What can demonstration projects teach us about sustainability?

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Large- scale demonstration projects—ones that are focused on combining and testing various physical systems within a confined geography– are increasingly gaining popularity with cities interested in pushing the sustainability envelope.   As someone who readily transitioned from architecture to urban planning (eager to address some of the larger-scale systems questions that a section drawing didn’t quite get to), I am tremendously excited by the ways that cities and their partners are using demonstration projects as testing grounds for innovation and experimentation.  While there is undoubtedly value in singular sustainability efforts, such as weatherizing a building or greening a rooftop (these singular efforts add up to have tremendous impacts on city-wide outcomes), there seems to be an increased recognition that combining and integrating various systems may in fact be the key to scaling up, or at least getting a better handle on, sustainability.  By weaving various individual systems together—be it transportation, infrastructure, or energy—demonstration projects show us that cities can track, measure, and monitor the aggregate performance of systems that historically have worked in isolation.

At the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Regional Conference in Philadelphia last month, I had the opportunity to learn more about the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub (known until very recently as the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster).  The EEB Hub is a “regional innovation cluster,” funded primarily by the Department of Energy with additional funding from the Economic Development Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Small Business Administration.  The mission of the EEB Hub is to improve the energy efficiency of buildings while promoting regional economic growth and job creation.  Twenty-two organizations, including DOE laboratories, academic institutions, community colleges, and private sector agencies are working together at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard to demonstrate the significant energy efficiency reductions that result from integrating the design, construction, commissioning, and operation of whole building systems.  By using the Navy Yard as a lab, the EEB Hub is modeling the types of energy (and cost) savings that can result from embracing partnerships, utilizing technology, and maintaining a holistic approach to building systems performance and analysis– all the while identifying policies to accelerate the market adoption of energy efficiency retrofits and actively creating and promoting “green” jobs throughout the Philadelphia region.

On a different scale, we see that cities are similarly experimenting with the impacts of concentrating (technology-driven) sustainable solutions to infrastructure, energy and transportation challenges.  During NLC’s International Sustainability Exchange to Germany and Sweden, Mayor Chris Coleman, of Saint Paul, spoke about the Energy Innovation Corridor.  An eleven mile stretch between the Twin Cities (adjacent to a light-rail line under construction) serves as a showcase of the cities’ clean energy and transportation efforts, including electric transportation startups; smart energy technologies; and advanced energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.  Local businesses, non-profit organizations, energy utilities, local governments, and residents are working together to develop the corridor into a model of integrated land use practices that the rest of the state, and nation, might one day emulate.  (This map shows the various demonstration projects taking place within the Corridor, including solar arrays, electric car charging stations, bike lanes, and residential retrofit projects.)  While I’m unsure of how cumulative impacts are currently measured within the corridor, it is exciting to see two cities and their constituents working towards and understanding the value of a land use model that intentionally pulls so many pieces together.

With rapidly emerging technologies that comprehensively measure and monitor data, cities and their partners have more flexibility to innovate and experiment.  Within this context, demonstration projects are perhaps the first tangible step towards proving that the long-term “success” of sustainability lies at the nexus of various singular initiatives.