After driving the Green Star – Communities project for three years, Adam Beck left Australia in 2013 to take up a position as Program Director of EcoDistricts in Portland, Oregon. He is heading home for Green Cities in March, and will conduct some workshops for industry practitioners interested in learning more about the EcoDistricts Framework. Romilly Madew, Adam’s former colleague and current chief executive at the Green Building Council of Australia, caught up with him for a quick chat.

Romilly: How do you feel about returning to Australia for the first time since leaving for Portland?

Adam: I’m looking forward to these white feet of mine touching Northern Beaches sand again! We’ve just come through a five day snow storm in Portland, and I’m looking forward getting some Vitamin D – and to catching up with all my friends in the industry at Green Cities.

Romilly: Speaking of Green Cities, you’ve attended all eight conferences, so what has drawn you back again this year?

Adam: I’ve always seen Green Cities as the best networking event for our industry – with the added benefit of a conference on the side. That said, I’m really looking forward to hearing what you have to say, Romilly, in your session with green building councils from around the world, and Peter Verwer’s session with leading Australian CEOs should also be fascinating. A lot has changed since Green Cities 2013 – such as a new federal government – so I am interested to see what Peter does with the session. I am also keen to hear Kent Larson as opening keynote. I visited MIT late last year, and the work being done there is mind-blowing.

Romilly Madew

Romilly: So, what is it like living in Portland, Oregon, one of the world’s model green cities?

Adam: Well, I’m geeking out over here like never before. Portland has been the leader on so many fronts: establishing the green dividend on green infrastructure, city-wide composting and urban agriculture, to name a few. Green runs deep in this city – for the politics, practitioners and residents alike. It’s like being on a best practice site visit for two years – the learning doesn't stop. I am surrounded by world-class practitioners in every conceivable sustainability element.

Romilly: Is the job what you thought it would be?

Adam: I’d say ‘yes and no’. EcoDistricts is a small start-up – very entrepreneurial and fast-paced. It's a real mix of non-profit meets business meets consulting – and all hands are on deck. From a sustainable cities perspective, it’s not what I expected at all.

The US is leading globally, in my opinion, but the imagery of ‘urban sprawl’ that we connect with the US often blinds us to the great work being done here. Some say sustainability will be won in China and India, however I think North America holds an important key.

There has been another surprise. I didn’t expect to become immersed in issues such as collaborative governance, equity and justice, and green infrastructure in particular. Equity and justice are important issues for planners, designers and developers in the US. The research, innovation and project development work being undertaken is like nothing I’ve seen before.

Romilly: Tell me more about EcoDistricts. Why did it attract you?

Adam: EcoDistricts’ day job is to build a marketplace for accelerating district and neighbourhood-scale sustainability. Our mission is to inspire every city to revitalise itself from the neighbourhood up. This sounded exciting to me.

I also was attracted to the opportunity to help build a world’s best practice process management framework for integrated district-scale sustainabilty.  It was hard to top the opportunity I had at the GBCA to build Green Star – Communities, and so being able to work on the ‘process’ side – to help projects with the ‘doing’ piece – that seemed a natural next step.

Romilly: The GBCA and EcoDistricts have recently signed a partnership agreement, and we’ve become an EcoDistricts founding member, joining other global leaders such as the US Green Building Council, Canada Green Building Council, Google, Arup and the Integral Group, among others.  We’re also working together to bring together Green Star – Communities, which guides and assesses the sustainability of projects at the precinct scale, with the EcoDistricts Framework, which helps cities and urban development practitioners to collaborate. What do you think we can achieve together?

Adam: I think the GBCA+EcoDistricts mash-up in Oz is going to be exciting. Firstly, we are going to be able to really bring some greater clarity and definition around the sustainable cities agenda, and then offer a suite of ‘nested’ tools that inspire, guide, assess and reward leadership. Developing the Global Ecodistricts Standard is a key task I have for 2014, and its potential to accelerate the delivery of projects on the ground that achieve the credit criteria within Green Star – Communities is significant. Being hyper-collaborative and using our networks and leveraging partnershps will be key to our success.

At the neighbourhood level, and within the district at a project level, EcoDistricts and the GBCA will be able to bring some clear rigour to the revitalisation of the 80 per cent of the existing built environment that needs some repair, some ‘sustainability love’.

I am confident that for the brownfields, we have the best partners in the world. Just look at our founding members – GBCA, USGBC, CAGBC, Arup, Google, Integral Group, the International District Energy Association – who will collectively redefine the next generation of brownfield redevelopments. Along with others supporting our mission, such as Lend Lease, UrbanGrowth New South Wales and the City of Melbourne, we have great hope in building truly sustainable cities.

Romilly: You were the driving force behind Green Star – Communities when you were with us at the GBCA.  As someone with a deep understanding of both systems, where do you believe the synergies lie?

Adam: I get asked this a lot in the US as well with respect to LEED Neighborhood Development. Put simply, the EcoDistricts Framework is a process management tool – a four step methodology for creating a pipeline of integrated projects. In creating the Ecodistricts Standard this year, we will be developing compliance requirements, and potentially look into verification. However this will be for ‘process’.

Green Star – Communities, on the other hand, is a quantitative rating tool, clearly defining metrics (credit criteria), focused on embedding best practice early in the planning and design process. Applicants can then choose to undertake third party assessment from the GBCA and obtain a rating for their master plan.

Industry needs guidance in both areas: setting best practice outcomes for projects, and then delivering the projects that will achieve those benchmarks. Our systems need each other to achieve the best outcomes.

Romilly: While you’re back in Australia, you’re holding EcoDistricts Framework training with the GBCA.  Tell us more about the course and what participants will learn.

Adam: The first EcoDistricts training last year at Green Cities sold out. We got great feedback that the mix of practical case studies, innovative methods of project delivery and workbook activities provided a great learning opportunity. The course is grounded in practical examples which resonate with people.

We also provide an overview of our methodology, and share some tools in supporting the four step approach. People should go to the GBCA website to find out more about the courses.

Romilly: It sounds like you’re inspired and enjoying your new job.  What will it take to lure you back to Australia?

Adam: I am having a whole lot of chaotic fun here, but will be coming back to OZ when I have finished the job here and have an opportunity to come back to. Didn't you say I was only on loan to EcoDistricts anyway?