PSU takes on regional sustainability with the Emerald Corridor Collaboratory
Author: Christina Williams
Posted: February 26, 2019

At Portland State University, we often talk about our urban campus as a living laboratory where the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) and partners across the university and throughout the community build partnerships and test new ways to improve the sustainability and livability of our world.

The Emerald Corridor Collaboratory includes city-university partnerships in Portland, Seattle, Bellingham and Vancouver.But what if we started broadening our idea of a living lab to the broader Pacific Northwest region?

Last year, ISS joined a regional pilot project called the Emerald Corridor Collaboratory that aims to do just that by joining four universities and four Pacific Northwest cities in a quest for better, more effective partnerships.

Funded by a $100,000 grant from the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, the Emerald Corridor Collaboratory is a regional platform for creating transformative city-university partnerships to advance environmental sustainability and livability of the growing urban region between Portland and Vancouver, B.C.

“This region has the opportunity to be a model for the world for how to do cities right,” said Steve Whitney, senior program officer for Bullitt. “We want to help cities address traditional development-related issues like housing and transportation but also recognize the infrastructure benefits that mother nature provides in support of urban sustainability and human well-being.”

Through its work with the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the Bullitt Foundation was able to observe the partnership between ISS and the City of Portland, which for years has worked together on local climate-related issues, making connections between PSU faculty and students, community partners, and city staff. Looking at the broader northwest region, Whitney and his colleagues saw an opportunity to expand the model while allowing other city-university partnerships to learn from one another up and down the Cascades.

The Emerald Corridor Collaboratory is made up of four city-university pairs including Portland and PSU; Seattle and the University of Washington; Bellingham, Wash., and Western Washington University; and Vancouver, B.C., and the University of British Columbia.

Since the kick off of the Collaboratory last June in Seattle, each city-university pair has worked on project development in their own regions and the group meets periodically to share what they’ve learned. Last month, the Collaboratory convened in Portland for a series of work sessions at Portland State and a field trip to the ReBuilding Center where participants learned about Portland’s policy about the deconstruction of older homes and PSU’s role in helping the city lay the groundwork for that policy.

“We shared the story about how our close partnership with the city allowed us to respond to their need for economic research that would show how the deconstruction of older homes — as opposed to demolition — would impact the local economy and jobs,” said Molly Baer Kramer, project manager with ISS. "ISS then identified faculty at the PSU's Northwest Economic Research Center to take on the study.”

In late 2016, a new ordinance went into effect in Portland requiring that homes built in 1916 or earlier—or homes of a designated historic significance—must be deconstructed instead of being demolished. The Collaboratory members heard from a city official, a PSU adjunct faculty member, and a representative of the ReBuilding Center — who were all involved directly in the policy development — on how it has played out.

Jennifer Davison, program director for Urban@UW, a research center at the University of Washington that is managing the Emerald Corridor Collaboratory, said site visits like the ones so far in Seattle and Portland provide opportunities for the participants to start building a shared understanding about what types of city-university partnerships are most effective — but also how the network can work together beyond the bounds of each city.

“We’re pretty clear on what the challenges are that are common to all four partnerships and the diversity that is unique to each partnership,” Davison said. “What we’re starting to understand is what are the regional challenges we can take on as a network and add more value than just taking them on by ourselves.”

As a group of city-university partnerships, the Collaboratory is focused on sustainability and livability for urban spaces — specifically concerning the challenges presented by climate change and how it will affect populations disproportionately due to equity issues.

Specifically, Collaboratory participants are working with their city partners on issues including disaster preparedness and the development of greener urban infrastructure and transportation options. Along the way, they’re taking a close look at what goes into a successful partnership — lining up the differing priorities of academics and city government — and how they can be improved and built to last into the future.  

Thaisa Way, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and the faculty lead on the Collaboratory grant, said the most meaningful outcomes of the project will be a regional mindset and a new, more systematic approach to problem solving. “Our most wicked challenges require the most complex thinking,” Way said. “We really have everything in this region to solve the problems. If we don’t think of it regionally, we’re missing the point.”