The four decades of Portland's history that began in the late '60s established a record of sustainability unparalleled in this city — or most other American cities.
The 1970s opened with the election to the Portland City Council of 28-year-old Neil Goldschmidt who, as mayor from 1972 to 1979, would lead the city through the creation of a downtown transit mall and the initiation of plans for a network of light-rail lines that, today, tie much of the region together.
Goldschmidt's election was quickly followed, in 1971, with passage of a statewide Bottle Bill and Bicycle Bill. The former was the nation's first effort to impose a deposit on soda and beer bottles, leading to a recycling industry that became a national model. The Bicycle Bill required that all state investments in transportation include provisions for bicycle and pedestrian amenities and improvements. The bill helped lay the foundation for what would become, two decades later, the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
In 1972, Portland adopted a Downtown Plan that remains, more than 40 years later, a set of concepts and guidelines that continues to influence Portland planners and citizens. The Plan sought to stem the flow of residents from the city by creating a livable downtown, reinvigorating transit ridership, establishing new design standards, preserving historic resources, and re-energizing the city's commercial core, among other major goals.
Many of the goals have been achieved but, more significantly, they have continued to serve as benchmarks for continued work.
In 1973 the Oregon Legislature passed, and Gov. Tom McCall signed into law, Senate Bill 100, which established an ambitious land-use planning and regulation mechanism. Over the next decade, Oregon towns and cities began to craft local land-use plans and urban-growth boundaries that would help contain — though not necessarily prevent — urban sprawl while preserving adjacent farm and forest land. The same year, the Willamette River Greenway Act was passed, strengthening protection of fragile riverbanks along Oregon's major river.
City officials in 1974 convinced the federal government to transfer funds intended for the never-to-be-built Mount Hood Freeway to a Portland-to-Gresham light-rail line, blazing the trail for the region's rail transit system. The same year, workers began tearing up the 40-year-old Harbor Drive, which separated the downtown from the Willamette River: the beginning of Waterfront Park.
With its opening in 1979, the park helped reconnect the city with its river and has inspired Portlanders to proactively take the necessary steps toward restoring the basic functions of its principal waterway. The same year also saw the entrepreneurial PSU Portland Recycling Team launch Sunflower and Cloudburst recycling companies, in turn launching the city toward its nationally recognized waste-management program.
The 1970s ended with the creation of Metro, the nation's first and, to-date, longest-serving regional government. Among other sustainability functions, Metro is responsible for waste-disposal and recycling, regional green spaces and parks, assuring the maintenance of the region's urban growth boundary, and transportation planning.
Portland's next decade of sustainability opened with another regional event, the incorporation in 1981 of the 40-Mile Loop Land Trust. Inspired by the Olmsted Park Plan from early in the century, the Loop was envisioned as trail system that would link and encircle the region. Thirty years later, the Loop has lengthened to 150 miles and today connects more than 30 parks.
Portland's first modern light-rail line, to Gresham, opened in 1986 with great fanfare as well as predictions that few riders would ever use the system. Bucking the predictions, Portlanders have climbed on board as additional lines and trains, and now streetcars, have been added to the transit system. As Portlanders have regained the "riding habit" of mass transit that their grandparents had, as transit-oriented urban design has developed across the Portland region, and as gas prices rise, more and more riders will be climbing on board.
Building on the principles of the 1972 Downtown Plan and responding to the needs for an update, Portland completed a Central City Plan in 1988. Encompassing both the east and west side, the plan made the Willamette River the city's focus, laid out major transit corridors, and increased the goals for residential and commercial density.
With the Central City Plan, Portland embarked on a decade, the 1990s, in which the term "sustainability" entered the city's lexicon.