and systems found within a defined district rather than an individual building, eco-districts are seen as the next step in reducing the environmental impacts of cities. Supporters claim that an individual building is not necessarily the optimal scale for water conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy creation systems, to name a few. An eco-district, on the other hand, has the potential to accrue more significant benefits and savings from greater systems optimization and integration because of the larger yet manageable scale of a district. As the Portland Sustainability Institute puts it, “Districts are…small enough to innovate quickly and big enough to have a meaningful impact.” Currently, many U.S. cities are in the early stages of testing the viability of eco-districts, including Living City Brooklyn’s Gowanus project; five pilot projects in Portland, Oregon; Washington D.C.’s SW Ecodistrict.
While the term “eco-district” may be new to many, supporters view eco-districts as a part of a forward-looking continuum: from green buildings to eco-districts to eco-cities. Though eco-cities are the longer-term goal, advocates of eco-districts presently view districts as more logistically possible than entire cities. And, equally as important, eco-districts are considered more politically possible than other initiatives such as a carbon tax or infrastructure redevelopment because they may not require major legal changes or federal spending.
Whether eco-districts will successfully meet their goals, lead to eco-cities, and pressure states to follow suit, is currently unclear. One thing is certain, though, many successful green building practices are ready to be scaled. More experimentation with these practices is undoubtedly necessary to maximize their environmental benefits and make them cost-effective. But, there is little doubt that the practices applied to buildings should be given an opportunity to improve the economic, community, infrastructure, and environmental sustainability of U.S. districts and cities.