Saturday, March 12, 2011

EcoDistricts and Garden Cities

The ability of urban planning to continually renew itself and to rejuvenate old ideas can be breathtaking. This is certainly the case with the pilot EcoDistricts Initiative currently being implemented in Portland. The EcoDistricts are existing city districts for which new environmental and sustainability technology s being implemented. The technologies include the latest in green building technologies- and in one case, the 'living' building (that I previously posted about here), district energy (which is when heating a cooling systems stretch across the whole of a district through shared pipes, thus allowing for centralized efficiencies) and new solar and wind platforms.

Each of the five pilot EcoDistricts represents a different type of area and community. Portland State University (PSU) is an inner-city University, while the Gateway neighborhood is a predominantly residential development. The five pilot programs can be seen below:

What each of these districts have in common is that they are all urban redevelopment districts (URDs) and thus each is open to Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) which allows for far greater flexibility in the types and scope of projects that can be built.  Further, each is developed around existing transit corridors - with connectivity between EcoDistricts and the wider Portland area preeminent as a planning consideration.  Future potential projects include the 'Foothills' development in Lake Oswego (assuming the Portland to Lake Oswego transportation project, aka the Lake Oswego Streetcar is built), the Portland Zoo and parts of Beaverton.

Development in each of the districts, while being held to certain environmental standards (the idea behind the EcoDistricts is that they be ecologically sound) is to largely be determined by the existing communities and through various community directed initiatives.  The idea behind this approach is to merge new technologies (characterized as 'hardware') with a strong ecological civil society component (characterized as 'software').  What this means is that, communities will be empowered to make changes, within certain ecological and environmental frame-works.

Additionally, instead of treating each of these districts a though they are discrete, the EcoDistricts projects seeks to derive development ideas not simply from the community within the EcoDistrict, but also in how the districts interact (through transit corridors) with the wider urban core.  The rationale for selecting districts around predominantly light rail and streetcar linkages was to further reaffirm regional linkages while advancing ecological, technological, developmental, equity and civil society goals.  How well these goals are achieved, and how well the disparate communities seize the opportunities that this project affords them remains to be seen.

One of the things that is most interesting to me about the EcoDistricts is that the program appears to be a modernization and rehabilitation of an old planning idea: Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities.  Howard laid out his ideas in the slim volume To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Real Reform (later reprinted under it's more commonly known title, Garden Cities of Tomorrow).  Howard articulated a view of 'garden cities' small communities built around the concept of a fixed community size, stratification of sectors but including a wider mix of uses and guaranteeing access to nature.  The idea was was to prevent urban sprawl and to allow for livable, walkable communities distinct from the slums of Victorian London.  Each of the Garden Cities (of which two were built in Britain: Letchworth and Welwyn) was to include employment, residential space and commercial space.  Unlike the EcoDistricts (which encourage mixed-use development) these were to be separated but near by each other.

Most commonly missed in discussions of Howard's idea however, was the notion of regional rail linkages that would tie the garden cities to greater London.  This omission was in part due, as the planning historian Peter Hall notes in his Cities of Tomorrow, to a failure to reprint all of the graphics included in the first edition of the book in the Garden Cities of Tomorrow version.  The omitted map made clear the wider regional connections. These regional rail linkages were what was to make the idea work.

Connection of the garden cities with a larger Central City allowed from greater flexibility of uses within a given garden city, specialization of industry (allowing for wider regional economic linkages) and wider environmental vitality. While the notion of environmentalism, as we hold it today did not exist in Howard's time, the notion of preserving green and agricultural space, and of protecting people from pollution (particularily the smog and acidic fogs of Victorian London - a product of a coal based industrialization process) certainly did.  The idea of the garden cities was to provide respite from the worst excesses of inner city industrialization while preserving green space through comprehensive land management and planning directed development while still retaining strong regional transportation and socio-economic linkages with the central city.

In a way then, this process is very similar to the EcoDistricts.  Certainly, the EcoDistricts encourage some cutting edge technologies, however, many of the planning tools used in the development of the garden cities were cutting edge for their time. Further, they took advantage of the rail lines, which were the ultimate symbols of modernity in transportation systems at the time. This notion, in some way, persists with the re-emergence of streetcars and light rail within urban areas - and which are the vehicles from linkages between EcoDistricts and between EcoDistricts and inner-city within Portland.

Similarly, the notions of regional planning and comprehensive land-use that characterize the Portland regional planning model (and make Portland a case-study for planning practice across the United States) were brought to Portland by architect and historian Lewis Mumford, who was inspired by the garden cities of Howard along with the regional planning models of the Scottish land-scape architect Patrick Geddes.  Mumford had urged Portland to adopt regional planning models stretching across the river and into Vancouver as far back as the 1950s, long before Oregon's comprehensive land-use laws came into effect with the creation of the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) under the governorship of Tom McCall in 1973 and the eventual creation of Metro, the metropolitan governance model that has managed development in the Portland area since 1979.

With the EcoDistricts, we can see certain logical extensions of many of the older planning ideas that have long characterized Portland.  Indeed, the EcoDistricts are large driven by new green building technologies and planning ideas, however the notions that underpin them remain old.  With the absence of much heavy industry in the Portland area (and with industry being, as a whole, far cleaner than it was during the Victorian period), mixed-use development, rather than stratification of uses has become the preferred method of development.

However, the underlying idea behind both the garden cities and the EcoDistricts in livability. This is a notion that will continue to characterize planning and inform urban development patterns well into the future.  The trend towards re-urbanization is one that may encourage other old planning ideas to return.  Dubai, through it's seemingly endless appetite for large-scale monumental (some, including me, would say "stupid") buildings seems to have embraced the City monumental movement, despite the obvious environmental and ecological violence that seems to characterize many of the buildings.

As some of the development that we see, particularily in Asia, continues to be out of scale in ways that would irritate the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, certain notions of livability through human-scaled development and strong regional transportation linkages are being reaffirmed elsewhere.*  The EcoDistricts represent the rehabilitation of one such idea.  Perhaps others are also due for reconsideration.


* This is not to say that all-large scale building development is bad.  The urban economist Edward Glaeser makes a compelling case for large buildings, particularily in Asia in his recent book Triumph of the City.  Glaeser gives Jane Jacobs some credit but notes that she was not right in all of what she said in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


Darrel Ramsey-Musolf said...

One thing about Howard, he did not necessarily think that the city was beneficial to people, so part of the rationale for garden cities was disbursement and anti-urbanism.

Second, the usage of redevelopment/TIF is nothing new, but in some ways a bit noxious. By removing these properties from the overall tax roll, the municipality is asking existing residents to pay more taxes to make up for the short fall.

Third, you have neglected to examine or address just 'what' is being redeveloped out of existence, and 'who' will be moving out with the 'what'.

As a budding planner/contrarian always ask: Who benefits and why? Who loses and why?

Take a look at Alberta or Interstate and ask the same questions regarding the issues about the implementation of infrastructure.

And lastly, its nice to see you take a stand for something--even if i don't agree with you completely.


Alex Deley said...


Good critique. I offer the following in response:

(1) Howard was not a fan of the big city, but he still realized it wasn't going anywhere, hence why he included transit links to the central city as part of his Garden City plan. District level planning is in some ways anti-urban because the focus is on the immediate community. Portland is a bit like a series of villages rather than like a real City - it's a bit why it feels somewhat like a small town sometimes...

(2) TIF is temporary. I agree, if something remains a URZ for too long, it becomes incredibly costly - I am still irritated about the South Waterfront development, where we will be subsidizing property taxes multi-million dollar condos for the foreseeable future. I think it is a matter of effectively leveraging TIF such that you get new development in but then get that new development on a normal tax schedule swiftly enough that the costs do not prove too onerous to the collective.

(3) I am working on an 'equity' post that I will write sometime soon. It's an issue that really gets to me. With the EcoDistricts, a lot of people play lip service to equity but fail to genuinely engage with it.

Thanks sir.