5 inspiring communities that are reinventing themselves sustainably

Fri, 2015-05-01 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi


Whether forced to by severe weather or a collapsing economy, or voluntarily by a desire to live with less impact, a number of cities are trying to transform themselves. Here are five inspiring projects from among the dozen that make up EcoDistricts’s Class of 2015.

Each year, EcoDistricts, a Council Advisor, picks communities that have a strong desire to transform and provides training and expert resources to help them become sustainable. The program began in 2012 and has since helped 31 neighborhoods in 26 cities. The communities selected this year will participate in the organization’s annual EcoDistricts Incubator later this month.

Reclaiming Rockaway
The Rockaways are a New York City peninsula that were especially hard hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Thousands of homes were damaged by flood waters. Hundreds more burned down when firefighters couldn’t get through the water to reach them. And that was just one of several disasters to hit the community over the past 100 years.

So far, the community has already completed a visioning process that resulted in a much more sustainable footprint. Plans call for the roads to be lowered, so that they can serve as canals when there’s severe weather. Even underground parking garages will double as stormwater retention ponds. Next, community leaders will focus on job creation, public health and transit.

Park emerges from economic collapse
Birmingham, Ala., is working to turn an old rail yard and industrial complex into a vibrant community -- a cornerstone for its overall downtown revitalization efforts. Left behind in the collapse of the area’s steel and iron industry, the city turned the land into Railroad Park, 19 acres of green space featuring more than 600 planted trees.

The next step is to bring industry back to the area. The city is looking for ways to continue to encourage high-tech and knowledge firms to set up along the park and plans to use this project as a springboard to revitalize its downtown core.

Carbon-neutral dining
Restaurants in Victoria, British Columbia, are working to minimize their environmental impact and believe it could also be a big culinary draw. Beyond composting, reducing packaging and encouraging staff to bike or walk more, the restaurants are also growing some of their own herbs and vegetables. Garden boxes already connect some of the restaurants taking part.

The goal is to create a sustainable restaurant district that may span four or five city blocks. In addition to inspiring the surrounding community, it’s hoped this district will also become a tourist draw, attracting diners who are looking for sustainable options.

Sustainable Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the city’s top tourist destinations. While the neighborhood is doing fine now, the initiative seeks to conserve energy and resources and promote affordable housing to ensure that the area will continue to thrive in the future. The neighborhood has a huge immigrant population that doesn’t speak English, so community engagement to identify needs and to build support for the efforts is critical.

San Francisco was one of the first graduates of the EcoDistricts program. Its effort to rehabilitate its central corridor to take advantage of light rail construction and an expanded convention center is being celebrated as a success story. In addition to the development opportunities the project created, it has also helped serve as a blueprint for other projects in the city.

New life for an old hospital
As an east Austin, Texas, neighborhood grows rapidly, a community project is looking to find new sustainable uses for an old hospital that will soon be replaced by a state-of-the-art medical district. The Brackenridge Campus project aims to redevelop the old hospital site to create affordable housing, support a medical school and new teaching hospital, and launch a new innovation zone.

Planners want the project to turn the area into a model healthy community while delivering returns to taxpayers. Planning and road improvements are underway now. The hospital will be replaced in 2017.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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