The EcoDistricts Protocol (EP) promotes a new model of urban development to empower just, sustainable and resilient neighbourhoods. Projects that demonstrate a commitment to equity, resilience and climate protection, through the formation of collaborative governance to oversee planning and implementation of a roadmap to move to carbon neutrality. It’s an approach regarded internationally as a new public-private partnership model, emphasising innovation and deployment of district-scale best practices to create future neighbourhoods that are vibrant and resource-efficient.
The EP is structured like a doughnut. “First are three imperatives: equity, resilience and climate protection,” explains Adrie Fourie, head of Solid Green’s department of sustainable cities and research. “Next up: six priorities that enable projects to define their sustainable strategy, in response to the 20 objectives categories.” The outer ring includes three implementation phases: formation, development of a roadmap and reporting on performance every two years.
Build the necessary leadership, collaboration and decision-making conditions to support effective action.
Assemble a comprehensive action plan of performance targets, feasible strategies for achieving the targets, and a schedule and resources for implementation.
Implement the roadmap, report progress towards targets and use results to strengthen performance and transfer lessons learned.
The S&J Industrial Estate in Germiston is the first project outside North America to secure EcoDistricts™ certification. Redefine Properties and Abland Property Developers joined forces last year on the project, with project guidance provided by Solid Green.
At 160 hectares, (first phase of EcoDistricts certified endorsement) within a 210-hectare property located between the Geldenhuys and Elandsfontein interchanges on the N3 highway, S&J forms part of Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality.
“To be part of the team that has taken land that forms part of the undeveloped mining belt in Johannesburg and convert this to an industrial estate, now recognised as an EP initiative, is extremely exciting and a great achievement to all involved,” says Chris Roberg, Abland’s director responsible for S&J Industrial development. He says it aligns with Abland’s drive toward sustainability, evidenced by various commercial projects that have international green-star ratings.
But what do those principles really mean, for those in the sustainable industry? A core distinction: EP is a tool to transform a neighbourhood. You’re not working for one business or one construction company. You’re working with a whole neighbourhood – say, all of Sandton – to get to carbon neutrality, using this framework.
The EP was inspired by the concept of collective impact, a “collaboration framework to achieve large-scale social change” that requires a range of interested, affected stakeholders and role-players to “collaborate in defining the interventions required to achieve significant improvement in equity, resilience and climate protection”.
As teams work through the EP and how it relates to their specific project and context, they identify challenges and opportunities to address through project-specific interventions. Says Fourie: “This work is supported by the guidance provided by the priorities and associated objectives categories that projects use to identify their specific roadmap to carbon neutrality.”
CITY OF Johannesburg PILOT
Solid Green laid the groundwork locally when the company was appointed by the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) to test the EP methodology in 2020. “For CoJ, the focus was to test the methodology on a pilot neighbourhood. To determine the useability of the protocol as an approach to facilitate mainstreaming of the commitment to carbon neutrality. Through it, we created a tool to calculate energy-use intensity and its associated carbon emissions profile that projects address to reach carbon neutrality. The City will reference these findings in various policies moving forward, to strengthen their approach to a low-carbon future,” explains Fourie.
Liana Strydom, assistant-director: regional planning, city transformation and spatial planning for City of Johannesburg, describes its EP work with Solid Green as in “the realm of conceptualising a carbon emissions model,” based on Orange Grove, a real neighbourhood. “We started in 2020 and aim to complete our work this year. We’ve developed an understanding of what the current (baseline) energy-use profile and carbon-emissions profile of the neighbourhood looks like, and what interventions would be most appropriate (and affordable) to reduce carbon emissions, also for the ‘projected growth/potential future redevelopment’ of the area,” says Strydom.
“Given that energy use is a major contributor to emissions, interventions focus on this aspect. Because the City recently approved its first Green Building Policy for New Buildings, we used achieving net-zero buildings for new development as our target. This aspirational target highlights not only significant changes required for our building industry but emphasises that solutions present themselves on a precinct/district level that require innovation and systems approaches.”
This testing showed that an EP could be applied successfully in South Africa. “Our CoJ perspective is definitely not to force any development to become certified as an EP – but the protocol provides helpful process guidance to ensure more inclusive and climate-oriented planning at a neighbourhood scale. It also strongly emphasises collaborative actions and responsibilities – not any one party being responsible for everything,” says Strydom. “Our value-add is creating a practical model for the emissions modelling for different scales of development, developed for our local context.”
Fourie says that while the CoJ project didn’t intend on pursuing EP certification, crucially, it provided the opportunity to test an international certification framework in a South African context, and to identify “robust response to pressures” that local neighbourhoods or precincts experience.
OPENING THE DOOR
In 2021, Redefine and Abland had Solid Green steer them through the relevant EP processes for the certification of S&J Industrial Estate. These included identifying the steering committee for the certification process and facilitating the development of all supporting documentation to collectively create “the initial framework to progress towards a model rooted in community sustainability, ecological awareness and conservation”.
“Our purpose is to create and manage spaces in a way that changes lives, and therefore we are entrenching ESG into everything we do. This requires an integrated approach to making strategic choices that will sustain value creation for all stakeholders through focusing on what matters most,” says Anelisa Keke, Redefine’s chief sustainability officer. “The EP success is a crucial steppingstone, and endorsement of the progress we’re making to ensure a better future for all South Africans.”
Fourie stresses that EP is a framework for urban development and regeneration, rather than something linked specifically to the construction industry. “Yes, it links to construction, but only in this instance, where S&J Industrial Estate is new. So, it’s about the design phase, but will carry on beyond that.”
Unlike other tools, the EP requires long-term commitment and performance reporting to retain certification, and that is where significant value is captured. “Projects keep track of their progress to the end goal of carbon neutrality by tracking indicators linked to each strategy, project and programme identified, in response to the six priorities and 20 objectives categories,” says Fourie. “They will need to course-correct when the planning does not deliver expected results, and teams constantly review their achievements, assess changing market conditions and incorporate more stringent environmental or sustainability targets that government might set.”
“EP is being described as a new urban development framework, according to what you’ll do with it. This is not as-built and designed; this is committing to a process. With reporting back every two years, on your process. Is it still financially viable, will you measure anything differently?”
There’s no clear, “Oh, this is what you do to become carbon neutral” criteria. That makes the process different. “The EP enables project teams to identify interventions that address their specific challenges.” It’s a framework that gets a commitment as a collective impact as a group of stakeholders, as people that work together. “Every project will have a different energy-use intensity profile, and tailored efforts to reduce that profile. Some interventions might be universal, but projects have the flexibility to identify which are appropriate in that context.”
Projects are inherently distinct too. “We know from work with CoJ that in housing, hot water is the biggest electricity user. So, the interventions will be focused on that,” says Fourie. In offices, it could be lights or perhaps HVAC. Interventions identified in response to detailed assessments conducted around energy use.
The EP philosophy is that cities where the most vulnerable groups are integrated into the planning and implementation process, given a voice and involved in the decision-making will respond better and with longer-lasting growth.
“EP is not about responding to a predetermined set of credit criteria. It’s about each project collective using the protocol to develop a project-specific action plan. It’s really about the commitment to the process of reaching carbon neutrality and the long-term performance reporting process that is being certified, and not the specific actions that projects will take, to do so.”