Rob Bennett caught the community development bug early. As a kid, Bennett thought he might become a boat builder—a majority of his Massachusetts family and friends were somehow involved in the trade—but at 22, with a master’s degree in landscape architecture and regional planning from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Bennett swapped coasts and professions. He got involved with community organizing and witnessed the transformative power of people working together for a common purpose—the power of strong neighborhoods.
After working to shape municipal green-building policy from inside city government, both in Portland and Vancouver, Bennett founded the Portland Sustainability Institute, an incubator for green ideas and actions. In 2013, the group changed its name to EcoDistricts and made what had been just one of many initiatives its central focus. As the CEO of EcoDistricts, Bennett’s mission is to “accelerate sustainable district- and neighborhood-scale regeneration.” By focusing on the neighborhood, the nonprofit leverages a long-overlooked but powerful urban actor and leapfrogs past institutions focused solely on greening single buildings.
Combining youthful energy with a shrewd intellectual understanding of policy, development, and design, Bennett is building a movement whose denizens are anyone and everyone. For this issue, Bennett selected Washington, DC—which hosts the EcoDistricts Summit this month—as our third City to Watch, curated our Editor’s Picks, and much more.
We spoke over the phone this summer. Our conversation begins after the break.
PART 1: GOOD FRICTION
gb&d: Tell me about your community organizing days. Where were you living when you started?
Bennett: I was brand new to Portland. Portland has a very unique neighborhood governance model in that the city helps support local organizing at the neighborhood level, meaning they support professional staff who then are in service to the neighborhoods. I broke into that when I was 22 years old. I was drawn to Portland for its neighborhoods, for its planning, for its community ethos. I did that for a couple years before I went to graduate school. It really set the tone for my interest in how neighborhoods work and don’t work, and sort of who shows up to participate and who doesn’t.
gb&d: What got you into the idea of advocacy and organizing?
Bennett: I just had a real intellectual interest in the intersection of community development, sustainability—before we called it “sustainability,” issues of urban environmentalism—and social justice. Having witnessed and grown up in a part of the world that I think is more stratified economically, and oftentimes racially [than other parts of the US], what was interesting in Portland and in the neighborhoods I was working in was that they were economically diverse and, to a certain extent, they were diverse from a gender, race, and age perspective too.
I saw a lot of friction in these neighborhoods—good friction, meaning people were rubbing up against one another and were actively trying to deal with issues of conflict and that kind of togetherness. I really liked that. I saw a rich environment in which to work. I guess, in a way, I saw what neighborhoods bring to the table.
gb&d: Since we’re talking about Portland, how do you adapt something that’s being tested in Portland to cities with different challenges? I’m thinking specifically about diversity and minority communities, since Portland is seventy-five percent white. How do neighborhoods there compare to, say, neighborhoods in Washington, DC, or Atlanta or Texas?
Bennett: That’s a really rich and difficult question. I would say a couple things: One, as it relates to how Portland is relevant, it is seventy-five-percent white, but it’s going through a lot of changes from a diversity perspective. It’s quite a diverse city when it comes to economic [status], religious affiliation, etcetera. It’s a bit of a false setup to suggest that Portland doesn’t struggle with issues of diversity and diverse thinking because that comes in all shapes and sizes. I think economic stratification is one of the biggest challenges we have. In a city like Portland, which is poorer than the average city in the US and suffers from higher levels of poverty and childhood hunger, those issues are right here to deal with. I think that makes Portland relevant. Sustainability action here is not something born out of a Portlandia skit.
As far as the framework goes, it’s a loose-fit framework. If the goal is to create more sustainable, more robust, vibrant, resilient—however you want to describe it ecologically—and supportive and friendly neighborhoods, we felt you can’t narrow that down to a set of prescriptive strategies and sort of reductionist metrics. You have to build it around process. And if you’re building it around process, you’re building it around either good process or lousy process. Good process means it’s inclusive. We think there’s a lot to learn from corporate sustainability strategy. Companies that have been successful around sustainability goals have done so because they’ve deeply embedded it and engaged their stakeholders, their clients, and their employees and created an inclusive strategy that transcends different business units.
That kind of thinking is where we start with the EcoDistricts framework. If we take a collaborative-governance and collective-impact approach, we can get stakeholders and investors who work at the neighborhood level to a common understanding and, ultimately, to common goals. That can happen in Detroit, that can happen in New York City, that can happen in Portland.
gb&d: It’s interesting to hear you say that some of that process is borrowed from corporate sustainability strategies, given that sometimes that gets a bad rap, like, it’s just a PR thing or it’s greenwashing. I’m sure there are plenty of community organizers out there who don’t want to hear what corporate America has to offer. It sounds like you’re approaching it by listening to what works, not judging something based on stereotypes.
Bennett: Exactly. I mean, let’s be honest, I’m not talking about greenwashing—I’m talking about companies that have made progress around the Global Reporting Initiative and BCorp and that are taking it seriously. Just like in green building, there’s plenty of earnest and rigorous work going on and plenty of greenwashing—and in community organizing and planning, there are those who take a more authentic approach to engagement, and there are those who take an approach of a professional presenting scenarios but ultimately coming with predetermined decision-making, which frustrates everybody.
PART 2: DUDE, NEED MY CAR?
gb&d: A philosophy of mine is that everything comes down to relationships. When we know someone and are in relationship with them, trust comes really naturally. Collaboration comes naturally. Listening comes naturally. But we become so adversarial with strangers, whether we’re walking down the street or sitting in a community meeting. It gets messy very quickly. EcoDistricts, by definition and by design, is all about relationships—between buildings and between people. Do any moments come to mind where you saw things click and you saw people get past things that could have held them back from making progress?
Bennett: I think that happened in a variety of large and—well, mostly small ways. We witnessed some of that happening on the Olympic Village project [in Vancouver]. There was great continuity and great cohesion on that project up until the moment the developer was chosen and they brought their set of expectations and new experts to the table. We really had to mediate and negotiate, and it wasn’t a pretty process. But we all had to stick with it, and, ultimately, decisions got made.
There’s a lot of juice in the EcoDistricts movement, broadly, a lot of excitement, and a willingness to roll up the sleeves. That’s not to say that many of the same power dynamics don’t exist—they do. We’re talking about a model [that is] about sharing power and sharing decision-making. These are things cities don’t do particularly well.
gb&d: Do you think car-sharing and some of the other budding ideas around communal living have helped prepare people for this movement?
Bennett: I think it has. I think there’s so much innovation and new models of collaborative consumption, the sharing economy, that underpins a willingness—I think social media is playing a very interesting role in that, obviously. It’s providing new mechanisms for people to connect in ways that might be more comfortable for them. The rap on cohousing, for instance, was always, “Oh god, you’re gonna spend ten years deciding on the paint scheme.” [People think] everything has to be done in a very deliberate and democratic way. Well, there are new models that are accelerating that and allowing people to feel, in a very real way, that they are plugging in and participating, but not necessarily with the level of intensity that some of these earlier models suggest. I think the sharing economy is providing new economic models to take all these appreciating assets we have and make better use of them. In the process, it’s helping to bring down a lot of barriers about, you know, what does it mean to have some dude hop in my car and drive off? What’s it mean to have people constantly come in to my basement suite or even into one of my bedrooms?
On my way to this call with you, I biked by a great project here called The Ocean. It’s by Kevin Cavenaugh, who’s a really neat developer-slash-architect. The Ocean is his idea of the ocean between food carts and restaurants. There’s a huge gap between the capital you need and the business savvy and the ambition [to open a restaurant], and he created a model that bridges those gaps, with a shared kitchen and lower cost of entry that allows those who might not be fully capitalized or have all the skills to start a restaurant. It’s an adaptive reuse of an old Dodge dealership, too, which has a nice irony to it.
gb&d: That reminds me of Kaka’ako and some things going on in Honolulu. Kaka’ako is this little area outside of downtown that’s mostly car dealerships and old warehouses—it’s not a pretty place. Out of that sprung this strip of restaurants and shops with these painted storefronts that are all unique but very similar; it’s got a design style that coalesces. One of the shops was a rotating eatery. A restaurant would pop up for about week, and then it would go away. But what’s fascinating about it is that it’s completely temporary. This block is scheduled to be torn down, and a high-rise is going up sometime in, like, the next six months. So they did a lot of this knowing that it was going to be temporary.
Bennett: That’s cool. I think the reset of the economy has yet to be understood as far as how entrepreneurialism takes root, especially with young people. Twenty-somethings have always been a pretty creative class, idealistic to a certain extent, and they got shook up pretty significantly. It will be interesting to see, as they come of age in business, what their sensibility in all this is.
PART 3: MEASURING A NEIGHBORHOOD
gb&d: When the average person learns about EcoDistricts, they probably ask what the difference is between LEED for Neighborhood Development and the EcoDistricts framework. I even saw that Austin, a city working on its own EcoDistrict, has this question on its website. In their answer, one of the biggest differences is that LEED offers a one-time certification for hitting a certain number of targets, whereas EcoDistricts offers an ongoing way to engage with neighborhood stakeholders. Do you think that sums it up? Are there other major differences?
Bennett: Well, first, the average person isn’t going to know what the hell LEED-ND is, either (laughs).
gb&d: Okay, the average green professional then (laughs).
Bennett: It’s a question we get asked all the time. We very deliberately named the organization EcoDistricts, in essence, to propose that EcoDistricts isn’t a place—it’s a movement. The end result, we hope, is to create a scheme that, like BCorp and others, is a way to reward leadership but isn’t necessarily a certification.
gb&d: Inevitably, someone will want to say, “Our EcoDistrict is greener than that EcoDistrict.” Did you ever consider a ranking system?
Bennett: Well, I should say that everything is on the table right now. We’re looking at every certification and verification and reward and green standard—from organic certification to corporate sustainability—so we’re very open to what works. What we’re trying to do is be authentic in rewarding leadership around the journey. That, in and of itself, suggests that it’s more qualitative than quantitative. There is, though, the ability to do both. We can map the carbon footprint of a neighborhood over time. We can map some key health performance indicators. The challenge, of course, is that many of those are very slow indicators.
gb&d: Do you have any sustainability heroes? Did you have a mentor when you were young?
Bennett: I’ve got some very personal family heroes. My best friend Matt, who I’ve known since nursery school, he’s a self-taught artist and sailmaker, and I get a lot of inspiration from how he’s carried himself and his business, but also how he’s manifested his life around sustainability and building a house off the grid.
gb&d: Washington, DC, is one of our Cities to Watch, and the EcoDistricts Summit will be held there in just a few weeks. What made you choose DC? What stands out to you about the city?
Bennett: DC just has such an interesting story. It’s a story of redemption: fourteen, fifteen years ago being bankrupt, essentially being taken over by the federal government, and now, after fifty years of flat or diminishing population, having just exploded. And they’ve done a lot of it through very smart investments in livability. There’s a lot of transition and a lot of new development, but I think it’s still yet to be seen how the new wealth of DC will play out, how inclusive it will be.
I have to say, the city is excited about EcoDistricts. At the Clinton Global Initiative [in June], we launched our North America Pilot Program that we’ve been working on for… forever, it feels like. There’s going to be three or four neighborhoods in DC that are part of that program. They’ve really embraced EcoDistricts on many levels, which is exciting.
gb&d: Is there anything specific at the conference that you’re excited about?
Bennett: We’ve got author Charles Montgomery from Vancouver. He’s just finished a book (Happy City), and he’s on a book tour. It’s about happiness in cities, so it’ll be interesting to get into, “What are the components of happiness and how does that play out? How do psychological and physical design come together?” He’s done some really interesting work with the Guggenheim, creating some experiments, and we’re hoping to do an experiment with him.
See what happens when we put our guest editor On the Spot.