Tactical urbanism has taken a foothold. Urban agriculture is flourishing. So what’s next?

With so many new and disruptive trends emerging in the green communities space over the past three to five years, it was a challenge to find some new ideas to share that really look ready to take hold. I dug deep and reflected on the people, organisations and approaches I have encountered during my time Stateside, and being the framework addict that I am, I chose the Green Star – Communities National Framework to assemble my thoughts.

The Framework, originally released in 2010, articulates a vision and set of principles to help guide and develop sustainable communities. I have used the Framework’s five principles here to help identify emerging trends in each. The five principles are:

  1. Enhance liveability
  2. Create opportunities for economic prosperity
  3. Foster environmental responsibility
  4. Embrace design excellence
  5. Demonstrate visionary leadership and strong governance

So here are my five top emerging green communities trends I see as critical to ‘moving the needle’ on these principles:

1. Liveability – Unleashing the Power of Little Data

Liveability is bashed around by ranking systems all over the world. It is part social, part economic and part environmental, a ‘make whatever you want from it’ type concept. For a while, liveability was the new sustainability, before resilience took over. But being serious for a moment, we do have some clear indicators that wrestle this elusive concept to the ground – health, safety, well-being, inclusion, housing and basic human services, to name a few.

For this category, I am putting little data on watch as an emerging trend for green communities. Little data’s big brother – big data – furnishes us with 2.4 quintillion bits of digital data every day. This is great for some, but what evidence-based decisions need to be made at the precinct and neighbourhood level, and by who? Furthermore, what do you want and need data to solve?

News flash: we don’t need big data to solve big problems.

Enter Streetwize, a mobile platform that provides real-time data about how people are using neighbourhood services. Similar to Yelp, Streetwize allows people to find services in their area, rank them and share these services with their community. But while Yelp focuses on leisure services like restaurants and entertainment, Streetwize focused on “life services” like finding healthy food, clean drinking water and safe places to wait for the bus. The vision for Streetwize is for it to be a tool to make the way we collect and organise data more inclusive, at a neighbourhood level, ultimately helping us prioritise pubic investments in a more democratic, equitable way.

Streetwize Screenshot from Local Ground

Streetwize screenshot from Local Ground

More relevant little data to solve big problems will ultimately win the day when it comes to building sustainable cities from the neighbourhood up.

2. Economic Prosperity – Crowd Resourcing

I am sure most, if not all of you, have heard of crowd funding. In fact, I suspect many of you have actively participated in getting a campaign off the ground. Crowd funding helps turn an idea, invention or innovation into a venture. It helps get a product to market.

Crowd resourcing in contrast, is more about investing in innovation and change. It combines the concepts of crowd funding (the ability to pool small donations made online to a specific cause or project) and resource organising (a core tenet of community organising that considers activists and advocates the best supporters to ensure success of a cause or project). Crowd resourcing gives everyone the ability to organise all kinds of capital – cash, social capital, in kind donations, volunteer time, advocacy – from within the community to serve the community.

Ioby (In Our Back Yard) is one of a few crowd resourcing platforms that exist today, with its name derived from the opposite of NIMBY. Their mission is to strengthen communities by supporting the leaders within them who want to make positive change. Ioby co-founder, Erin Barnes, calls it as it is: “You may not be able to change the whole world, but you can definitely change the block.”

Ioby’s portfolio of community-based funded projects is impressive: helping city governments fast-track bicycle infrastructure deployment, funding street beautification, kids’ cooking classes, building community parks, markets, green roofs, electric vehicles, green breakfast clubs and even learn-to-row day.

Neighbourhood Crowdfunding Site has raised almost $1.3 million and successfully funded 408 community projects (February 2015)

Neighbourhood crowdfunding site ioby has raised almost $1.3 million and successfully funded 408 community projects (February 2015)

If crowd resourcing is not part of your city’s planning efforts, if it’s not part of private sector precinct development projects, opportunity is being neglected.

3. Environmental Responsibility – Living Infrastructure

For this principle, I start with green infrastructure, and smash it together with the concept of ecosystems services – the services provided by nature for humans. The result, as nicely defined by my friends at Biohabitats, is ‘living infrastructure.’

Your jargon warning bells are ringing, I suspect. You ask, really, green infrastructure has been around for some time. It’s not emerging is it?

Technically no, but we still struggle to take advantage of the potential to leverage from green infrastructure, and many still view it as a stormwater management strategy.

The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects defines green infrastructure as “the network of natural landscape assets which underpin the economic, socio-cultural and environmental functionality of our cities and town.”

Living infrastructure encompasses both the natural and engineered systems within our communities and provides the following characteristics:

  • Facilitates human interaction with nature
  • Provides renewable resources such as water
  • Meets its potential as habitat for all living things
  • Reduces barriers to natural cycles of nutrients and hydrology

Living infrastructure will, in time, be valued as an asset class within the databases of municipalities. It will not be treated as landscape, planting out of roundabouts as a beautification program, street trees to provide shade in a park, or prettying-up foreshore areas. Municipalities will have city-wide living infrastructure investment programs based on neighbourhood-scale planning and participatory budgeting efforts.

Living infrastructure is a jobs strategy, an equity strategy, an open space strategy, a health strategy, a retail strategy, a cultural strategy and a stormwater management strategy. It epitomises the idea of value-add, integration and leverage. There are never ‘silver bullet’ solutions to our urban challenges, but this comes pretty close.

I still hold the opinion that landscape architects and ecologists are two of the most underrated, underfunded, and underappreciated professions, closely behind the community development folks. We need to put these guys at the centre of our projects and our design teams. When we do, magic happens; one only needs to look at Barangaroo Point in Sydney, one of the world’s true exemplars of living infrastructure. These are the infrastructure investments cities need to prioritise – precinct-scale investments that become the building blocks of prosperous, competitive and vibrant cities.

Barangaroo demonstrates the outcomes of its' green community

Barangaroo demonstrates the outcomes of its’ green community

But let me call it now – living infrastructure will be one of the single most effective investments in building sustainable communities over the next 10 years.

A popular bumper sticker says, “Every Family Needs A Farmer.” I look forward to when AILA starts distributing the “Every Family Needs A Landscape Architect” version.

4. Design Excellence – Sustainable Streets

Not wanting to be controversial, but first principles, please.

Designing for people, and not cars, is still a mantra not breaking through. Having recently returned back to Portland from a week in Los Angeles (the city the car built), it is a stark reminder for an Australian practitioner as to how bad it can get when you approach street design with blunt objects like traditional road design standards. Complete streets, or sustainable streets, will emerge as a key urban transformation tools for our communities over the next five to ten years.

Complete streets are green streets, prosperous streets, healthy streets and vibrant streets. They are streets for all ages, and all modes of mobility. The Congress for New Urbanism released recently the publication “Sustainable Street Network Principles” (PDF). It is a simple yet timely set of ‘fundamentals’ to embrace in the planning and design of new developments, but also the regeneration of existing precincts and neighborhoods.

5. Leadership and Governance – The Sustainability Management Association

There is one fatal flaw that we continue to make in our precinct and neighborhood planning efforts. We fail to answer the most important question: “What model of governance best positions the precinct or neighborhood for implementation?”

Not only do we need to start asking this question, it needs to be the first question. But only if implementation and lasting success are core planning objectives. If the objective is to prepare a plan, do not bother.

The Sustainability Management Association (SMA) is a model to build and sustain long-term leadership, capacity and governance on all matters related to sustainability over time within a precinct or neighborhood. The model is based on a collaborative governance approach. There is a clear commitment to collaboration, and this commitment is made public, it is memorialized. There is a sharing of power, decision-making and project development (funding). No one entity does or should do it all.

The SMA ensures that change is guided by strong sustainability goals and metrics, that performance is monitored and that results reported annually. Only with this in place can stakeholders effectively and accurately determine progress and performance and thus identify opportunities for continual improvements.

The SMA, through its function of building a shared vision and set of integrated sustainability targets for the precinct or neighborhood, is required to coordinate and integrate the sustainability efforts and actions of diverse stakeholders within and surrounding the community.

The SMA is part backbone organization meets community group meets Chamber of Commerce. The SMA becomes the dedicated entity to guide the sustainability

investments for the precinct or neighborhood. I sense eyes rolling. Yes, government tends to ‘freak-out’ over the concepts of shared-power and distributive decision making by non-government entities. This will change, over time.

As cities across North America (Portland OR, Charleston NC, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Ottawa) actively pursue opportunities for SMA-type arrangements in their urban regeneration projects, there is a genuine commitment to advancing governance models that will support collective impact.

 Pilots, Please

Many of our challenges in sustainable community development involve a diversity of stakeholders, competing forces, entrenched mindsets, institutional agendas, and business-as-usual interests that will often work against positive change. Making progress will be messy. Failure is guaranteed.

Navigating the risk matrix and overcoming the feasibility pro-forma is always a barrier to trying new things. This is why doing a pilot project can be the most effective way of effecting change. In the spirit of Portlandia and putting a bird on it – put a pilot on it!