Butler & Freeport St. Etna
Butler and Freeport Streets in Etna. Photo by Tom O'Connor.

Next month, the Borough of Etna will become the world’s first certified EcoDistrict at the 10th annual EcoDistricts Summit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Downtown Pittsburgh.

The certification is something like the LEED green building certification, but for entire communities.

Over the past decade, the EcoDistricts movement has laid out development guidelines for neighborhoods that seek to address things like improving city design and infrastructure issues, as well as broader challenges like creating a transparent and inclusive local government.

“It’s really an effort to promote the next generation of neighborhood development, with equity and climate protection as the core drivers of the work,” explains Rob Bennett, CEO of EcoDistricts.

The organization has also created the EcoDistricts Accredited Professional credential, which helps individuals demonstrate their commitment to creating sustainable, equitable neighborhoods.

Once a community applies for EcoDistrict certification, the process takes about two years and involves regular reporting and consultation with Bennett’s team in Portland, Oregon. “Unlike buildings, neighborhoods are a long-term endeavor,” he says.

Etna has been participating, along with Millvale and Sharpsburg, in EcoDistricts efforts for several years.

Etna applied for certification in 2017 and used the protocol to design a wide-ranging, community-led action program to address critical issues like stormwater management and improving air quality. These efforts greatly impressed the EcoDistricts team.

While Bennett and his team are still working to verify their full certification, he says the organization hopes to announce the official designation at the summit.

This year’s EcoDistricts Summit keynote speaker is urbanist Liz Ogbu. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.
This year’s EcoDistricts Summit keynote speaker is urbanist Liz Ogbu. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, Bennett says the organization chose Pittsburgh as the site for this year’s summit well before Etna made the grade.

“It just happens to be sort of serendipitous that our conference is in Pittsburgh and our first certified EcoDistrict is in the Pittsburgh region,” he says.

The summit will run Nov. 4-5 and feature a keynote speech from eminent urbanist, designer and social innovator Liz Ogbu. Other speakers include County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Braddock Mayor Chardaé Jones and Pittsburgh’s Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin.

While the two days of speeches, panels and workshops will include urban innovators from across the nation, Bennett says many of the sessions will examine the struggles and successes of Pittsburgh in particular, giving national experts a feel for issues at the neighborhood level.

“It’s as much an experiential conference,” he says, “as it is a professional development conference.”

Learn more about the conference and purchase tickets here.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.