Nearly one-half of the world’s population is currently living in cities--a figure that is projected to grow to two-thirds by 2050. The trend toward urbanization is clear, yet, in far too many instances, traditional development patterns have adversely affected the most vulnerable among us, leading to unintended and undesirable outcomes. The costs of development can be seen in the vast and growing equity gap present in many of our cities: income inequality, racial discrimination, lack of access to education and employment opportunities, health disparities, and more. Further complicating the situation is the growing threat that climate change poses to communities around the world.


Still, significant investments are being made to develop and revitalize neighborhoods, commercial districts, and brownfields, and billions of dollars are being steered toward infrastructure projects. This investment represents an exciting and, in many cases, long overdue resource commitment to the health and vitality of our urban centers, but how can we ensure this development does not disrupt and displace communities and neighborhoods? Community leaders, government officials, and developers are leading efforts to enact a more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable community development process--an approach championed by EcoDistricts.


Emerald is part of the MetroHealth project team currently constructing a new hospital tower located in the Clark-Fulton/Metrohealth EcoDistrict, the first certified district in Ohio and the fourth in the nation. Across the country, there are nearly 20 registered districts that are well into the certification process. In this blog, we will explore how the EcoDistricts' approach differs from traditional methods of community development and how can this approach be applied to your community or large-scale development.


What is EcoDistricts?

Founded in 2013 in Portland, Oregon, EcoDistricts is an organization comprised of a multi-disciplinary community of urban planners, sustainability professionals, and community engagement experts who champion the idea of just, resilient, and sustainable cities built from the neighborhood up. Recently adopted by Partnership for Southern Equity as part of its strategic initiative to promote Just Growth in the American South and beyond, EcoDistricts is rooted in the belief that people who are affected by a development’s design decisions must be deeply involved in making those decisions, that sustainability and equity are fundamentally linked, and that the neighborhood is the ideal scale in which to implement positive change.


The EcoDistricts Protocol

The EcoDistricts Protocol guides project teams through the certification process and inspires new models of development for future implementation. The protocol is based on 3 Strategic Imperatives:

  • Equity: Acknowledge communities most vulnerable to change and ensure the community has the opportunity to meaningfully participate, lead, and thrive
  • Resilience: Capacity to withstand social, economic, and environmental shocks and stresses
  • Climate Protection: Build a pathway to carbon neutrality

Related to the Imperatives are 6 Priorities with associated indicators:

  • Place: Create inclusive and vibrant communitiesExample indicators: Civic engagement, preservation and celebration of culture and history, accessible public spaces
  • Prosperity: Support education and economic opportunities that build prosperity and accelerate innovationExample indicators: Equitable access to quality education and career pathways, robust employment base, availability of quality jobs, entrepreneurial innovation
  • Health + Wellbeing: Nurture people’s health and happinessExample indicators: Active living based on walkability and recreation, equitable health outcomes, accessible and affordable healthcare, local fresh food, remediated toxic environments, and public safety
  • Connectivity: Build effective and equitable connections between people and placesExample indicators: Street network that is accommodating to diverse ages and abilities using multiple travel modes, high-quality and accessible digital network, and leveraged community data
  • Living Infrastructure: Enable flourishing ecosystems and restore natural capitalExample indicators: Healthy soils, water, trees, and wildlife habitat; accessible nature, natural processes integrated into the built environment
  • Resource Regeneration: Move towards a net positive worldExample indicators: reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, more efficient water use, waste diversion from landfills, productive reuse of remediated land

The Certification Process

EcoDistricts certification process

*Graphic from 

The process begins with the Imperatives Commitment, an agreement resulting from a collaborative process in which key stakeholders--the Imperatives Working Group--collectively and publicly commit to the 3 Imperatives, outline next steps within the unique context of their community, and start to determine potential indicators of progress. Implementation is broken out into 3 phases:


Formation Phase: Once the Imperatives Commitment has been endorsed, the process of collaboration and decision-making is determined, roles and responsibilities are defined, and strategies for strategic engagement are developed. The Formation Phase culminates in the drafting and submission of the Declaration of Collaboration to EcoDistricts.

Roadmap Phase: During the Roadmap Phase, a performance-based action plan outlining a comprehensive set of projects and programs, targets, and implementation milestones unique to the district is developed and submitted to EcoDistricts for approval. Certification is achieved once EcoDistricts approves both the Declaration of Collaboration and the Roadmap.

Performance Phase: Ongoing certification maintenance process in which a progress report on implementation and performance targets is submitted to EcoDistricts for review and approval.


How to Start

If you are a planner developing a new community or neighborhood, a local developer working on a district or collection of buildings, or a local community organization hoping to engage residents in a holistic and inclusive development process, EcoDistricts can lead you to a more equitable and sustainable outcome. Emerald can help you determine the best plan of action and guide you through the process.

Interested in Learning More? Ask Us Today!