"Where's the air-conditioned limousine?"
Nancy Hales laughs as she recalls being asked this question. The questioner, part of a delegation from a city that will remain unnamed, wanted to know why Hales was handing out transit passes.
"We give them the most authentic Portland experience we can," says Hales, head of PSU's First Stop Portland program. When a group arrives to study urban transportation, green building practices, good urban form, or any of the other layers of sustainable practices for which Portland is known, riding mass transit is a given.
First Stop Portland, housed in the College of Urban and Public Affairs, was launched in April 2009. Funded primarily by the private sector, the program, says Hales, is an answer to a problem. It provides logistical and planning support for visitors who want to learn about Portland’s livability success stories from the people creating those stories.
"Too many delegations had a fractured experience rather than gaining comprehensive information on their trips here. For instance, they might just meet with developers, or with transit officials, or with green building leaders, depending on who brought them to town," says Hales. "First Stop Portland is here to pool resources, facilitate information exchange, and give visiting groups access to appropriate, high-level people."
AT THE HEART of First Stop Portland are mobile workshops and study tours. Many of the tours are led by PSU graduate and undergraduate students who volunteer their time and effort to advance the ideas and practices for which Portland is so well-known. "The students are really well informed about official policy, and they contribute an authentic voice," says Hales.
During 2009, First Stop Portland hosted 32 delegations—nearly 600 people—from around the world. City council and staff from Nagoya, Japan, investigated Portland's land use programs, green initiatives, and LEED building codes. Visitors from Cincinnati, Ohio, spoke with business strategists about the complexities of developing marketing plans for their city's streetcar transit project. Delegations have come from Berlin, from Amsterdam, from the British Parliament. A group from King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia had a preview Greenline tour of the city's newest MAX light rail line.
Recently, Jordan Schwartz led a delegation from the World Bank's Sustainable Development Network. "Where do you go," asked Schwartz, "for in-field training in the applied economics of sustainable development? You look for a city with a leading position in long-term land use planning, integrated mass transit systems, the creation of markets for environmental credits, evolving standards for green construction. In short, you go to Portland. It's fantastic to learn from those who have led the charge and designed the incentive.
"When we weren't walking,” said Schwartz, "we used bus and public transit exclusively in and around town." In other words, no air-conditioned limousines for the World Bank group.
Meg DesCamp is a freelance writer based in Portland.