Ask the Expert: Rob Bennett talks about district-scale green planning, and why you should take the new EcoDistricts workshop

For Rob Bennett, sustainability on all levels has been a career focus. As the Executive Director of the Portland Sustainability Institute he’s been able to really make an impact, spearheading unique initiatives that take the idea of our green future to a new level.

Now, he is coming to Canada to teach the CaGBC’s first ever EcoDistricts workshop, which focuses on this innovative approach to district-scale sustainability. We talked to Rob about his career, what it means to look at sustainability on a large scale, and why you can benefit from taking the new EcoDistricts course.

1) Tell me a bit about your professional background and your 14 years in the industry, and more specifically what you do at PoSI?

My 14 years in the industry have focused on shaping municipal sustainable development projects and policy at the intersection of city planning, real estate development, economic development and environmental policy. Before PoSI, I worked for two of North America’s most innovative cities, Vancouver, BC and Portland, Ore. and the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation, where I focused on climate change reductions and building performance policy. As executive director of PoSI, my job is to promote ‘next generation’ urban sustainability projects in the areas of policy, leadership and strategy. Our main focus is EcoDistricts – neighborhoods or districts where neighbors, community institutions and businesses join city leaders and utility providers to meet ambitious sustainability goals.

2) What are a few of the benefits of the EcoDistrict approach?

Addressing city challenges at the district or neighborhood level provides an important scale to test and replicate integrated sustainable development solutions. We believe districts are the scale at which to innovate, because they are large enough to quickly make a difference for the people in them. The outcomes of the EcoDistricts approach result in strong neighborhood-based leadership to guide sustainability; coordinated strategy linking city and community action; and projects that meet multiple goals at once.

3) The CaGBC is working with PoSI to offer a new, one-day EcoDistrict course, which you will be teaching. What can those attending hope to learn from you and this course?

Working with public agencies, utilities, developers, and community stakeholders is messy work but it is also key to creating a successful sustainability implementation strategy. We hope attendees will walk out of the workshop understanding PoSI’s EcoDistricts framework that guides neighborhood projects and that they will be equipped with practical governance, engagement, assessment, and project development tools. In the big picture, we aim to help practitioners tackle the complex challenges facing cities today.

4) We are increasingly seeing emphasis put not just on having green or sustainable buildings individually but on whole sustainable community design and planning. Why do you think there is this shift?

The shift is happening because we recognize that buildings are part of a larger whole. They are connected to the community in which they sit and that relationship between building and city needs to be addressed. Green buildings only get you so far and so you have to connect what happens in the building with those who live and work in them to the surrounding infrastructure.

5) Can you tell me a bit about Portland’s EcoDistrict Strategy, specifically where it is right now, how it has been received thus far, and any interesting lessons learned?

The Portland pilot program is going on three years. The program has built great interest and leadership in each of the five pilots. There are some interesting projects underway from district energy to commercial retrofits to PSU’ electric vehicle infrastructure project. As it relates to the growth of EcoDistricts, the Portland pilot program is an important reflection of a city’s willingness to innovate and to bring together key district stakeholder to do the big work. The pilot program has shown the opportunity to do projects that are bigger then one property owner or one developer but to execute projects that have significant impact on the neighborhood level.

6) Where do you think the future of the green building industry as a whole is headed?

I see an increasing emphasis on long-term performance – not just certifying a building before it is occupied but monitoring buildings over time. There is increased emphasis on reducing the impact of buildings on climate change and energy scarcity. I also think growing the number of projects across the different industry will be a big focus for the green building industry in the near future.

For more information on EcoDistricts visit our website or click here to register now.