How green districts are reshaping our cities

Seaholm District, a former industrial area in Austin, Texas is transforming itself into a sustainable neighborhood community.

August 20, 2015

With installations of solar-powered benches, electric vehicle charge stations, local food production and health and fitness programs for residents, the Seaholm District is part of an innovative way of city planning called green districts or eco-districts.

And they’re springing up all over the world from South Korea to Germany. A recent report by McKinsey defines a green district as a “densely populated and geographically cohesive area that is located within a city and employs technologies and design elements to reduce resource use and pollution.” And they come with numerous benefits for local communities.

Franz Jenowein, Sustainability Research Director at JLL, says: “Green districts focus on the sustainable, affordable and integrated development of communities. They minimize environmental impact and maximize social and economic good. They also utilize green innovation and technology. For instance, take the case of recent growth in solar gardens. The solar energy produced at community scale makes it more accessible and beneficial to everyone involved.”

“The size of districts plays a crucial role in planning and implementing these technologies. They are generally small enough to quickly innovate and large enough to have significant environmental impact. They are viewed as micro models of cities’ sustainability concepts to test and prove their durability. If successful, they can be implemented on the city scale.”

Green districts often build on the success of green buildings. The South Waterfront district of Portland, for instance, was certified LEED Gold for its Neighborhood Development scheme. It is projected to have most LEED certified residential towers of any neighborhood in the United States. Rob Bennett, CEO of EcoDistrict formerly known as the Portland + Oregon Sustainability Institute, calls green districts “the next generation of green building strategy.”

He describes his strategy behind building Portland’s green districts as “taking what we’ve learned from green building and applying it at a neighborhood scale.”

Keeping pace with urbanization

As our cities become more densely packed, green districts are helping them to keep up with the rapid pace of urbanization by improving transport systems and environmental health, saving energy and promoting the wellbeing of occupants.

Hammarby Sjöstad, for instance, in Sweden is a sustainable waterfront residential neighborhood. Its public transportation consists of electric trains, biogas powered buses and commuter boats help reduce CO2 emissions. Its residential area has recycling stations and food waste collection for waste management. It also makes and uses biogas alongside a local district’s heating system, which results in lower energy costs.

In its report McKinsey compares the impact of green districts with conventional ones. According to its model, green districts have 20 to 40 percent lower energy consumption and 60 to 65 percent less freshwater consumption and wastewater production. The solid waste going to the landfill is reduced by 25 percent and the kilometers travelled by private vehicles are reduced by 50 to 80 percent.

From green districts to green cities

Green districts are, however, a small part of a much bigger picture as many cities around the world start tackling the issues of pollution and climate change. Jiri Skopek, JLL’s Managing Director of Sustainability in Canada says: “There are several converging factors that support movements at the community level such as green districts. Along with increasing pressures to decarbonize, there is a growing interest in renewable energy as well as efforts to improve public transportation infrastructure to reduce traffic gridlock and pollution in big cities.

“However, sustainability is not the only driver. On a separate front and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there are increasing concerns about the effects of climate change: the violent storms, flooding, severe water shortages due to extended droughts, and power outages in cities – all of which threaten lives, property and urban economies. Sustainability and resilience therefore go hand in hand as the only option to secure the viability of cities today and in the future.”

Smart technology that is already being implemented at building and district level has a big role to play. “Technology used in deep energy retrofits has made buildings the suppliers of clean energy into the grid. The smart infrastructure also integrates fast and efficient multi-modal transportation,” Skopek says.

He believes the benefits of green districts have capacity to revolutionize city planning through its focus on ‘low impact’ development, walkable neighborhoods, green belts, urban food production, and localized ‘island’ energy grids. “Green cities are no longer a choice. They are the only viable long-term solution and the single approach that will have the greatest impact on the livability and economic competitiveness of cities,” he says.

Aligning the economic interest

While the benefits of green districts may be clear, the cost of constructing a green district is initially higher than the conventional one – although the long-term savings in energy and operating cost make it profitable. And this is without considering additional benefits such as the increased well-being of residents and commuters.

It is also attracting new business models for funding. For instance, green districts in Portland were developed with public-private-civic partnership. “While public-private-civic partnership is a preferred business model, not all municipalities have the financial strength or will to engage in supporting the emergence of green districts. With energy conservation and renewables now being recognized by major banks as solid form of investment there may be an influx of capital in these ventures,” explains Skopek.

With many investment opportunities and massive environmental impact, green districts have the potential to change how we build the world. And with rapidly increasing population, green districts have an important part to play in sustainable city development.