Above: Mary Ellen Ramage, Etna Borough Manager, speaking with attendees of the 2019 EcoDistricts Summit about the future ECO Park during the Triboro Ecodistrict neighborhood tours.
In early November during the 10th Annual EcoDistricts Summit, the Borough of Etna became the world’s first certified EcoDistrict, a feat that Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage never thought possible because “it’s not something you ever think about.”
“Never in my life did I dream that I would be part of anything that was the first in the world,” Ramage said.
Through a proclamation presented by Etna Mayor Tom Rengers, this Wednesday, December 11 will be recognized as Etna EcoDistrict Day, which coincides with the sold out EcoDistrict Celebration at Fugh Hall where the Triboro Ecodistrict partnership will be honored and Etna will publicly launch its EcoDistrict Plan.
Before embarking on the certification process, the borough already had a focus on sustainable practices including its Green Infrastructure Master Plan, Storm Water Management, and Green Streetscape projects, but the community’s interest in ecodistricts began in late 2016 at the EcoDistricts Micro-Incubator in Millvale.
Led by Triboro Ecodistrict Director Brian Wolovich and Millvale Sustainability Coordinator Zaheen Hussain, the micro-incubator informed participants of the EcoDistrict Protocol, how it worked when Millvale began the process in 2012, and practiced visioning sustainable development using the Protocol. Etna Community Organization (ECO) Board Member and borough resident Robert Tuñón said he and Mayor Rengers attended the workshop together.
“Both Etna and Millvale were making great strides in their physical improvements, but Tom knew the Ecodistrict movement in Millvale was catalytic in getting people to stay involved and volunteer,” Tuñón said.
They left the micro-incubator and shared their knowledge with a small group of municipal and resident leaders, and started gathering information to create an asset based map that identified the positive things already happening in the community and how they could be built upon. Tuñón said these small meetings continued and slowly grew to around 40 residents before the initial public meeting in March 2018 that had over 100 people in attendance.
“We were shocked at the ability to have a grassroots movement start in the community with very little resources,” Tuñón said. “At the time we had no funding.”
Just a few months after the first public meeting, Etna received funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation through its partnership with the Triboro Ecodistrict, which also includes Millvale and Sharpsburg. The financial backing advanced Etna’s efforts and allowed them to hire evolveEA and begin an educational series that addressed a key component on the path to becoming an EcoDistrict: offer multiple rounds of opportunities for the community to give input and engage in the planning process, demonstrating that it’s an equitable plan.
Ramage said the educational series, a total of 35 public events, was “one of the most amazing things about the EcoDistrict process” and that she was “mesmerized” by residents engagement.
“People aren’t given enough credit,” Ramage said. “They just need an opportunity to learn and see how they can help and how they can be part of the change. It’s empowering.”
Including equity, communities pursuing the certification must address two other imperatives including “resilience with a broad lens that prepares for social, economic and environmental shocks and stresses,” and climate protection by building “a pathway to carbon neutrality,” according to the EcoDistricts website.
Tuñón said with the leadership of Alexis Boytim, Director of Etna Community Organization, three reports were submitted to EcoDistricts covering Equity, Resilience, and Climate Protection.
After the third report was submitted, Boytim had a call with the national organization and that’s when she was informed that Etna was on track to become the first certified EcoDistrict.
“We didn’t realize that would ever be a possibility,” Boytim said. “When we found out, we were excited of course, but recognized that we wouldn’t have been able to do that or even be where we are without the work done before us and [the partnership with the] Triboro.”
Tuñón echoed Boytim and said the Etna EcoDistrict would not have been imaginable without the guidance from Brian Wolovich in Millvale, Brittany Reno in Sharpsburg, and Mary Ellen in Etna.
“They were able to teach us from their lessons learned and pass those on to us, so in many ways some of the success we feel we’ve had was based on building off their experiences,” Tuñón said. “It all ties together.”
A few projects on the horizon for Etna are the creation of the Etna Community Library and the Etna EcoPark planned for 37 Grant Ave. where a blighted building once stood and is now a vacant lot that the borough recently acquired.
These projects are two reminders that the EcoDistrict certification is just the beginning. Over time, Etna must complete certain goals they set for themselves, track the boroughs progress, and report transparently to the national organization on how they’re doing, Tuñón said.
“The hard work starts now, but it’s work that you understand will make a difference far into the future,” Ramage said. “You have to leave it better than you found it… and that’s what EcoDistrict is all about.”
You might see varying forms of capitalization when exploring the idea of an ecodistrict in your community. This is intentional, and they each have their own meaning:
- “ecodistrict” refers to the concept in the field of urban planning that integrates ecologically-sound practices with sustainable community development.
- “Ecodistrict” refers to a specific community that is engaged in developing an ecodistrict.
- “EcoDistricts” refers to the parent organization that formulated and published the official Protocol and oversees a certification process. They are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon.
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