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.


4 Responses to "Future City: Portland & Networked Urban Sustainability"

James V. Hillegas said... 6 November 2010 at 22:12

Hi Alex,

I found this post intriguing and offered a brief synopsis of it on my own blog. I also appreciate all of the other Portland, Oregon, posts that you've written here.

You might find my blog of interest: sustainabilityhistory.org/.

I look forward to keeping abreast of your work!

Alex Aylett said... 7 November 2010 at 13:40

Hey James,
I'm glad you liked it and thanks for the link to the SHP project.

The Pacific Northwest is definitely a hotbed for innovative project in North America. It's great to see that someone is doing the work to preserve the stories of what it was like in the early days of this push towards sustainability.

When do you think the first oral histories are going to go up?

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Rick Campbell said... 29 January 2017 at 06:29

I would like to read a virtual data room review from you. Really interested in your point of view on this! thanks in advance.


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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