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Is Portland getting left in the dust? A young sustainability professional’s take
Author: By Ellen Dorsey, PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: April 29, 2013

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I am part of a new professional development program at Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS).

The program is designed to give recent graduates like me the opportunity to develop professional leadership and networking skills in industries associated with sustainability. I have been working on a variety of projects, including research and writing regarding the Northwest coal debate, the history of sustainability in Portland, university living lab program development, and strategic planning for sustainability at PSU.

Throughout my graduate program in urban planning at PSU, we were indoctrinated about the effectiveness — and challenges — of multi-sector partnerships and coordination. But, to my surprise, in all of Portland’s glory, beyond the green buildings and infrastructure, sustainable mobility and regional planning, there has been a significant disconnect between public and private initiatives that have stalled the progress of the region’s sustainable economy.

The city lacks innovative financing structures and policies, along with much-needed leadership from the private sector in sustainability initiatives. If this trend continues, Portland will soon be left behind by larger cities that have formed successful partnerships that catalyze high-impact projects.

In an attempt to address these shortcomings, Portland in 2011 created a Greenprint for the Metro Region. The regional economic development strategy centered on the advancement of green development and clean technology clusters.

Part of the Portland Metro Climate Prosperity Project, the document outlines seven strategic priorities for action to “create more linkages among key players around shared market interests, regional business planning and signature projects.”

In recent months, I have listened in on many conversations focused on how to better implement the Greenprint and advance the next phase of sustainability in Portland. As part of an ongoing effort to convene stakeholders around local and regional sustainability issues, ISS recently brought together a cross-sector group to discuss common goals and bolder initiatives that could lead Portland into the next generation of sustainability.

Since then, ISS has worked with this group to develop a strategy for how various stakeholders can work together and organize their actions for more collective impact for our urban economy.

Most people agree that Portland needs to broaden its green economy toward larger regional scale actions in order to achieve an economic transformation. Aiming for a carbon-neutral economy, or “climate prosperity,” would focus on green jobs, climate and energy and require comprehensive, large-scale planning that would attract diverse players and funding opportunities, and drive innovations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This would offer a competitive advantage over larger cities and help ensure Portland remains a national and global leader in sustainability.

A climate prosperity strategy will not ignore the policies and programs that have made Portland successful thus far. Our cross-sector group recognized the need to readjust the “nuts and bolts” of Portland’s sustainability efforts by finding better ways to implement policies, leverage our strong, successful programs such as Solarize Portland, and develop district and neighborhood-scale actions like Clean Energy Works.

Moving forward, sub-groups will be identified for targeted discussions of proposed next steps around these items to help bring ideas to action.

In May, PSU and ISS will host the a National Academy of Science workshop called Pathways to Urban Sustainability. The event will provide an opportunity for additional discussion around this topic.

The workshop will also provide a forum for experts from across the country to share best practices and lessons learned about advancing urban sustainability efforts, which should offer valuable insight on how to achieve an economic transformation in Portland.

Although there has been progress in certain areas, the Greenprint has fallen short in establishing clear leadership and direction. One reason for this is that there has not been enough buy-in from the private sector, which is mostly interested in specific projects rather than broader strategies.

Our collaborative work has the potential to help us develop clear messages around shared public-private strategies for investing in concrete projects that the private sector can support. Only then will Portland stay on the cutting edge of a sustainable urban economy.