Portland's Bridge to the Future

River Crossing: No Cars or Trucks Allowed

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Susan Anderson is director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability for the city of Portland, Ore.

Michael Armstrong is sustainability manager in the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 30, 2015 4:28 pm

At first glance, the Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People spanning the Willamette River in Portland, Ore., looks like any other cable-stayed bridge in any other river city. But take a closer look and you might notice something different.

Traversing this new bridge, which opened on Sept. 12, are light rail trains, streetcars, buses, people on bicycles and pedestrians. But, you won’t see a single private car or truck – because, on this bridge, they aren’t allowed.

Tilikum is a Native American word meaning people, tribe or family, and as its name implies, the “Bridge of the People” not only connects two sides of metropolitan Portland, but it also symbolically connects the Portland area’s ancient tribal past with its decidedly sustainable future.

“This bridge is a fantastic illustration of exactly the future we are now building here,” said Michael Armstrong, sustainability manager in the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS).

But, it hasn’t always been that way

“Portland’s air quality in the ‘70s was really bad, just like a lot of other places, and so we invested in transit and walkable neighborhoods and we really made improvements. Fifteen years ago, the percentage of people commuting by bike in Portland wasn’t much different than a dozen other American cities of our size, and today Portland’s percent of bike commuters is nine times the national average,” Armstrong said.

Susan Anderson, BPS director, said the city’s emphasis on land-use planning, transit oriented development and walkability has been a primary factor in building Portland’s reputation as one of the most sustainable cities in the world.

“Our focus has been around how to create as many walkable neighborhoods as possible so you can get all the things you need on an everyday basis… without having to get in your car,” Anderson said.

She said the community’s passion for sustainability has its roots in the environmental movement of the 1960s.

“Portland is in the midst of an incredibly beautiful place and there was a strong desire by the people who lived here, and by the thousands of people who were moving here, to create a wonderful place to live and to keep it a wonderful place to live,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t in response to a specific threat, it was more of a forward looking desire to keep the place as amazing as it is.”

In the late 1970s, the city first established an energy office, which managed the city’s energy programs and policies, including those related to energy efficiency, renewable energy, and ultimately making Portland a pioneer in green building and climate-change mitigation. As director of the energy office in 1993, Anderson was involved in drafting the city’s original Climate Action Plan, the first such plan established by a local government in the United States. Since then, total local carbon emissions have declined by 14 percent, while the U.S. as a whole has seen a six percent increase. Portland has made this progress despite adding 160,000 people to its population since 1990, according to Anderson.

“We’ve reduced our per-capita carbon emissions by 35 percent,” she said. “So, that’s really the big story; and then there are dozens of smaller projects that illustrate how we got there.”

In 2000, the city council combined the energy office with the city’s solid waste and recycling group to form the Office of Sustainable Development, which merged in 2009 with the Bureau of Planning to become the BPS.

Armstrong said the merging of these departments and the evolution of the city’s management structure has been important to the integration of sustainability into everything the city does.

“Plans are long-term pathways to achieving a strategic vision,” Armstrong said. “We don’t want to have a plan that isn’t a sustainability plan. That’s why Portland doesn’t have something that is labeled a ‘sustainability plan,’ because all of our overarching strategic guidance includes sustainability.”

An atypical political structure

Portland’s form of government is unusually decentralized. Its city council consists of Mayor Charlie Hales, elected in 2012, four nonpartisan commissioners and an auditor, all elected at-large. The mayor and each of Portland’s commissioners has executive authority over a portfolio of city agencies, which are assigned by the mayor.

So, because all city agencies don’t report to a single mayor or city manager, “we all literally have different bosses when it comes to working across agencies,” Armstrong said. “Our office works for the mayor because when he was handing out responsibilities he kept the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability for himself, along with a number of others. A different city commissioner is responsible for transportation; a different one is responsible for parks; and a different one is responsible for housing.”

“On paper this might seem to have a very high potential for chaos and stalemate,” Armstrong said, “but what you find in reality is we’ve developed a really strong collaborative approach.” He credited the city’s unusual political structure with generating many of the city’s most creative and locally popular initiatives. At least a dozen referendums attempting to convert the city to a more conventional form of government have failed at the ballot box, he said.

The city government interfaces with the public through its Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which helps fund seven district coalitions of volunteer-based neighborhood associations. These associations represent 95 officially recognized neighborhoods in the city. Anderson said it was Portland’s active and engaged neighborhood groups that helped develop the city’s Solarize Portland initiative, which was a solar panel volume-purchasing program led by Portland area neighborhood associations that brought solar energy to almost 1,000 Portland homes between 2009 and 2012.

Tackling climate change… for everyone

This summer, the city council approved its latest Climate Action Plan, which will guide Portland’s carbon reduction efforts for the next five years. One of the unique aspects of this plan is that it contains specific language addressing equity.

“This plan will result in many benefits, such as a stronger economy, new jobs, lower energy bills, transportation improvements and a cleaner environment,” Anderson wrote in a recent blog posted on the city’s web site. “Efforts should ensure that all residents, and especially those from under-served and under-represented communities, share in the economic, environmental and health benefits related to reducing carbon pollution.”

Portland has also embraced and benefited from the state of Oregon’s energy efficiency programs. A focus on weatherizing more than 40,000 multi-family units and other programs have resulted in an 11 percent reduction in per capita household energy consumption since 1990, Anderson said.

“People now can talk about sustainability and climate change and that is a motivator for some people, but for most of the years we’ve done this work, the motivation was totally around improving comfort, saving money, making life easier or doing it because you wanted to be cool,” she said. “So we’ve spent a lot of time working on behavioral marketing and trying to get people to change behavior… and we’ve learned a lot about that and have applied it in the development of our programs.”

Separating the smelly stuff

Three years ago, Portland started collecting residential food scraps along with yard waste every week, while reducing trash collection to every other week. By picking up the “smelly stuff” every week and collecting the rest of it less often, the result has been a 35 percent reduction in garbage going to the landfill, Armstrong said. It’s also helped push the city’s recycling rate up to about 70 percent and has tripled the amount of compost the city had been generating, without raising collection costs. In fact, Armstrong said, garbage collection costs have decreased each of the last three years.

Sustainability as economic development

Anderson said Portland learned more than a decade ago that sustainability could be an economic engine, creating green jobs, attracting a talented workforce and helping businesses reduce costs. When the city council decided in 2000 that all city-funded buildings would have to be built to LEED standards, and later to LEED-Gold standards, architects in the city began to get LEED certified. As a result, Portland became a hub of sorts for architectural firms that could design buildings to LEED specifications.

“By doing that, we created this big pool of architects, designers and developers who are creating LEED-Platinum and LEED-Gold projects in Portland and all over the world. One of our exports, really, is this talent pool. And so now we’re trying to do the same thing around waste reduction and a whole slew of other sustainable technologies.

Looking to the future…

Anderson and Armstrong said BPS has an aggressive agenda over the next three to five years. Here are some of the things the bureau will be working to achieve:

• Equity – From ensuring that reductions in carbon pollution benefit everyone, to making sure energy efficiency and renewable energy are affordable and that city amenities are accessible to everyone, equity will be at the heart of BPS’s priorities, Armstrong said.

• Community solar – Portland is urging the state of Oregon to change its regulatory policies to allow for community solar, so that apartment dwellers and others who can’t generate their own renewable energy on-site can still purchase renewable energy generated elsewhere.

• Mixed-use neighborhoods – The bureau will be working to increase the city’s stock of 3- to 5-story multifamily housing units with retail stores on the ground floor in safe, walkable and affordable neighborhoods near public transit corridors.

• Replacing the gas tax – Armstrong said Portland is encouraging the state of Oregon to change the way it funds the state’s transportation systems; replacing the gas tax with a fee assessed on a per-mile basis. A pilot program is currently under way.

Sage advice

“I’ve been working on these issues for 20 years now,” Anderson said, “and 90 percent of our successes have been built on market-based mechanisms, figuring out ways to change people’s behavior by using either financial incentives or disincentives. But, climate can’t wait for that anymore. It’s imperative that we move somewhat quickly, so we need to make some of these more systemic and regulatory changes in the next 10 years. That takes political champions. You can come up with the greatest programs in the world, but if you don’t have a business and a political champion then none of this stuff will happen.

“So don’t spend so much time trying to get a program exactly perfect. Spend more time developing the political and business groundswell of support for what you’re trying to do, so you can actually build momentum.”

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