A neighborhood street-mural project in Codman Square, Boston
Danilo Morales A neighborhood street-mural project in Codman Square, Boston

In the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, the Codman Square district couples a historically underserved, low-income population with an aging housing stock. The humble square is also a national model of a green community.

During a 2009 revitalization planning process launched by the nonprofit Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp. (CSNDC), residents voiced their interest in sustainability and economic and social equity. The effort, which focused on a 46-acre tract called the Talbot–Norfolk Triangle, resulted in recommendations to spur transit-oriented development around a new commuter rail line, environmentally sensitive infrastructure, and traffic calming to improve walkability. It also proposed energy retrofits and a community solar project that would reduce utility bills for residents and help the city of Boston meet its ambitious energy goals, which include achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

At the time, few models existed for scaling the principles of sustainable design beyond standalone building projects to entire communities. The CSNDC, with several local and national partners, looked to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) LEED for Neighborhood Development framework for guidance, but the standard applies typically to new construction.

Codman Square’s homegrown process became the focus of a charrette at the 2013 summit of the nonprofit EcoDistricts, held in Boston that year, attracting the attention of urban-regeneration experts. A year later, EcoDistricts invited the neighborhood to join its two-year Target Cities Program, launched in 2014 as a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to help communities accelerate sustainability initiatives.

Codman Square, Boston
Danilo Morales Codman Square, Boston

The Talbot–Norfolk Triangle Eco-Innovation District was one of 11 communities in nine U.S. cities to benefit from the program’s technical assistance and guidance, with funding coming from the districts themselves and several nonprofit foundations. EcoDistricts staff led webinars, site visits, and national workshops with district leaders to discuss how to plan and implement neighborhood improvement projects, including community solar-generation facilities and safer street crossings.

EcoDistricts’ holistic strategy to promote neighborhood-wide sustainability developed following its work in several neighborhoods in Portland, Ore., where the organization is based. The strategy encompasses social equity, resilience, and climate change as core imperatives, and defines sustainability in terms of health, community, and economic outcomes as well as environmental ones—perfect for neighborhoods like Codman Square that have concurrent economic, social, and environmental goals.

The Target Cities program, which ended in December, gave EcoDistricts an opportunity to pilot and refine its protocol on a national scale. The organization now offers a formal free protocol and a fee-based certification program for any community interested in joining, as well as a professional accreditation program for individuals who want to highlight their expertise in sustainable development.

EcoDistricts’ protocol focuses on processes as much as outcomes. “It’s not just what you want to do,” says founding CEO Rob Bennett. “It’s who’s around the table.” Each participating district first commits to the core imperatives. Then, to achieve certification, district leaders have up to two years to form a structure for leadership and governance that includes multiple stakeholders and community input, and to assemble a comprehensive plan that includes mapping their current assets and setting targets, timetables, and strategies for improvement.

To maintain certification, districts must report on their status every two years and share progress publicly through the EcoDistricts Certified Registry. Though metrics are important, Bennett says, the EcoDistricts’ protocol is not prescriptive. “It’s not a technical standard,” he says. “We’re focused on providing inspiration and rigor, and pushing projects.”

David Queeley, CSNDC’s director of eco-innovation, says that while his neighborhood was well into these efforts before it joined EcoDistricts, the collaboration and framework have helped him to think about who should be involved in governance and how the EcoDistrict should be governed in the future. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” he says. “You make it fit the situation you’re in.” Talbot–Norfolk’s goals, for instance, will look much different from a nearby EcoDistrict, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., a hub for tech startups that is undergoing explosive development and is adjacent to MIT’s campus.

The Power of Scale
EcoDistricts joins a growing number of programs that aim to scale up environmental performance goals to neighborhoods and cities. “The fact that there are so many frameworks is a testament to the fact that people understand the value of engaging at the community level,” says Steven Burke, sustainability manager at Cambridge, Mass.–based architecture firm SMMA and co-chair of the Boston Society of Architecture’s Committee on the Environment.

Such efforts make new kinds of projects possible. Neighborhoods, for instance, can explore district-wide energy systems and community solar facilities instead of confining projects to a particular building. And neighborhood-scale initiatives can link building-scale concerns, such as energy and water use, with big-picture sustainability goals such as urban greening, transportation investment, and economic resiliency.

Another national effort is 2030 Districts, launched by Architecture 2030. The private–public partnerships are led by real estate owners, managers, and developers, representing nearly 300 million square feet of building space, that work with local governments to reduce energy consumption, transportation emissions, and water use based on district-specific goals and self-assessment.

The City Energy Project (CEP), a joint venture of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, is a network of 20 cities with the single goal of reducing energy use in their largest buildings—usually those at or exceeding 50,000 square feet—which are also typically the most energy intensive, says the project’s co-director Julie Hughes.

Cities participating in the CEP get financial support for a temporary part- or full-time staff member of the city’s choosing to help implement strategies to foster benchmarking and transparency policies, improve code compliance, work with utility companies on incentive programs, and finance retrofits and green building. New legislation is often required in many cities, Hughes says.

For instance, the city of Boston set a goal to accelerate success. Though it already ranked first on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s 2015 energy efficiency scorecard, Boston was not investing in the appropriate improvements to make large-scale changes, says Milton Bevington, the CEP-funded senior adviser to the city. He’s spent two years helping the local government develop Renew Boston Trust, which will allow the city to finance energy improvement above its normal borrowing cap set by credit rating agencies, based on energy performance. “The goal is an order of magnitude increase in the investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy in the built environment,” he says.

These large-scale initiatives and programs also bring new combinations of networks and stakeholders together, align their interests, and enable peer-to-peer knowledge sharing across communities. “Each city’s working very much in the local context,” Hughes says. “But in the end, there should be multiple models that other cities can look to and adopt somewhat if they want to put similar policies in place.”

Architects can take on a vital role in these initiatives by functioning as advisers and moderators of a community-wide planning process rather than driving specific design outcomes, Burke says.

Measuring Success
Cities looking to scale up performance goals are also seeking ways to measure, evaluate, and report their progress. Eliot Allen, a principal at Criterion Planners, in Portland, Ore., and a specialist in urban sustainability rating tools, says that nearly 30 tools in the U.S. alone are available to assess sustainability at the neighborhood or city level (listed on Criterion’s Transformative Tools registry). The platforms include online scoring systems as well as in-depth certification programs with performance benchmarks like EcoDistricts, the International Living Future Institute’s Living Community Challenge, and STAR Communities. They vary widely in price, accessibility, scope, and focus, but collectively they’re helping to usher in a new way of evaluating community sustainability based on performance. “These tools are going to be on hand to measure it, characterize it, and give policymakers feedback,” Allen says.

Among the newest tools are LEED for Communities and LEED for Cities. Announced at the USGBC’s Greenbuild 2016 meeting in October, the programs aim to help municipal governments and community leaders apply the LEED standard more broadly. After registering and applying for precertification, project managers must devise a unique road map that defines projects, goals, governance structures, and a system for tracking metrics. The standard will compare cities based on energy, water, waste, transportation, and human experience. “It’s a data-driven approach,” says Gretchen Sweeney, vice president of LEED implementation at the USGBC.

Des Moines is one of 20 cities participating in the City Energy Project.
Flickr user Jason Mrachina via a Creative Commons license Des Moines is one of 20 cities participating in the City Energy Project.

The USGBC also has created Arc, a digital platform to accompany the new LEED standards. Run by Arc Skoru, a technology company launched by the USGBC and Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), Arc aims to be a one-stop shop for building- to city-scale projects in order to benchmark their progress. The platform will connect users to LEED certification programs and other GBCI products and services, Sweeney says, and eventually include other green-building rating systems. For a fee, cities and projects can register on the platform and submit data regardless of whether they plan to pursue LEED status formally; the platform tracks their progress and issues a performance score.

While the growing emphasis on accountability could have profound effects on cities, data alone doesn’t provide a path for change. That’s where neighborhood-based protocols can come into play, SMMA’s Burke says. Even citywide policies often need to be implemented at a neighborhood level to succeed, which also can pose logistical challenges.

In Boston, however, that's where the Codman Square district has a distinct advantage: committed, progressive community leadership and the support of its residents, hungry for change that benefits the entire neighborhood.