Getting to High Performance Districts, Cities, Regions & Sustainability

Charles Kelley, of ZGF Architects, presented his leading-edge approach and tools for designing high-performance districts to a core group of sustainability planners at SF Planning in late July. The idea arose from a conversation at a reception hosted by ZGF for the EcoDistrict Incubator program held in Portland this past spring. Charles and ZGF, along with other leading sustainability innovator-practitioner “pioneers” are advancing approaches and developing needed tools for high performance districts in their architecture and planning practices.  Their approach involves creating higher value through integration, which generates the revenue from eco-efficiency savings to produce the higher-quality places demanded today by private and public clients. This type of urban development has also become a strategy for municipal economic development based on attracting young high tech workers and firms.

This approach extends the familiar bits and pieces of good planning and urban sustainability (smart growth, public realm urban design, urban activation, transit, green infrastructure, and ecological urbanism) that we typically pursue in a “silo” mode, adds layers of habitat and ecological functions as new urban “infrastructure,” and integrates them in ways that generate cost savings (think energy/resource “eco-“efficiencies).

These efficiencies then become the funding source for creating higher-quality places than would arise otherwise from our mainstream “silo” based approaches. Clients and public are “demanding” these new places, and we need them in our 21st century cities. The approach is multi-scalar. It can be applied from the room to the region, and it leverages the right scale for a function (energy say) to optimize performance.

This next-generation approach to place making in turn generates another round of multiple benefits. The value it generates becomes the basis for 21st century municipal competitiveness (labor force) and community well-being (for all). This approach “sells” sustainability in terms of benefits people want—great place—and accomplishes them by generating eco-efficiencies in the background.

In addition, this approach is developing new modes of collaboration, stewardship, and partnership arrangements, extending traditional approaches that have been the hallmark of planning, urban design, and place making.  The newly emerging modes are informed by new urban governance trends and needs, as government’s capacity to meet public needs continues to be challenged and diminished directly by increasing revenue constraints and indirectly by our continually changing  economy. Accelerating economic change is accentuating inequality along with government capacity to meet needs. There no longer appears to be be a stable, safe, “middle” ground or class, only an accelerating small group of “jack-pot” winners and a large group of the rest of us “losers.” Ultimately, this trend will require a new “social contract,” and the beginnings of it may be addressed in this arena of new collaboration for new governance.

Another characteristic of this approach involves advancing practice a few steps at a time with each new project. This is accomplished by incorporating innovation into the larger culture and values of professional practice, AND even explicitly into a project’s scope of work and work plan as a routine component. This “innovation” in project planning and management provides the mechanism needed to “invent” our desired–and needed–future of durable prosperity and well being in great and sustainable 21st century places, cities, and regions “on the fly.”

This is a powerful emerging approach to sustainable urbanism because it “moves the ball” out of the failing “net negative” realm of doing-less-damage mitigation into the successful “net positive” realm of whole-systems thinking, planning, and management, and their associated lower cost synergies. However, it makes this shift with the familiar bits-and-pieces and terms of good planning, urban design, and ecological urbanism, but integrated in a NEW way that is self-funding. Of course, it is not a “silver bullet” nor the final word on sustainable or regenerative urbanism, but it takes us a long way without closing any doors otherwise, opens new doors along the way, and provides a powerful platform for future moves.

The following resources extend the points of the discussion and provide links to more resources, including the presentation slide deck.

NOTE: the last two document is excellent “primers” on the topic, although not going quite out as far as our presentation/discussion; They are worth downloading and skimming/reading at some point.

[Scott T. Edmondson, AICP, is founder/past co-director and Research Program Lead of the Sustainability Committee, one of the APA Sustainable Communities Division’s Sustainability Champions, and a strategic sustainability planner-economist at SF Planning, Information and Analysis Group and Sustainability Planning Group.]

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