EcoDistrict Summit 2017

The 2017 EcoDistricts Summit in Atlanta was unlike any professional conference I’ve attended. Where else can a keynote speaker question the very name of the product and receive roaring applause? EcoDistricts celebrates that level of creative thinking as well as the investigative process of turning-over of every stone in an effort for more livable communities.

equity, resilience, and sustainability

I attended the summit because I had little familiarity with the neighborhood scale rating system. Their brand includes all the sexy buzzwords: equity, resilience, and sustainability. But what does it actually look and feel like? I had to attend to find out.

Too Busy to Reflect?

Over two packed days of lectures and workshops, I learned that rare is a conference to confront their participants with two different locations; one high-brow and one low-brow. But this one did, and I’m grateful for that. It put social equity front and center. The off-site studio I selected included a tour of Atlanta’s Westside. That neighborhood suffered through developing within an original redline district and is presently full of blight and urban decay. It was the exact condition that most conference planners try to obscure when their guests travel from all over the nation to see Atlanta-the city Too Busy to Hate.

Greed vs. Equity

My experience was more than a feast for the eyes. EcoDistricts is a rare gem that serves an apple over a cookie at lunch and dares to make you walk two city blocks to catch a bus. I welcomed the invitation for wellness. Each subtle behavior builds for a greater outcome. In my mind, these observations helped me begin to equate resilience with discipline. Often at conferences like this, the message feels like preaching to the choir. Side conversations kept popping up on how to teach this lesson to developers in hopes of tempering greed in favor of equity.

The EcoDistricts Lifestyle

Overall, I’d confidently say that the organizers accomplished the feat of living and breathing the EcoDistricts lifestyle in Atlanta. Which is a big challenge to find within the city with the greatest wealth inequality in the nation. Speaking of Atlanta, the summit used its host city as a living laboratory. For anyone who has ever lived in Atlanta, we know it is impossible to talk about Atlanta without quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, our hometown hero. The two impression making MLK quotes from EcoDistricts:


“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“The aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community.


What does it look like?

Later in the summit, the concept of the beloved city echoed in the halls as a rally cry for both speakers and participants, to sum up the spirit of EcoDistricts into one tangible idea. But how tangible is it really? No projects have even reached final certification yet. Amazingly, this fact did not diffuse the high level of passion and excitement for me and my peers at the summit. That is more proof that these questions and conversations about resilience and equity need to be happening more frequently and within local contexts.


The other repeating themes I heard were: the will of the people, and a fourth buzzword, ‘accelerators.’ Ecodistricts can’t happen without the residents and community leaders who comprise said district. Therefore, the will of the people is paramount to any level of sustainability.


On Day 1, an opening keynote speaker inspired us with the challenge that, “When we summon the will, it is inevitable.”

By Day 2, the closing keynote speaker exposed that, “We lack the will… we need accelerator strategies.”


Secret Sauce for Success

What is an accelerator? One speaker claims it’s the secret sauce that makes urban projects so lovable. Could be an asset, or a person. Bottom line is, we need accelerators to excite and motivate our fellow citizens to collaborate on improving their neighborhoods for ecological, social, and economic benefit. Which leads me to the biggest ah-ha moment of the summit.

Let’s talk about Trees

I realized I was not alone in wondering, where is the ecology in Ecodistricts? The final breakthrough session answered that exact question. The whole driver is ecology and living infrastructure.

The Triple Bottom Line is Dead

The concept of balanced ecological, social, and economic benefit has long been heralded as the sweet spot for sustainability, aka the ‘Triple Bottom Line.’ It forms a venn diagram of perfect blissful balance. Leading us to believe that there is ALWAYS a magical solution that creates a win-win-win scenario. For my whole career in sustainability, the Triple Bottom Line has been a go-to tool for demonstrating how to make decisions with equity in mind. The last speaker I listened to blew that whole notion out of relevancy and labeled it ‘weak.’

Long live a resilient ecology

Like everything I was exposed to at this summit, I welcomed this claim as a paradigm shift to my own narrow view of sustainability. Those three concepts, ecology, society, and economics remain paramount but have a slightly different spatial relationship. When viewed as nested circles they define a hierarchy of risk and reward. The very promise of social equity and economic sustainability depend on a resilient ecology.

What’s Next?

The image we strive for should look more like this: It positions the natural ecology, including rivers, trees, and soil as the primary factor of livability. Because let’s face it if our water gets too dirty to drink and our air too polluted to breathe, then no one cares what your profit margin looks like. We need to put ecology first to drive a solid culture of resiliency to drive a sustainable economy. I finally learned what it takes to makes an EcoDistrict.