A little over a month ago, Portland made history when the new mayor merged the Office of Sustainable Development (OSD) and the Bureau of Planning. Naturally, no one outside of the local media seems to care very much. Bureaucratic restructuring doesn't have the same caché that attracts journalists to the photogenic icons of sustainability. No eco-roofs, no LEED condos, no plug-ins for hybrid cars -- nothing pretty to look at. But thanks to the merger, Portland's new Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is in all likelihood the most powerful "green" municipal agency in all of North America.
Sustainability coordinators -- or Sustainability Offices if your city is lucky enough to have one -- are usually Davids inside the Goliath of the municipal structure. With little budget and no direct control over policy, their job is to steer cities in a new direction and transforms the ways in which they do business. In this case though, it seems that David has eaten Goliath. The former Office of Sustainable Development was initially funded through recycling revenues and relied on various forms of persuasion and diplomacy to get its work done. It is now at the head of a bureau that is one of the best funded and most powerful in the city.
In the short term, I am not sure what this will mean for Portland. This transformation was possible to begin with because there was already a close working relationship between OSD and the Bureau of Planning, thanks in large part to Gil Kelley , the Bureau's former director (for his parting Op-Ed in the Oregonian see here). Also, thanks to OSD's hard work and a general public support for environmental issues, the city is already leading the pack when it comes to sustainability. In part, the new bureau simply reflects this reality. All the same, the merger took many employees by surprise and some of the initial coverage has been quite critical.
In the long term, I think we will see more of this is the kind of merger. Or at least I hope we do. One of the underlying objectives of work on sustainability is that the principles that we are working to establish will one day be taken for granted. Even though we are fascinated by new technologies, much of what needs changing has to do with how we make day-to-day decisions. To build up the skills to rethink how we make those decisions, a staff dedicated to local sustainability is essential. But as more and more cities begin to adopt ecologically intelligent principles as their new "common sense" it will make less and less sense to maintain old administrative divisions that keep Sustainability off on its own corner.
Many effective initiatives are blocked by a lack of either the will or the power to implement them. By creating a bureau that has both will and power, Portland provides a great example of what may become a trend as cities adapt to changing priorities and circumstances.