Eco-Districts Abound

Today I went to the presentation “Patchwork: Reconnecting Urban Neighborhoods to Natural Systems” as part of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Urban Sustainability Forum and was slightly surprised to find that the “Patchwork” plan was actually for an eco-district.

I first delved in to the concept of an “eco-district” last fall. One of my graduate planning studios was all about eco-districts; studying the concept, drafting a manual for implementing eco-districts in New Jersey, and applying the principles to a large vacant site in West Windsor, New Jersey. We focused on creating a mixed-use development with net-zero energy, net-zero water, and net-zero waste. I focused on the green infrastructure team and ensured, every street corner was equipped with stormwater bumpout planters and that street trees dotted every block.

Most interestingly, we could not find an established definition for an eco-district in our studies, so we made our own:

Eco-districts are a comprehensive approach to social, environmental, and economic needs to guide the creation of self sufficient neighborhoods and sustainable places.

Our final report can be found here:

The Patchwork plan is the result of a partnership of Philadelphia’s landscape architects, architects, and planners and their submission to the International Living Building Competition. Entries must provide a plan for a city-scale eco-district to meet the International Living Building Institute’s guidelines which in addition to a closed-loop water site and 100% on-site renewable energy, have to consider urban agriculture, environmental justice, quality of life, local material sourcing and beauty.

Philadelphia is an interesting place to consider retrofitting a neighborhood to be self-sufficient given the aging infrastructure. The site chosen, the North Central neighborhoods of Brewerytown, and … exemplify Philadelphia’s strong, small-scale grid but the fact that that grid has many HOLES in it. These holes may be wasted space, vacant warehouses, unused land, or areas without access to basic needs such as fresh food and public transit. A recent INTERFACE neighborhood plan for the Brewerytown area found that residents generally recognize that greening strategies can help fill those holes in the grid and stabilize the land until new investment can move in.

One of my favorite graphics from the presentation showed a cross-section of the basic retrofitted neighborhood street incorporating new development, historic retrofits of existing row homes, stormwater infiltration infrastructure and orchards with the less tangible sustainability characteristics of human-scale, humane spaces, net-zero energy, car-free living and healthy air.

When it comes to implementation, the plan lays out specific tasks to be met by specific intervals over 25 years. Some of the green infrastructure implementation tasks over this time frame include:

0 years: green infrastructure opportunities identified
5 years = clean & green vacant land; meadow seeding; start guerrilla gardening
15 years = build rain gardens on east-west streets, alley greening, rain barrels on residential buildings
25 years = living machine systems (on-site wastewater treatment systems)

For more info on the plan:

For more info on the International Living Building Challenge:

I also stumbled upon a recent article on the Sustainable Cities Canada blog all about eco-districts that is worth a look: