Future City: Portland & Networked Urban Sustainability

[As part of the lead up to WorldChanging's Future City event this Friday, I put together a feature length piece looking at some of the hits and misses of climate change policy in Portland (OR).  Beyond just a summary of one city's programs, the piece gave me a chance to think through what I see as an important shift in the way cities are pursuing sustainability.  You can read the full post here, or reposted below.] 

When cities first stepped up as leaders in climate action, a few simple projects would get you noticed. For a good 15 years, just doing anything set you apart. But, almost without realizing it, we have walked into a new phase of urban sustainability – version 2.0 – where cities are being pushed to tackle the really tough issues. Retrofitting City Hall is nice, but the real game revolves around how we plan and travel through our cities, how we build and run our buildings, and how we make and use energy. “Go big” as they say “or go home.” Or in this case “go big at home.”

Like web 2.0, bright green cities are now venturing beyond programs run by individuals working in isolation to link up players from all parts of the city. This is the age of networked urban sustainability. And where it used to be enough to create exceptions that proved the unsustainable rules that shaped our cities, leading cities are now building exceptions that change those rules.

Portland (OR) is one of a handful of American cities that is really embracing the challenges of networked sustainability.Portland's success in keeping its emissions below 1990 levels owes a lot to it having defended a 1970s-era urban growth boundary that limited sprawl and promoted compact urban development. Its other early sustainability efforts focused on modest steps like decreasing municipal building energy use, increasing office recycling rates, and running public outreach programs, but in 2009 the city committed to cutting emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

That new goal has demanded systemic changes. Going well beyond just cleaning house, Portland's recent programs show what is possible when cities commit to sparking a collective and collaborative shift in how they are built and lived.

Transforming Energy One Neighborhood At A Time
Playing on the need to both create jobs and save energy, one of Portland's newest and most successful projects is Clean Energy Works Portland (CEWP) which aims to carry out residential energy retrofits across the city on a massive scale.

Existing commercial and residential buildings account for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions (46% in Portland's case). But even if increasing efficiency is technically pretty simple, a variety of things keep homeowners from moving enmasse to retrofit their homes. CEWP addresses that challenge on all fronts: it provides homeowners with affordable long term financing, it coordinates all stages of the work from the initial energy audit to final retrofit, and it provides a well trained certified workforce to ensure that the work that is getting done is done right. At the moment, 500 households are part of neighborhood level pilots, and after receiving $20million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding the program is being scaled up to the level of the state.

But CEWP is about more than just energy efficiency, and it is being led by more than just the City of Portland. There are huge economic benefits to this kind of mass retrofit program. It is estimated that the program will directly create 10,000 stable jobs over 10 years (something similar at a national scale could create up to 750,000 jobs). Those are the kinds of numbers that make municipal officials' eyes sparkle when they talk.

To make sure the jobs went where they were most needed, CEWP partnered with Green For All a national NGO that uses green collar jobs to boost people out of poverty. Together they put in place a community workforce agreement that has created living wage career path jobs among local workers, with a special emphasis on employing historically disadvantaged or underrepresented communities (people of color, women, and low-income residents). In a tough political and economic climate, this emphasis on equity and jobs has helped CEWP get the strong political support that it needs to succeed where other municipal programs have faltered.

It is common to talk about the importance of “community participation” and involving citizens in municipal projects. Solarize Portland, a home solar energy program that is spreading rapidly through the city, turns that relationship on its head. Begun in 2009 by Southeast Uplift and a resident in Portland's Mt. Tabor neighborhood, Solarize began with a simple question: “wouldn't it be cheaper to install solar panels on my house if a bunch of my neighbors were doing it too?” I met some of the families who started the project and when it all began they had modest hopes: if they could get at least 20 homes to install, then bulk purchasing and contracting could bring everyone's costs down. But instead of 20 homes they ended up with 800, and subsequent rounds in other areas around the city have brought in close to 1700 homes. All together they will generate over 1MW of electricity.

In just over a year Solarize Portland has dwarfed all other attempts to install alternative energy technology in the city. Along the way, in partnership with the Energy Trust of Oregon and the City of Portland, they realized that by bringing together all the available local, state and federal subsidies and incentives, home owners only have to pay for 10 to 20% of the total installation costs. With the success of Solarize, and the large numbers of new applicants, the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has stepped in to help out. This is no less a Portland project than CEWP, but here the municipality provides logistical and technical advice while communities lead the way.

Setbacks and Successes in Green Building
This back and forth between city and citizens defines this second period in urban sustainability. The municipality still controls key policy levers around zoning, land use planning, transportation, and economic development. But the goal now is to use them in a way that builds broad coalitions of change and enables the community not just to meet the letter of the law, but to take it to its full intent or even beyond.

Of course, it doesn't always work that way. There is a perception that, given Portland's position as a leader in urban climate policy, it must be relatively easy to pass sustainability related initiatives. That is far from true. Since 2007, for example, the city has been developing a new, community-wide green building policy. But a combination of opposition from home builders and building managers, difficult economic times for the building sector and political struggles have left the policy – at least for now – floating in the water.

Putting in place far reaching and ambitious measures may be excellent for a city's long term success, but it also takes people who are ready to do the tough work of building alliances and brokering compromises. It means meetings (and more meetings). It means mediation. It means working through conflicts until you find a way out the other side. And it doesn't always work.

There are other successes in the city's green building sector though. Since 2005, developers receiving municipal funding have been required to meet minimum LEED Silver ratings on their buildings. As a result major urban renewal projects, like the city's Pearl District, have also been proving grounds for green building practices. Large developers, like Gerding Edlen, who were heavily involved in the Pearl, have increasingly defined themselves as leaders in green building and have expanded their operations to Washington state and California. Taking a page from CEWP's book, Gerding has recently branched out and established an arm that deals specifically with building efficiency retrofits. And while Portland hasn't so far been successful in its new green building policy process, the city has been a key partner in the design of Oregon's new “reach code” that will feed into an ongoing cycle of predictable revisions and improvements to the state building regulations.

Small builders have also benefited from city policies. The removal of construction fees for secondary dwelling units has created a small surge in innovative “tiny homes” around the city. Independently built or undertaken by firms like Orange Splot that specialize in compact dwellings, these new units are some of the cutest, quirkiest and most elegant residential spaces I've ever seen. They also increase density without threatening a neighborhood's original character. That's important because, yes even in Portland, adding density can stir up real debate. The more examples there are to show that “density” isn't just a code word for “drab 1970s apartment block” the better.

This innovative environment has shaken up the structure of the city's bureaucracy itself. In December 2008, the newly elected mayor Sam Adams announced the merger of the Office of Sustainable Development (OSD) and the Bureau of Planning to create a new Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). The new Bureau was put under the leadership of former OSD head Susan Anderson. The merger of the two offices has taken time and effort; institutional changes are never easy. But the new office has some clear benefits. By bringing the city's sustainability and planning experts in under the same roof, it has created a broad basket of tools – from zoning codes, to strategic investment, to education and outreach – that when working in concert can help build a more sustainable city.

What's Next? EcoDistricts and the 20 Minute Neighborhood.
So what's next? While established projects continue to grow, the city is planning to move on a few other key issues. The newly established Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI), is bringing together private companies, local universities, non-profits, and the municipality to create an innovation cluster that can drive the next phase of sustainability initiatives in the metro region. They are leading the way with an EcoDistricts project that is working in five areas of the city to see how we can really “do it all.” We are used to thinking about sustainability initiatives in isolation. The goal with EcoDistricts is to see how we can simultaneously roll out sustainable building, infrastructure, and governance models within existing neighborhoods. PoSI is also heading up the Portland Metro Climate Prosperity Project that aims to increase the region's stake in the green technology and design sectors.

In the past year Portland passed one of North America's most cutting edge Climate Action Plans (CAP) and an ambitious bicycle master plan. The CAP sets out an array of targets that range from a 25% increase in the energy efficiency of existing buildings by 2030, to a 10% reduction in emissions that result from Portlander's food choices (something that, obviously, lies totally outside of the cities direct control, but which links up well with recent discussions of the impacts of our food choices).

Looking for a way to bring this all together at the local level, the CAP lays out the city's plans for what they call “20 minute neighborhoods.” Since seeing the concept being developed in community workshops in 2008, I've loved its simplicity: you should be able to comfortably meet your daily needs (education, recreation, shopping, transportation etc.) within a 20 minute walk of your house. It also has a nice ring to it, and makes a lot more sense to people than talking about “dense, multi-use, transit oriented zones” or some similarly technical definition. [You can read more on the CAP here, and in an interview with Michael Armstrong, Senior Sustainability Manager of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.]

Networked Urban Sustainability: A New Beginning
If there is one common feature that links all these different projects together, it is that they all need the support of multiple partners to make them real. Early on, cities limited their attention to areas that they controlled directly. But as our understanding of the climate challenge increases – and the projections of future conditions continue to worsen – it is clear that cities need to do more. The name of the game in this second, networked, phase of urban sustainability is finding ways to spark changes well past what any one agency, community, or company can control directly.

Sustainability 2.0 gets at something that we have all known for a long time: the challenge of redesigning our cities isn't primarily about technology, it's about people. Creating the rapid shifts that we need in our urban systems means enabling broad based action of a kind that we haven't seen for decades. For local governments, that means being courageous enough to set truly meaningful targets, and then collaboratively building the policies and networks between multiple players that are necessary to reach them. Portland's recent experiences give some good examples of what that looks like.

Spot the Differences: Cities Lead the Climate Fight - Or Do They?

I hate spot the difference games.  The changes are always so arbitrary.  "Look, the cat on the right lost its tail!"  Impressive.

But I came across two headlines recently where the differences - if a bit easier to spot - are also a lot more significant. First, from the Guardian:

"Cities lead the way in action to halt climate change." 
Second, from Digital Journal:
"Climate change not a priority for US cities, survey finds."   
So, how about it --  can you spot the differences?

The Guardian piece is a familiar good news story focusing on seven inspiring projects from cities around the States.
Santa Monica, for example, is aiming to be a net zero energy city by 2020 - that's stunning!  The survey on the other hand looks at responses from 2176 American local governments.  Their results?  14% of cities have established GHG emissions limits for local government.  Programs to reduce community energy consumption are being carried out by 0.8% to 11% of cities (depending on the type of program).    Those are less than inspiring findings.

Apart from being picked up by USAToday, the survey, conducted by the US International City/County Management Association (ICMA), has received no mainstream media coverage.  A four page summary of the results is available here.  What they show, is that while we have gotten used to hearing about cities as "climate leaders" -- and there great examples of cites that truly are pushing ahead -- it's not clear how many cities are following.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I'm a strong advocate for the role cities can play in climate proofing our collective futures.  But I'm also an advocate tackling reality, not fantasy.  While I love to hear about innovative projects cities are putting in place, I think we need to take a good look at why more cities aren't out in front on this issue. 

Defending PACE's Financial Magic: VIDEO

One of the biggest barriers to home energy retrofits or installing solar is financial:  the upfront cost are high and the savings take time to add up. The American PACE program solved that riddle by integrating the repayment of the energy retrofit into the property taxes on a home. That lets you pay them off slowly, and it means the financing stays with the house if you decide to move.  It's a great system.

But the program has been brought to a standstill by the Federal Housing Finance Agency.  The FHFA is refusing to allow PACE participants to refinance their mortgages until they have completely paid off the cost of their energy improvements.  Environment and Energy TV has an excellent interview with ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability head Martin Chavez.  It's well worth a look to see how the system works, what's gone wrong, and how it might be fixed.   Click here to view Read more...

World Carfree Day: TOMORROW!

World Car Free Day is tomorrow, September 22nd.  So ride with pride, and invite some friends along to join you.

Sure, Car Free Day is drop in the bucket: a small exception in the sprawling cities that lock many of us into our cars everyday for hours on end.  But it's also a great experiment in alternative-reality building.  It gives us all a chance to take the streets without noise and congestion, and to see what cities would be like if the people -- not cars -- were king.

There are events this year in over 2000 cities, and every one does it differently. Montreal this year will be blocking off a 7 block portion of the downtown [map] and running a week long "In Town Without My Car" campaign. The Montreal Gazette has a good article on how the car free challenge can be expanded beyond a single day a year and work that is being done to established new car-free zones within the city. The Montreal Urban Ecology Center has a full rundown of the week's events - including two excellent looking talks with speakers from Germany and Norway on European experiences with car-free neighbourhoods.

It's great to see organizers in Montreal coupling the chance experience a car-free downtown with events geared to help build more of these spaces into our cities permanently. That pairing is an example of something I love:  creating exceptions that can change the rules rather than proving them.

BIXI Under Scrutiny: Mixing Better Transportation Cocktails

I hadn't planned on writing about BIXI again so soon, but the results of a research study published last week has finally given us a more critical appraisal of the system's performance. The results generated a bit of discussion on an earlier BIXI related post, and not everyone is happy about what the research has revealed.

The study, conducted by 3 researchers at McGill's Dept. of Urban Planning, is about much more than BIXI. But it's the BIXI findings that have attracted the most attention. The main bugbear is the fact that of the over 2 million BIXI trips taken so far only 10% of those have replaced taxi or car trips. 86% of those trips replaced walking or riding personal bikes or public transit. Some have reacted to that by saying BIXI's overall environmental impact is much lower than official estimates that assume that all BIXI trips replace car trips.

That may be true. But I think that that critique misses the point, as well as other more important information that's in the study. What the 86% stat reveals, really, is that BIXI has successfully reached out to people who are already transit users and cyclists. That's not all that surprising, and providing current transit users with more options is a good way to ensure that people are satisfied with their transit system. I don't think we should be worried about competition amongst multiple modes of green transit. How to extend ridership to beyond people who already bike and ride transit is a more important question.

When it comes to transportation, shifting 10% of trips from cars to bikes is also a big accomplishment. Currently only 1.3% of all trips in Montreal are taken by bike (6% to 7% in central areas). Think what an impact you'd have if you could take the shift made among BIXI users and take it up to the level of the city as a whole. In fact, as we'll see in a second,  the study has some recommendations on how to keep moving in that direction.

A more unexpected findings is that the majority of BIXI trips are not combined with other forms of transit. For a system that is supposed to facilitate multi-modal transit cocktails, that's not great news.  They also conclude that more work needs to be done to provide cycling services outside central areas, especially for people using the commuter rail system.  According to the survey, that is where the biggest opportunities are for getting people out of their cars are onto a mixed modes of transit.

These may be two sides of the same coin: by not providing adequate cycling infrastructure in the suburbs, cycling in general (and BIXI use in the downtown core) may not even be on the radar of many commuters.  Providing good cycle paths and well designed on-site bike parking at suburban transit stations could open up a whole new ridership who would grab a BIXI as they step off the train at the other end.

But there's another issue here.  This study is based on an an online survey of 1,432 Montrealers.  But BIXI itself has en excellent data collection system. That data would allow for a much more precise estimate of the way the system is being used and the percentage of people who combine it with other modes of transportation. I'm not sure why we haven't seen some real analysis of that data yet, but I sure hope we don't have to wait much longer.

If you ask me, BIXI should follow the example of cities like Vancouver and implement an open data policy that allows public access to their stats and mash them up as they please. Think what a team of transportation researchers could do with that.

Conflict, Collaboration and Climate Change: New Article Out

I just got word from my publishers at Wiley-Blackwell that my most recent article on urban sustainability is now out.

It's covers a good chunk of the research that I was doing while I was living in the amazing city of Durban, (South Africa). It also takes a look at some of the things we (and the UN IPCC) may be leaving out when we think about how to implement urban climate change policy.  The bottom line:  conflict may not be such a bad thing, it may even help urban governments and citizens take real action.

I've posted the abstract and a few excerpts after the jump.  If you'd like a copy, just send me an e-mail.

Climate Skeptic - Now with less Skepticism! : Lomborg Changes Tune

For those who – like me – missed the news on Monday: the world's most well known climate change skeptic has done a dramatic about face.

Bjorn Lomborg's 1998 book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” has been a pillar for critics of climate science and policy.  He has made a high profile for himself by taking a strip off of pretty much anyone – from the media to the IPCC – who has called for rapid action on climate change.  But on Monday in an exclusive interview with The Guardian, he called  climate change "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today" and proposed a global carbon tax to help address the issue.

If that all seems a bit fishy, it's worth remembering that Lomborg never argued that man-made climate change was a fiction. His point has been that, if you do a cost-benefit analysis, dealing with climate change is just too expensive.  You get more bang for your buck by focusing policies and money on poverty, disease, and development aid.  These in the end give you more immediate positive returns both in terms of human welfare and the environment.

"Energy Miracles" Part 2
Lomborg isn't the first high profile figure to shift his focus from global inequality to climate change.  In  February Bill Gates announced that the new mission of his foundation (whose core focus is on development and disease) would be to reduce human carbon emissions to zero by 2050.  At the time that was a surprising and inspiring move.  As was pointed out earlier on WorldChanging, simply by saying “zero carbon by 2050” Gates has helped mainstream what is really our only sensible target.  Lomborg's new position may have a similar impact. 

Also like Gates, Lomborg is calling for a dramatic investment  (to the tune of $100bn per year) in research and development of  new renewable energy technologies – an argument that he makes in more detail in an upcoming book.  (Gates proposed a $10 billion-a-year U.S. government R&D program to pursue “energy miracles.”)  And like Gates, I'd say, Lomborg has (again) got his priorities wrong.

More Results - Less Sex Appeal
Looking for a silver-bullet breakthrough energy technology is romantic and adventurous.  But the boring truth is that what we need to focus on right now is market and regulatory barriers. 

Not so sexy, I know.  I'd rather be driving a Tesla roadster too.  But as it stands, new energy technologies enter the market at a snails pace. Royal Dutch/Shell estimates that it takes “25 years after commercial introduction for a primary energy form to obtain a 1 percent share of the global market.” As Joe Romm, excellent climate blogger and energy expert, argued in response to Gates -- we just don't have that kind of time.  Rapid effective action depends on getting existing technologies into the market as quickly as possible.  It's from that point that practical experience drives innovation  and costs really begin to drop.  (See Romm's full post for a detailed look at this).

Pushing Deployment: North & South
For those of us working closer to the ground on these issue, the need to focus on getting rid of barriers to implementation is no surprise.  Established technologies and established institutions can have a lot of inertia – especially in a sector like energy where the market and infrastructure already in place heavily favours outdated carbon intensive energy sources.  

The extensive subsidies and financing options available in the US (but not in Canada) for home efficiency and renewable energy are one example of a way to deal with that.  Municipal programs in cities like Berkeley and Portland offer other paths. Passing comprehensive federal clean energy legislation would be another.

But there is another reason why Lomborg's narrow focus on research makes little sense.  Energy poverty, the lack of access to affordable reliable energy, is  a key factor that keeps people in poverty world wide.  Energy availability influences everything from health, to educational performance, to economic opportunities.  From an urban perspective, the search for reliable access to energy is one of the factors that drives people into informal settlements around cities in some of the world's poorest countries. 

A rapid roll-out of renewable energy technology is an affordable way to provide durable infrastructure to these communities.  The push to deploy renewable energy in developing countries has been led both by governments and NGOs; two inspiring examples can be found in the Indian Solar Cities and Barefoot College programs.

There, just as much as in North America, what we need to focus on is doing more with what we've got -- and quickly.


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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