Sustainable Business Oregon: Portland and sustainability: A storied history (Part 1)
Author: Chet Orloff, Portland State University
Posted: July 1, 2013

Read the original post from Sustainable Business Oregon here.

Chet Orloff is an adjunct professor at the Toulan School of Urban Studies at Portland State University. He is also manager of the Pamplin International Collection of Art & History and director emeritus of the Oregon Historical Society.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series written by Portland historian Chet Orloff on the city’s sustainability history.

Haltingly but essentially, sustainability is becoming the economic and political force of the 21st Century.

An outlook based on sustainability — the conservation and reuse of resources so as to sustain society and its economy into the future — gives us a way of understanding how well we have, or have not, preserved our past as well as continue to preserve our future.

For cities — where more than half the world’s population now lives and, by necessity, must work; where much of the world’s nonrenewable resources are consumed; and where most of the solutions to the world’s environmental problems will be solved — sustainability can no longer wait. Human and ecological health, prosperity and security depend on it.

Portland is among a few fortunate cities — Copenhagen in Denmark, Vancouver, B.C. and Curitiba in Brazil are others — that have made a head start.

Portland bills itself as “the city that plans.” It can be argued that sustainability (as a principle — the term is of relative recent vintage) has been a theme of this city since its incorporation in 1851.

Even as Portland’s founders of the 1840s and 1850s contemplated the future of their new town, with all their mid-19th Century economic ideals of growth, they were struck by Portland’s natural beauty.

One of their first steps was creating Portland’s compact 200-by-200-foot street grid made a city that was tight, compact and easily navigable. The grid has imposed a stage for an urban design that encourages a symbiosis among buildings and open spaces, a reasonable scale of size, and a feeling of access and modesty, even with contemporary architecture. Those early founders also dedicated a string of park blocks that, at the time, ran the length of the downtown. Along with the Willamette River, this initial parkland created a natural border encompassing much of the central city.

In laying out the geography of their city, 19th Century Portlanders also set down a streetcar system whose own legacy has been close-in neighborhoods and streets available for the re-introduction of new lines. Building on this history with today’s new streetcar and light-rail lines, Portland is using a 19th Century technology as a means to link neighborhoods, improve the urban form, provide an alternative mode of transportation and catalyze redevelopment.

Before leaving the 19th Century, we need to mention two major investments made by Portlanders. First, in the 1870s, they began to build City Park, subsequently renamed Washington Park. Expanded more than 15-fold over the years, the park today has a large zoo, an international rose test garden, Japanese and Shakespeare gardens, a green amphitheater, recreation fields, a world-class arboretum, the World Forestry Institute, several miles of trails and two elegant reservoirs, among other sustainability facilities.

Second, in the last decade of the 19th Century, the city built a water system originating at Bull Run Lake 40 miles to the east. The system continues to provide Portlanders with some of the purest water of any city in the world. Based on gravity flow of water from a pristine, forest-bordered lake, the water system can sustain a regional population of more than a million.

Portland is not alone in possessing such a water system, as several such systems, including in Boston and New York, were constructed in the 19th Century. Portland’s however, arguably remains closer to its builders’ vision than has been the case in most other American cities.

The 20th Century opened with equal ambition and foresight.

In 1903 the city’s new Parks Board hired Boston landscape architect John Charles Olmsted to give Portland a plan for the long-range development of a system of parks and parkways. Portland’s parks and greenspaces network has, over the past two generations, continued to acquire more land and create a system of trails, parks and open space that today encompasses and entwines the entire metropolitan region.

Throughout much of the 20th Century, the influence of parks advocates and political leaders such as Governors Oswald West, Tom McCall and Bob Straub further strengthened Portlanders’ resolve to sustain not just their regional landscape but also to construct a community characterized by conservation, recycling, good transit, cycling, and walking. Today, we call that “livability.”

Through the early years of the 20th Century, Portland continued to build a streetcar network that would be one of the finest in the nation. Aided and abetted by the automobile industry, the city would regrettably tear up the tracks and, by 1950, succumb to the convenience and concrete of the highway and the car. Yet, only 20 years after the run of its last streetcar, Portland would begin planning a return to rail transit.

Little more than midway through the city’s career, in 1938, the visiting historian Lewis Mumford offered Portlanders an observation and question that have sustained our attention and intentions:

“I have seen a lot of great scenery in my life, but I’ve seen nothing so tempting for a home as this Oregon Country. You have elbowroom. You have the inspiring Willamette Valley. You have an opportunity for a new industrial development. You can set an example to the rest of the world. And, I’m going to ask you an uncomfortable question: Are you good enough to possess this Oregon Country?”

His question raised a corollary one: What steps have citizens taken to insure that we are “good enough” to sustain a livable community?

Next: Sustainability in the ‘60s.