Read the original post in Sustainable Business Oregon.
Editor's note: This is the third and final part in a series of articles on Portland's sustainability past by historian Chet Orloff.
After 160 years of practice, Portlanders are perfecting — though still learning — some of the complex and interconnected actions it takes to sustain what its founders originally envisioned: an enduring and livable community.
Portland was first recognized as an important bicycle hub not in the 1990s, but the 1890s. One hundred years later, bicycle advocates created the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, which continues as a powerful lobbying voice and armature for activism. In 1996, Portland cyclists helped draft the Bicycle Master Plan, which continues to guide bicycle transportation policies.
The Oregon Legislature passed the Oregon Recycling Act in 1991. The Act set an ambitious goal of recovering 50 percent of waste products by 2000. A year later Portland began to offer curbside recycling services to all residents and in 1992 Metro adopted the Metropolitan Greenspaces Master Plan to preserve natural areas, establish a regional trail system, and restore greenspaces within neighborhoods.
The same year also saw the launch of Portland’s first four farmers markets that has grown to serve the entire region with more than 30 local markets selling primarily locally grown and raised produce.
Portland got out in front of the nation by adopting the Kyoto Protocol in 1993, establishing limits on carbon emissions — based on 1990 levels — that was actually achieved by 2004. Building on its Greenspaces Master Plan and years of preparatory work, Metro released its 2040 Concept, a 50-year blueprint for planning and managing growth and transportation, preserving open space, and acquiring lands for parks and watersheds.
The 2040 plan, while undergoing constant updating, continues to direct urban growth toward compact centers served by transit. “Getting out in front” of what’s happening at the federal level is something Portland began in the early 1970s when, through the Downtown Plan, it took off in different directions — from transit to revitalizing its central city — from that of most other cities nationwide.
The 1990s concluded with Portland continuing to lead the nation in sustainability issues. The city adopted a Pedestrian Master Plan in 1998, formally recognizing the convenient and attractive walkability of a city whose founders laid out those short, easily navigable blocks. The Bureau of Environmental Services launched its ecoroof program with a green roof atop the refurbished Hamilton Building. Private developers, in partnership with the city’s development commission and Portland Streetcar Inc., began building out a former industrial district in northwest Portland into a new neighborhood — the Pearl District — that by 2001, was tied to the downtown with a new streetcar line and has become a national model for recycling inner urban industrial land into active new residential, retail and commercial uses.
The 21st century and Portland’s next 150 years opened with the city creating the Office of Sustainable Development (today the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability), the nation’s first city agency focusing on sustainability and putting sustainability into the “cabinet” of city administration.
The city also began requiring buildings built with tax subsidies to meet the standards of the Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The city’s Bureau of Parks and Recreation launched its Parks 2020 Vision in 2001, a plan and process for achieving the full vision for parks set a century ago by John Charles Olmsted and providing parks within a 20-minute walk for all Portlanders.
The city also initiated a River Renaissance program to coordinate efforts by city bureaus to restore and maintain the Willamette and Columbia Rivers as recreational, aesthetic, wildlife, industrial, and commercial resources — a great challenge, to be sure.
Putting money where its mouth was, Portland established a Green Investment Fund in 2001 to provide grants for projects in sustainable construction and technologies. Five years later the city convened the Peak Oil Task Force to draw up strategies for dealing with predicted shortfalls of oil and natural gas.
In 2004 the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation became the first Salmon-Safe certified system in the nation. Four years later, the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services implemented its “Grey to Green” program to plant street trees and ecoroofs and build green streets citywide, an endeavor that aims to remove pollutants that enter the city’s streams and rivers.
The decade closed with the Portland Sustainability Institute, Portland State University, and the Portland Development Commission beginning work on local EcoDistricts and with the city launching a 25-year Portland Plan built on “complete community” sustainability and the inclusion of business practices and job-creation in the broadening definition of sustainability.
As the second decade of the century progresses, the city continues to lay down more miles of light rail and streetcar lines, encouraging compact development within the urban core. Construction is progressing on the city’s first bridge over the Willamette River in nearly 60 years, with a transit bridge that will serve only light-rail trains, streetcars, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. No cars. Yet again, Portland is setting the trend for major transportation infrastructure.
Mayor Charlie Hales, who as a city commissioner 15 years ago led the effort to build a Portland streetcar system, is urging the state of Oregon’s Investment Council to divest all state holdings in fossil fuel. He has pledged to begin implementation of the city’s resolution to buy 100 percent renewables. He has also pledged to work with local utilities to reduce reliance on coal and natural gas.
And, as a further demonstration of Portland’s attempts to reduce its carbon footprint, Hales has announced that Portland will apply to the Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, designed to help prepare cities for catastrophic events, like a major earthquake that is predicted to strike the Pacific Northwest sometime within the next century.
Recently, the city has supported the creation of the Intertwine Alliance, a coalition of more than 80 organizations sharing a common interest in improving health, creating jobs, increasing greenspace, expanding transportation networks, and keeping the region’s air and water clean.
Allan Jacobs, former Planning Director of San Francisco and an internationally recognized urban designer, defines a good city as having opportunity, imagination, authenticity and meaning, conservation, public space, accessibility, neighborhoods, density, sustainability — all things leading to livability.
In a recent essay titled “The Good City” he wrote:
“Look at a simple map of Portland, downtown or uptown, and it is nothing special to behold. But, visit Portland, experience its scale, the welcoming nature of its streets, the ability to choose, at each of the many intersections, where you want to go next, and you soon realize that this is a good city.”