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Sustainability Leadership Links: Susan Anderson on Portland's future

This post, written by PSU students Sara Dueno and Amy Rathfelder is part of a series of leadership studies and interviews with leaders in sustainability development in Portland. This blog series is produced by students taking a senior seminar on civic leadership with Professor Kevin Kecskes at Portland State University.

This post is the fifth in this year's series. You can find other parts of the series here:

Susan Anderson is the director of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). BPS collaborates with community partners—including Portland State University—to research and develop innovative solutions that can be implemented throughout Portland to enhance livability and sustainability for years to come. Susan’s accomplishments in sustainability include leading the development of Portland’s Climate Action Plan, the first of its kind in the United States, and the BPS strategic plan to achieve a “prosperous, healthy, resilient, and equitable” future for Portland and the surrounding communities. 

Last month, we had the opportunity to meet with Susan to learn more about her role, the challenges and opportunities she faces in her work as a leader in sustainability, and her view for Portland’s sustainable future. 

To open the interview, we asked Susan about her conception of what it meant to be a leader, and the point in her life she considered herself a leader. Susan expressed enthusiasm in her leadership role and how it began at a young age. At 28, she found herself in a position of feeling “out there, with no one else in [the same] space,” and was pushed into a leadership role. It was this realization that then led her to choose to engage with a community that she felt she could impact in a positive manner and Susan has since cemented herself as a capable and effective leader in her role with the city of Portland.

This is a role that involves attending to many different duties. On a daily basis, Susan meets with various partnerships, from Portland’s government officials to sustainability-oriented groups to environmental organizations. Part of her day also involves coordinating with her employees and making sure everything is running smoothly. Susan explained that her daily mantra is future oriented, posing the question, “What are the things I can do socially and environmentally that can make Portland more sustainable in the future?” 

In her position, Susan has experienced many of Portland’s transitions and fluctuations in population and climate issues. This has given her a unique perspective on the potential for exciting developments in sustainability, as well as the challenges we face as a large community. One of the biggest obstacles we will face in the coming years is fusing together the ideas of equity and sustainability as Portland undergoes a transition from a small town to a larger city, and the challenges that come along with that—rising housing costs, increased traffic congestion, and the displacement that occurs when more people move into a city. While we do face these constant issues, Susan expressed excitement about the potential for Portland to be a leader when it comes to sustainable development, and the opportunity to build practical and creative solutions.

Looking toward the future, in addition to integrating sustainability and equity in order to create avenues for all citizens to be equally represented in the sustainability development process, Susan wants to focus on tackling issues such as the increased cost of low- and middle-income housing, improving transit for areas in Portland that are currently lacking access, and increasing the use of solar energy in the city. 

The importance of Susan’s role in Portland cannot be overstated. Her leadership gives our city and ultimately our state the chance to create communities that are healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more sustainable. Her future-oriented attitude and her dedication to ensuring current issues are addressed with innovative solutions was evident—“a better future and a better now” makes her excited about sustainability.

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