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.
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.
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.
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.