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Recently, we attended an EcoDistricts Summit here in Washington, D.C., EcoDistrict is a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, with a rising number of branches around the country, and it is dedicated to spurring the creation of just, sustainable and resilient cities and neighborhoods for all. The Summit brought together over 500 academics and practitioners from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe, all of whom are working to cultivate positive, community-driven change, one neighborhood at a time.

Above all, the Summit was an incredible opportunity to get a first-hand look at the district-scale sustainability movement and to relate such initiatives to what the IDB is doing to promote sustainable infrastructure. The Bank could not be more in line with this movement and already has extraordinary opportunities to ramp up community regeneration and urban revitalization on a neighborhood scale.

sostenibilidad blog

During the Summit, we learned some extremely valuable lessons from different “city makers” on ways that we can measure urban sustainability:

1. Governance. Effective district or neighborhood-scale sustainable development requires a new model of Public- Private Community Partnership (PPCP) that emphasizes innovation, transparency and collaborative action. EcoDistricts calls this “collaborative governance”  and it boils down to different stakeholders co-developing projects together. This is really hard work because it entails outsiders building trust with a community and  diverse stakeholders sharing  decision making power to co-create Sustainable solutions.

sostenibilidad urbana Twyford’s five-step collaborative governance model. Source: EcoDistricts

2. Innovation. Ultimately, innovation can only happen in collaborative environments. Innovation here doesn’t necessarily imply new technology, but a process that views the civic space as means to give a community a sense of place. To achieve this, one needs to develop new forms of governance! Some cities are at the forefront of innovation, but smaller, EcoDistricts style neighborhood sustainable pilot projects can quickly become models for wider application. Some examples from D.C. include Canal Park (successful at managing storm water from adjacent streets) and The Yards.

3. Rating tools. Sustainability metrics are absolutely key in community development projects. There must be a framework in place to measure planning, design, execution and performance over time, and the IDB and other multilateral organizations can play a big role here. A recent global survey found 54 urban sustainability rating tools in 22 countries; only one of them was created and used in the LAC region. LEED for Neighborhood Development, a set of sustainable, neighborhood – scale design standards, is one rating system that could have a huge impact in LAC. A new LEED tool, called LEED-UP (LEED for Upgrading Informal Settlements), is under development and will rate slum upgrade projects. It will be particularly useful for the IDB’s urban LAC urban portfolio

4. Resilience. Another key element in the discussion about city sustainability is resilience, or the capacity of a system to weather change while retaining its identity, function and structure. Whereas sustainability is all about long-term thinking, resilience is easier to understand and often more immediately desirable for communities undergoing change.

5. Happiness. The Summit opened and ended with two great champions of happiness for cities:. Charles Montgomery, author of the book Happy City and Jason Roberts, (founder of The Better Block Project). They spoke to how we can all explore better ways to link the design of cities and the ways  their residents think, feel and act. Whether drawn from scientific experiments or from practical block by block projects, Montgomery and Roberts showed that happiness flourishes when proactive, citizen-led initiatives build vibrant and sustainable cities. Good design can change the way we relate to our cities, neighbors and other human beings.

We left the Summit inspired and motivated. As challenging as can be to contemplate and measure urban sustainability, it is encouraging to realize that we do not need to start big. We can think one neighborhood at a time, as long as we inspire others to join the movement!

Denise Levy is an environmental specialist in the Environmental and Safeguards Group (ESG) at the Inter-American Development Bank, where she supports the unit`s work on urban development and sustainable tourism programs in such countries as Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and Uruguay. Denise holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Analysis and a M.Sc. in Environmental Sciences and Policy and has been with the Bank for seven years. Prior to joining the IDB, Denise spend six years at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Brazil, where she managed the Atlantic Forest Private Lands Conservation Program.

Melissa Barandiaran works as Environmental Consultant for the Environmental Safeguards Group (ESG) at the Inter-American Development Bank, where she is part of the Transport and Urban Cluster and works in projects based in Haiti, Mexico and other countries of the LAC region. Melissa holds a Master in Public Administration, with a double concentration in Environment and Energy from Columbia University, and has been working for the Bank for 3 years. Prior joining IADB Melissa spent almost four years working for the Ministry of Industry in Peru working on petrochemicals projects, renewal energy and tariff regulations.