Eco-districts: Policy & Action

The Chinese Society for Urban Studies (CSUS), the Center for Design & the City at the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), and OTIS hosted the first Sino-U.S. City Design Summit in Zhuhai, China, July 16–17, 2013. The Summit was held in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s 2013 Conference on Urban Development and Planning. The Conference drew an audience of more than 1,500 Chinese mayors, government officials, developers, and city planners. At the Summit, delegate Roger Frechette of Interface Engineering discussed the eco-district as a new model of public-private partnership.

An eco-district is a new model of public-private partnership that emphasizes innovation and deployment of district-scale best practices to create neighborhoods of the future that are resilient, vibrant, and resource efficient. It is an urban area in which collaborative economic, community, and infrastructure redevelopment is explicitly designed to reduce negative outcomes and create positive environmental impacts.

Eco-district policy development is being met with rapidly growing acceptance, with many advocates, including community groups and municipalities. It continues to be actuated by ordinances and laws created to extract tangible knowledge of environmental conditions and trends in order to reduce impacts harmful to the environment resulting from energy generation, waste, and pollution. Policy creation, development, ratification, and refinement are commanding a greater focus on time, resources, investment, and implementation with legislative groups whose mission is to set communities on a measurable path of sustainable development. National, regional, and local influencers are shaping policy development by way of different socio-cultural-economic agendas, means of incentivizing/penalizing participants, and methods for reporting performance measurements.

Current policy for eco-districts is generally focused on the energy consumption of buildings and transportation strategies. The real opportunity for sustainable development in eco-districts is much more comprehensive. A balanced approach, focusing on energy, water, waste, materials, urban matrix, and community engagement will yield a much more sustainable environment.

We have learned in recent decades about the impact that buildings have on the environment. It is now generally accepted that the carbon emissions associated with buildings far exceed the emissions of both transportation and industry. In the United States, buildings account for 40 percent of total energy use, 70 percent of electricity, 60 percent of raw materials, 12 percent of potable water, and nearly 50 percent of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

A natural reaction to this challenge is to move our attention directly to changing the design and operation of new and existing buildings as we seek a solution to the problem. Important work has been done in the development of new technologies, improved existing technologies, automated controls, lighting, and operational procedures in buildings to reduce the carbon impact. Policy needs to continue to evolve and expand to keep these efforts moving forward.

However, if we are to properly address the issue, we need to broaden our focus on the issue. An analogy can be made that compares our past efforts towards sustainability with the model of Western medicine. One criticism of Western medicine is that it tends to focus on the physical symptoms, which then leads to the development of pharmaceutical products that reduce or eliminate the symptoms. Eastern medicine devotes much more time to identifying the “root” problem causing the symptoms and applies techniques to eliminate that root problem.

Following this logic, if we were to take a more Eastern approach to solving the problem, we would look outside of the buildings and ask why they tend to be so energy and carbon intensive. This change in thinking would lead to new comprehensive solutions.
For example, in most buildings the largest percentage of energy is consumed by the cooling systems in order to maintain comfortable internal conditions. The warmer the external environment, the more energy the building consumes, which in turn increases the associated carbon emissions. Urban buildings require more cooling energy than an identical building built outside of the city. This is due to the external temperatures caused by the heat-island effect (HIE) in cities. Hence, if we can reduce heat-island effect in warm climates, we can reduce the cooling energy required in every conditioned building within that city, without any alteration to the building itself.

Other considerations to be emphasized as we design the spaces in between buildings include the amount of fossil fuel consumed for every inhabitant to move through their daily lives. Zoning and re-zoning will also need to happen to allow for an increase in densities and an enhanced focus on travel distance between an inhabitant’s home, work, school, retail, and house of worship. Shrinking these distances to encourage motor-less transportation will have a measurable impact on Urban Carbon Footprint (UCF) as well.

Far-reaching urban planning policy is needed that provides modeling, incentives, measurement, verification, and rewards for achieving environments with more sustainable attributes, such as reduced heat-island effect. Further, failure to adhere to the policy must come with penalties applied when these goals are not met. Only with a “carrot-and-stick” approach can change be made in a reasonable time frame.

In the competitive market place, competition can be a strong motivator for change. Requiring reporting of energy consumption and ratings for new and existing buildings will encourage building owners and developers to strive for higher efficiencies to stay competitive in their perspective markets. Obstacles to change should be clearly identified and policy developed to remove such obstacles.

Roger Frechette is a senior fellow with the Design Futures Council, a global network of design community professionals, and a frequent lecturer and author on high-performance design and green engineering. In 2004, the U.S. Congress recognized him for his work in sustainability. With over 20 years of experience in the field of sustainable engineering and building design, Roger serves as a principal in Interface Engineering’s Washington, DC, office.

Interface Engineering
Interface Engineering is a multidisciplinary mechanical and electrical engineering firm known for innovative resource use, visionary sustainable design, and breakthrough engineering solutions for new and existing buildings. Its work demonstrates how integrated design and creative collaboration can produce outstanding results—for its clients, its community, and our environment.

Featured image of Downtown Tianjin courtesy of Gill Penney

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