Portland Is a Sustainable Utopia—How It Happened

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Yves here. We so often feature stories about what is wrong, because in our view, you need to have an accurate diagnosis before you can come up with solutions.

I know some people who view themselves as very liberal who believe that it is impossible to get Americans to move to more environmentally responsible lifestyles. One good contact claimed earlier this week, “No one is being honest about what it would take. You’d need to shower only once a week and give up on air conditioners, dish washers, and most use of cars.”

Now it’s true a lot of these activities should be curtailed, and conservation, stopping population growth, and eating much further down the food chain will be unpopular in some circles. But a great deal can be accomplished with better urban design and building requirements.

Portland, Oregon, is a showcase of what can be accomplished. But I have two reservations. First, I lived 30 miles from Portland during my childhood (recall I moved a ton) Oregon west of the Cascades is very temperate. Winter temperatures very rarely hit freezing and the summers are mild. So you don’t have the same need for heating and cooling that you find in much of the US. That also makes biking year-round a viable option. Second is that Portland has been working on sustainability for 20 years. We need to make a huge amount of progress faster than that.

An excerpt from the new book Can a City Be Sustainable? by Brian Holland & Juan Wei (Island Press, 2016). Cross posted from L

The City of Portland has created and implemented strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, it became the first city in the United States to adopt a comprehensive carbon dioxide reduction strategy. In 2001, Multnomah County (the most populous of Oregon’s 36 counties) and the City of Portland (which is the seat of Multnomah County and Oregon’s largest city) passed their joint Local Action Plan on Global Warming.

In 2009, Multnomah County and Portland adopted an updated climate action plan (CAP) with expanded categories for actions and more-rigorous reduction targets. The plan identifies 93 action steps in 8 categories to reach its emissions reduction goals, ranging from curbside pickup of residential food scraps to expanding the city’s streetcar and light rail system.

Thanks to strong government leadership, science-informed policy making has long been practiced in Portland. To avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change, the city set its latest emissions reduction target by referring to current science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Portland adopted an 80 percent emissions reduction target by 2050, with an interim goal of 40 percent by 2030. In line with IPCC recommendations, 1990 was set as the baseline year for the reduction target.

Expanding Transit and Biking Options

Portland has developed a broad set of policies and programs to achieve its ambitious emissions reduction targets. Some measures far predate the concern about the changing climate but offer important tools in this fight. As early as the 1970s, Oregon adopted a statewide land-use policy to prevent urban sprawl by establishing urban growth boundaries. Guided by this policy, cities were encouraged to develop more-dense urban neighborhoods while preserving farmland and wilderness. This successful policy set the stage for a series of effective greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs in Portland.

With a focus on development that aims to provide accessible transportation options to people within its city limits, Portland has made the expansion of streetcar and light rail systems a priority in the past several decades. Since 1990, Portland has added four major light rail lines (with a fifth under construction) and the Portland Streetcar. Construction is nearing completion on the nation’s first multi-modal bridge that is off-limits to private automobiles, which will carry bikes, pedestrians, and public vehicles over the Willamette River.

In addition, Portland now has 513 kilometers of bikeways, including 95 kilometers of neighborhood greenways; 291 kilometers of bike lanes, cycle tracks, and buffered bike lanes; and 127 kilometers of dedicated bike paths. Portland received the League of American Bicyclists’ highest rating for being a bicycle-friendly community. In addition, Bicycling magazine designated Portland as the number-one bike-friendly city in the United States.

As a result of these efforts, Portland drivers travel fewer vehicle miles than those in most other similarly sized cities. Transit ridership has more than doubled in the past 20 years (totaling 100 million rides in 2013), and, today, at least 12,000 more people bike to work daily in Portland than in 1990. Six percent of Portlanders commute to work by bike, nine times the national average. Although the population of Portland has increased 31 percent, gasoline sales have decreased 7 percent compared to 1990.

Building Greener and Smarter

In addition to providing more transportation options, Portland has implemented a series of clean energy and energy efficiency programs. A strong focus on green buildings has led to more than 180 certified green buildings. Data for 2012 show that Portland had more LEED Platinum-certified buildings than any other city in the United States. The city also is expanding the use of solar energy in its facilities and neighborhoods; the number of solar energy systems has increased from only 1 in 2002 to 2,775 today.

Portland’s energy efficiency program, Clean Energy Works (CEW), was started in 2009 with 500 pilot homes. Aimed at reducing energy consumption by 10–30 percent, CEW provides long-term, low-interest financing to homeowners for whole-home energy upgrades, with on-bill utility repayment of the loan. Because of its innovation and success, CEW attracted $20 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to scale up the pilot into a statewide effort.

The program has realized multifaceted benefits. As of April 2014, more than 3,700 homes in Oregon had been upgraded for energy efficiency. These upgrades help avoid more than 5,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, equal to powering nearly 500 homes for one year. Meanwhile, the program has generated $70 million in economic activity and created some 428 jobs.

Stormwater, the runoff created by rainfall, is another challenge faced by modern cities. Like many older cities, Portland has a combined stormwater and wastewater system, which has resulted in the pollution of local rivers and streams when high storm volume causes the system to overflow. To protect rivers and natural systems, Portland voted to enforce a series of policies that promote green infrastructure, including requiring all new construction to manage 100 percent of stormwater on-site through structures such as green streets and green roofs.

Thanks to these new policies and the city’s ongoing promotion of green roofs, a number of buildings and structures in Portland now have living, vegetated roof systems that decrease runoff and offer aesthetic, air quality, habitat, and energy benefits. Portland is now home to more than 390 green roofs, covering nearly 8 hectares of rooftops. The city also has invested heavily in green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and bioswales (landscaping elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water), with more than 1,200 such facilities in the public right-of-way. Portland uses green infrastructure to manage millions of liters of stormwater each year.

Recycling, Saving Energy, and Creating Jobs

Portland also is a national leader in recycling efforts. It has a 70 percent overall recycling rate for residential and commercial waste. Due to the addition of a weekly food scrap composting service and a shift to every-other-week garbage collection in 2011, residential garbage taken to the landfill has decreased by more than 35 percent, and collection of compostable materials has more than doubled.

Leading by example, Portland also has been setting more-aggressive emissions reduction targets for its own operations. Through efficiency improvements, including traffic lights, water and sewer pumps, and building lighting systems, the city has realized energy savings of more than $6.5 million a year, which adds up to around 30 percent savings in Portland’s annual electricity costs.

Contrary to the widely held assumption that pursuing emissions reduction goals will likely slow down the local economy, the experience in Portland shows that climate actions have reduced the cost of doing business and created more-equitable, healthier, and livable neighborhoods. The number of green jobs is growing in Portland. More than 12,000 jobs in the city can be attributed to the clean technology sector, including green building, energy efficiency, and clean energy. Portland also is a national leader in innovative bicycling product manufacturing and services.

Portland’s emissions reduction programs have been successful. Local greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were 11 percent below 1990 levels (equal to a 32 percent per capita reduction), and Portland homes now use 11 percent less energy per person than in 1990. With all of these efforts and achievements, the City of Portland became one of the 16 local jurisdictions across the United States to receive recognition as a Climate Action Champion from the White House in 2014. In the same year, Portland was among 10 cities worldwide to receive the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Award for its Healthy Connected City strategy. The award honors cities all over the world for excellence in urban sustainability and leadership in the fight against climate change.

Moving Forward

Multnomah County and the City of Portland are in the process of reviewing and revising their 2009 climate action plan. Building on previous successes and lessons learned, the 2015 update incorporates recommendations for action and social equity into the development process.

For the energy program, the city is planning to advance net-zero energy buildings and to require energy disclosure for large commercial buildings. The focus on solar and low-carbon fuel sources will remain, and efforts to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles will be enhanced.

Portland has adopted a set of Sustainable City Principles to guide daily operations by city agencies, officials, and staff. In addition to promoting greener choices in city procurement, these principles seek to balance environmental quality, economic prosperity, and social equity, and to encourage thinking beyond first costs and consideration of the long-term, cumulative impacts of policy and financial decisions. They encourage innovation and cross-bureau collaboration; engage residents and businesses in the promotion of more-sustainable practices; and include measures in favor of a diverse city workforce and ensuring equitable services to communities of color and other underserved communities.

The city now is seeking reductions in global lifecycle emissions from consumption. Lifecycle emissions are those created by the production and use of products, from furniture to computers to appliances. For this, Portland has taken the innovative step of measuring lifecycle emissions generated through consumption by households, public agencies, and businesses. The consumption-based inventory revealed that Portland’s global greenhouse gas emissions are double the in-boundary emissions traditionally measured.

Portland is planning to increase its efforts in this area and to find an effective way to communicate these findings to the local community. There also is a need to help businesses and residents better understand that their consumption choices contribute significantly to global emissions.

Portland recognizes that cities around the country and the world need to collaborate more in order to succeed in their efforts to reduce urban climate impacts. In June 2014, Portland was one of 17 cities worldwide to launch the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which is committed to achieving aggressive long-term carbon reduction goals. The Alliance aims to strategize how leading cities can work together to attain emissions reductions more effectively and efficiently.

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  1. EndOfTheWorld

    Some places in the US have no transit at all. But yeah, congrats, Portland.

  2. Praedor

    As soon as I read the opening intro paragraph I thought of exactly the things Yves goes on to state as caveats. I do not live somewhere where I can do without air conditioning. High heat and high humidity. No air conditioning means no sleep, lots of mold growth, sweat-ruined furniture. All I can really do is make it so it is as if I had no air conditioner..by adding enough solar and/our wind generation to negate or nearly negate the electric power use of the conditioner. If everyone did that it would help a great deal and greatly reduce electric bills to boot.

    1. Uahsenaa

      The problem there is attacking the conditioning of the air in a completely backwards way. Passive house technology has existed for some time now, but the major barrier to its widespread implementation is the need to replace rather than simply retrofit housing stock. It’s combination of insulation and passive air circulation is effective even in remarkably intemperate zones.

      Forced air/condenser systems are just not all that effective for cooling and require constant maintenance. Same goes for furnaces and boilers.

    2. Stephen

      In many areas of the country for example the southwest and the South-East there were discoveries by the Florida solar energy center back in the 1980s as to how to go in the Implement passive cooling for homes some of that involve the use of Radiant Barrier Foil and others with double roofed homes with substantial overhangs all of this takes a little bit of research to take a look at but once you do you realize that our needs are actually wants. so I want this I want that and what we really need is just a comfortable place to live. Comfort can be obtained by examining some basic physics as well as how our bodies adapt to shelter and how we can make shelter work better.

      I live in 1950 some in the southwest with Radiant Barrier Foil installed in most of my roof interior. It allowed for me to reduce the temperature of my ceiling inside my house so for many months of the year my cooling use is minimal. because my body is hotter than the ceiling there’s a perceived coolness when I walk into a room. This can be done throughout the entire Southwest saving both energy and cooling as I recommended back in the 1990s when I was in the city of Albuquerque’s Energy Council.
      I was voted down on the suggestion by the electric utility which is a monopoly, by the gas company, by the Association of Homebuilders, the Chamber of Commerce Etc There are business interests that the only thing they want is to sell you things that you really if you examine it don’t need.

  3. Wdj

    You have to look at the demographics of Portland. Low numbers of minorities and poor people. So that makes for a kind of monoculture where people can agree on things without identity politics grabbing much spotlight at all. I haven’t read th article but true sustainability is inclusive. White enclaves tend not to be that way. The Pacific Northwest qualifies in that category, I think.

    1. myshkin

      As you note one quality of a community that has succeeded in realizing some measure of sustainability might be inclusivity with fewer people living in poverty.
      2010 demographics show Portland with a white population of 75.1%, the US 76.1%.
      per capital personal income Portland 31,839 (2013), 38,611USA (2007)

  4. Paul Handover

    Whatever the circumstances favouring Portland it’s still a very fine accomplishment. Well done all!

  5. cm

    Huh? Portland has so many problems it hard to list them all. Let’s start with lead in the drinking water. We can move on to oil train crashes, a dismal school system, corrupt political institutions (statewide failure to protect foster children) and on an on.

    The kicker is Portland has failed for the past ten years to spend road money on actually fixing roads (diverting to bike projects) that they are instituting a new road tax to fix potholes.

    This comes after an “arts tax” which does not go to arts. After the tax was passed by the voters they decided (after the fact) to exempt retirees (regardless of wealth) — thus, the tax was significantly altered from what was submitted to the voters.

    Portland’s true legacy is the moral leadership of Neil Goldschmidt and Sam Adams and Terry Bean. Portland voters seem to prefer child molesters.

    1. Dave

      Also, overturning zoning and building six and seven story buildings in neighborhoods of one story homes to “stop greenhouse gas emissions”.

      Meanwhile, the developers harvest a hundred billion dollars a year in tax deferments for investing in low income high density housing.



    2. PE Fodder

      Please don’t forget to mention the Super Fund site that cuts a wide swath down the middle of town via the Willamette river.

  6. rjs

    a Portland story from this week you may have missed:

    Portland District Failed to Disclose Excessive Lead Levels at 47 School Buildings – Last week, Portlanders learned the Portland Public Public Schools had found elevated levels of lead in water at two schools in March, but failed to disclose this information for nearly two months. In the past few days, WW has learned and confirmed that PPS did tests across the district from 2010 to 2012—at 90 buildings—finding elevated levels of lead in the water at 47 of them, including Jefferson and Cleveland high schools and Ainsworth Elementary School. In some cases, the levels were higher than those found at Creston and Rose City Park, the schools that were named last week.This highly charged finding comes from a printout WW received from a district database of all water testing from 2001 through February 2015. The printout shows that 47 structures—schools, office buildings and others—tested for levels of lead from 2010 to 2012 that were above the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.As extraordinary as these findings are, WW could not find anyone at PPS who says they knew of the testing, or the results, prior to learning of them from WW last Friday. Nor is it clear what was done in response to the tests. Superintendent Carole Smith (who has led the school district since 2007), PPS chief operating officer Tony Magliano, and five members of the School Board all told WW that the 2010-2012 tests were news to them. Andy Fridley, the district’s environmental director, declined to answer questions.

  7. Gerry

    Portland resident and native here – this all reads like a press release for a city leadership that has for for years enabled the wholesale obliteration of working-class liveability in every single close-in neighborhood. Total greenwashing. Here are some translation tools:
    Density = tear down cheap apartments, build expensive ones
    Walkable = places for young white transplants to live near cupcake shops
    Bike-Friendly = ageism, ableism
    LEED = destroy existing buildings, make new more expensive ones

    Not to mention the heartbreaking gentrification that has shattered the black neighborhoods of North Portland; the developers who run city hall like a puppet show; the terrible commuting (no transp capacity added in 20 years); busses that run as though everyone works downtown 9-5; rents going out of control forcing half the population to flee to the suburbs to make room for the younger, more desireable citizen; zero “starter homes” (all torn down to make 4 bedroom fake Craftsmans) – all in all, this is pretty much feel-good BS and cover for the fact that the single defining feature of this city is in fact CLASS CLEANSING.

    1. casino implosion

      “Cupcake shops” LOL. Sounds like you people need a version of our anti-hipster tribune of the people, the blogger DieHipster of Bay Ridge: It’s the same noodle armed, cupcake tattooed redbeards no matter where you go.

      1. neo-realist

        Hipsters in Bay Ridge? The neighborhood sounds radically different from the backward 1950’s deep south level racist culture of white ethnic working class/middle class I encountered going to High School over there in the 70’s. So when will gentrification penetrate East New York and East Flatbush?

      1. abynormal

        2 new stadiums, trolley cars to nowhere, ghost cities for the new yups…hey did you catch a recent WSB special on how our new an improved youth will save Atlanta/the south? read just like this OR piece…no dots connected and worse the ‘kids’ were sadly unequipped to recognize the slave traps laid out for them. they sold it…whatever it was. i could only withstand half the sales infomercial. (i was suppose to watch it for my busy sister who thinks ATL future kids will utopisize us. and sis has the majors in finance & economics…me hair be gone)

    2. ks

      And Oregon has a state ban on rent control. Portland’s a nice city but it’s undergoing a resurgence of developer-friendly building.

      Has Portland Lost its Way?
      Oregon’s poster child for livable planning is embroiled in new controversies over destructive growth, skyrocketing prices, and back-room cronyism.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Thanks for the link.

        The whole notion of “livability” has come to mean “attractive to a lot of mobile young people with means,” which can only mean sky-rocketing real estate costs and all the dislocation that brings.

        Shouldn’t “livable” places be places where all generations and classes can co-exist with decent public services (especially public schools), without either the poorer people being driven out or the youngsters having to move away to places like Portland?

        In that regard I think Minneapolis/St. Paul is probably a better example than Portland, though the gap between rich and poor is outrageous there as well.

      2. myshkin

        Has Portland Lost its Way
        Interesting back and forth between knowledgeable Portlandians and the author in the comments about the development and the rationale regarding new construction and taller buildings.

      3. ks

        “Oregon’s poster child for livable planning is embroiled in new controversies over destructive growth, skyrocketing prices, and back-room cronyism” should be in quotes.

    3. neo-realist

      Much of this is happening in Seattle too. Replace North Portland with Central District and Columbia City.

      I should mention that when I’ve talked to Portland transplants to Seattle, they cite the lack of decent paying full time jobs for leaving the city. Spoke to one person who said she had to take on 2-3 part time jobs to make ends meet while living there.

  8. Tyrannocaster

    I wish the unrealistic Portland-is-Utopia hype would just go away. I live in Portland, have done for 40 years, and I am pleased with some of the things it has done, but it is far, far, far from Utopia. I can’t begin to cover all the ways I disagree with this characterization! First off, PDX (as it is often known) is no longer the temperate summer place you seem to think it is; today it is projected to be 102 F and this is early June. Last year, we actually got TWO crops on our fig tree because there was so much warm weather, and fig trees supposedly don’t do well here because of the “temperate” climate. It is true that the windters have been warmer lately, so I’ll concede that part, but it’s hot here in the summer.

    Portland sells itself as a green city, and in some ways it is, but there is a lot of greenwashing going on, too, especially by city officials. I notice that this article doesn’t mention the air pollution we face from diesel emissions (and which nobody seems inclined to act on) or the recent scandal of the heavy metals thrown into the air by two art glass manufacturers who were allowed to pump cadmium, arsenic and who knows what else into the air for decades. We have an entire neighborhood that is compromised now, and a lot of angry people; simple Googling for Portland + Heavy Metal Contamination will give you an eyeful. Why wasn’t tTHIS mentioned? Didn’t fit the narrative, I guess.

    The commenter above who referenced the corrupt mayors was correct; PDX seems to like crappy officials, but I suppose that is the norm everywhere so maybe we should discount that aspect. Or not; it’s hard for me to say, but I sure am sick of the wash-and-repeat nature of this thing.

    We do have do good senators in Oregon in Ron Wyden (he’s mostly good, anyway) and Jeff Merkley (he’s one I can actually recommend, and trust me, that’s rare coming from me) but that is Oregon the state, not Portland the city. But there is an overall mindset here that tends more towards the green side of things that you might find in some other places, so there is some truth to the story, but using words like “Utopia” is such hyperbole that I find it ludicrous.

    Sorry, I’m not running out of space, but I am running out of time. I’ll rant again another day; this is only my first comment here.

    1. Waking UP

      Senator Wyden voted for “fast tracking” of the TPP. That puts him in the Very BAD Senators category. The TPP could in a number of ways stop those who ARE trying to do good things for the environment and the public interests in general.

    2. Ishmael

      I use to say, “If it is raining, I must be in Portland,” until a few years ago I experienced some of that heat you are referencing. Over a 100 and very dry. Most places did not have AC and even the office building I was in was straining to keep the temperature below 80. Very unpleasant, but hey Portland does have Bridgeport Brewery, one of my favorite brews and great pizza also.

    3. ks

      Wyden and CD03 Rep Earl Blumenauer are both shilling for the TPP. That makes both of them “not good,” despite Wyden’s defence of cyber privacy and Blumenauer’s anti-GMO positions.

  9. Gerry

    Portland resident and native here – this all reads like a press release for a city leadership that has for for years enabled the wholesale obliteration of working-class liveability in every single close-in neighborhood. Here are some translation tools:
    Density = tear down cheap apartments, build expensive ones
    Walkable = places for young white transplants to live near cupcake shops
    Bike-Friendly = ageism, ableism
    LEED = destroy existing buildings, make new more expensive ones

    Not to mention the heartbreaking gentrification that has shattered the black neighborhoods of North Portland; the developers who run city hall like a puppet show; the terrible commuting (no transp capacity added in 20 years); busses that run as though everyone works downtown 9-5; rents going out of control forcing half the population to flee to the suburbs to make room for the younger, more desireable citizen; zero “starter homes” (all torn down to make 4 bedroom fake Craftsmans) – all in all, this is pretty much feel-good BS and cover for the fact that the single defining feature of this city is in fact CLASS CLEANSING.

  10. Norb

    The overall question is how do societies change? How do people change their behavior? I think the answer to these questions is slowly if given the chance and the majority will only alter their behavior when forced to do so. It takes responsible leadership to make the right decisions and a common vision of the future to energize the citizens into action.

    Individually, change comes suddenly in the form of revelation. One moment you are a smoker and after some scare, decide to quit- for your life. Or stories of people finding their lives vocation in a flash of inspiration. A child deciding to become a pilot after visiting an airshow and being captivated by the wonder of it all. This is how the world works. The trick for a good, healthy society is to open up enough space for the multitude of citizens to somehow have enough life experiences to find their way. This strangulation of experience and opportunity is what plagues our current arrangements.

    Forward thinking people, developing ideas for living better, rewarding lives are all around us. Just as the Sanders campaign has demonstrated conclusively that opposition candidates do NOT need to compromise their policy views to raise money in order to compete in the political arena, many of the foundational ideas that maintain the current economic order are just plain false. One example is the notion that food production depends on supporting corporate agriculture. Vast amounts of food can be produced by conventional methods centered on working with nature instead of against. It just takes a shift of view and priority- and thinking creatively about the problem in order to formulate solutions.

    The unanimous conclusion is that the status quo cannot be allowed to remain-it will not remain. A lifestyle resting on the rapacious exploitation of nature and cheep energy will end. Individuals holding on the the myth that this is not so will pay with their lives. The crime is that the current leadership accepts this plan of death.

    The future will not be one based on the production and acquisition of consumer based products of connivence.
    It will be based on a integrated social system working with nature in a sustainable manner. It will be supportive and sustainable or it will be nothing.

  11. the blame/e

    The claim here that Portland, Oregon is “. . . a sustainable Utopia” is simply over-wrought propaganda. I lived in Portland, Oregon and the city talked about here bears no resemblance to reality.

    Sure the city has light rail but it is the focus of constant turf wars over who will actually claim it as their own — the gangs (those forced out of California and up north to cities like Portland and Seattle by better gangs down sourth) or the people.

    And as far as claims about the climate being temperate; the natural cooling effect that on-shore ocean breezes might have, in places like Seattle, are absent in Portland. From Seaside to Portland is just one long mountain range. As a result, in Portland the air settles, just like over any city. During the summers, which are like many throughout the United States, long cloudless days which allow the wind to stagnate, without any participation to speak of, scarcities in good air quality and water occur, along with high heat indices. This fact is under-scored by the over reliance upon a finite resource that the mountain runoff from Mount Hood the city is dependent upon.

    The city is also under-going a building boom, and like China, has no economy to support such an rapid growth. At some point Portland will do nothing but prove once again that density does not mean prosperity; just too many people relying upon too few resources. And we all know what people are like. If you work downtown try using Burnside during your morning or evening commute.

    And there is the leaking Hanford Nuclear Waste Site up-river (the Snake River leading into the Columbia River) sending all that nuclear waster down river. This stuff is plutonium based. If the situation is not resolved the consequences could be like Fukushima. This nuclear waste is not going into a Japanese ocean, but an American fresh water river. God knows who is drinking the stuff. The Columbia River is a salmon and sturgeon fishery. Having sampled the wonderful product coming out of any number of salmon jerky smoke shops in Astoria well, you have to wonder who is eating the stuff.

    Portland, Oregon is a city like any other. The only way Portland, Oregon is a “utopia” is if the bar for “hell on earth” has been raised.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Nothing against Portland … but when anyplace is described as a “utopia,” you’d better strap on your day pack, grab the car keys, reach for your revolver, and beat a hasty retreat to places that lack five-dollar cupcake shops and LEED-certified buildings.

      1. abynormal

        “When the United States of America, which was meant to be a Utopia for all, was less than a century old, Noah Rosewater and a few men like him demonstrated the folly of the Founding Fathers in one respect: those sadly recent ancestors had not made it the law of the Utopia that the wealth of each citizen should be limited. This oversight was engendered by a weak-kneed sympathy for those who loved expensive things, and by the feeling that the continent was so vast and valuable, and the population so thin and enterprising, that no thief, no matter how fast he stole, could more than mildly inconvenience anyone….

        Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.

        E pluribus unum is surely an ironic motto to inscribe on the currency of this Utopia gone bust, for every grotesquely rich American represents property, privileges, and pleasures that have been denied the many.”
        Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

  12. dots

    “We need to make a huge amount of progress faster than that.”


    Looking at what works and what doesn’t, identifying one’s own regional variances, and discovering where the energy consumption threshold needs to be; these are all things that most every community on earth has to resolve fairly quickly.

    There are so many things that require immediate attention it makes it difficult to just pick some and get crackin’. Yet, that’s exactly what we gotta do. Talk about it, argue the meta points of view, and mull over all the details – but then we have to act on it!

    “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”
    ― John Lennon & Yoko Ono

    Now or Never

    1. abynormal

      the rice paper walk: “There are also those who delusively if not enthusiastically surrender their liberty for the mastermind’s false promises of human and societal perfectibility. He hooks them with financial bribes in the form of ‘entitlements.’ And he makes incredible claims about indefectible health, safety, educational, and environmental policies, the success of which is to be measured not in the here and now but in the distant future.
      For these reasons and more, some become fanatics for the cause. They take to the streets and, ironically, demand their own demise as they protest against their own self-determination and for ever more autocracy and authoritarianism. When they vote, they vote to enchain not only their fellow citizens but, unwittingly, themselves. Paradoxically, as the utopia metastasizes and the society ossifies, elections become less relevant. More and more decisions are made by the masterminds and their experts, who substitute their self-serving and dogmatic judgments — which are proclaimed righteous and compassionate — for the the individual’s self-interests and best interests.”
      Mark R. Levin, Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America


      realities of the rinse / repeat: “In the past the need for a hierarchal form of society has been the doctrine specifically of the High. It had been preached by kings and aristocrats and the priests, lawyers and the like who were parasitical upon them, and it had generally been softened by promises of an imaginary world beyond the grave.”
      Orwell, 1984

    1. AumuA

      Right? The level of cynical backlash here is expected, I mean this in N.C. of course. And good points all around. Not perfect, not utopia, ok got it. But the danger here is falling into the mindset that the positive changes described by Yves are not worth pursuing at all, because they have a downside, or because they are not implemented perfectly, or because of the political manipulation going on around the changes.

      Yeah there are problems with Portland, but nonetheless, good on Portland for fucking trying.

      1. akaPaul LaFargue

        Trying? I think that’s the point here: “trying” is circumscribed by the rapacious circumstances – both political and economic… and to celebrate minuscule reforms – bike lanes, light rail, green roofs, etc. – is to be complicit with those forces that dominate our vision of a good life.

        1. Lumpenproletariat


          NC is justly cynical about many aspects of finance and its related political economy. Yet this chamber of commerce utopian article is almost like a satire of municipal cheerleading. There is a lot of good in Portland, but it is also hard to undo existing patterns.

          Portland’s urban development is dysfunctional because its population is spread too thinly across a large area. The UGB is a boundary but it is still huge. Postwar American cities were all developed through this model. Because of these densities, mass transit is both more expensive to fund and less efficient. Don’t believe this? Contrast Portland to a similarly sized Canadian or Australian city. These cities will have higher urban population densities AND a more efficient public transit system. Sadly, Canada and Australia aren’t exactly paragons of efficiency.

          The most objective metric of an urban efficiency is public transit’s modal share compared to the modal share of cars. Walking and cycling are of dubious importance in a geographically large area like Portland, as most commutes are longer than a comfortable walk or bike ride. Here, Portland does slightly better than similarly sized American cities. Yet from the dawn of the car Era to the recent past of infrastructure austerity, the US has been about low density, low efficiency urban development. You can thank the influence of car manufacturers, oil, regressive tax laws, and landowners/political cronies who benefit from suburban land development. The aggregate costs of the extra roads, sewers, electrical grids, their ongoing maintenance, and the need for cats makes this the absolute most expensive type of urban development. Postwar autocentric development in the US is the ultimate mis-allocation of funding.

          Thus I get a kick out of sanctimonious criticisms of tetrahedral concrete erosion guards in Japan or the ever-changing ghost cities in China. When it comes to wasteful urban development, the contest is not even close.

          I know I am already on thin ice here. I write this because I am acquainted with municipal politics and finance. Ideally I would want to work purely with architecture itself, but then I am inevitably dragged back to rich peoples’ financial statements.

      2. oh

        Very disappointed to hear these negative comments. Portland has accomplished more than most cities when it comes to the environment.

    1. H S Organs

      That is unfair. Beggars may gravitate to, or survive longer in, an area because the locals are relatively more generous there.

    2. Aumua

      Well, it’s because of the climate there. People flock there because it’s relatively easy to live outdoors.

  13. Kris Alman

    Living in PDX, sustainability doesn’t include affordable living. We have lots of homeless people who walk with their shopping carts all over downtown. Somehow, that wasn’t included in their formulas.

    1. Steve H.

      This is the extra factor here in Bloomington added to Gerry’s excellent comment above. Making things walkable means it less resistance to those who walk. But without public bathrooms (!) the stench of urine offsets the lovely landscaping.

      1. Ishmael

        Nothing like the smell of fresh urine in the morning! Santa Monica has a little of that with a stray stack of human poop here and there. Close to heaven!

  14. Sluggeaux


    A few years ago I was sent to observe a “model” program that was said to be leading the way forward in addressing disproportionate representation of minorities in the criminal justice system. I attended meetings led by earnest white people and then rode the light rail to Powell’s Books, grabbing a few Voodoo Donuts along the way. More white people and things that white people love.

    Then I fired-up my inter-web and looked at U.S. Census demographic data. Portland was 83 percent white people. The only significant minority group at the time was a ghettoized black community in the north end of town, with strong community, political, and religious institutions — they even had their own MLK Blvd, just like Chis Rock loves. Few other minority groups, few immigrants, but plenty of highly-educated white people telling lies about how “enlightened” they are.

    Portland: Where young (white) people go to retire.

  15. Felix_47

    We have not found out how to make inclusive cities ecologically sustainable. I suspect the only way is going to be to make the standard of living go way down. I mean do people really need a shower or bath every day, for example? They don’t have that in Pakistan. Do we really need washing machines? Do people really need to work downtown when they can sell trinkets locally? Do we really need to hit the gym and sweat when that generates more dirty clothing and more laundry. The magic fix is going to be to figure out how to maintain and improve the world standard of living in the face of a 3% rate of population growth in the global south which will in the coming decades have no option but to move to Portland and the rest of the developed world. We are seeing this in Germany now. How does a bike oriented, recycling oriented, solar power society deal with millions of third world arrivals? With electric power, space heaters, garbage unsorted and no consideration for sustainability.

    1. optimader

      I mean do people really need a shower or bath every day, for example? They don’t have that in Pakistan. groan…

      The magic fix is going to be to figure out how to maintain and improve the world standard of living in the face of a 3% rate of population growth
      Felix, maybe the “magic fix” is “to figure out and sustain” a 0% population growth objective, or less in geographies that have unsustainable population densities with respect to resources?

      will in the coming decades have no option but to move to Portland and the rest of the developed world
      Felix, there is never “no option”.

    2. Norb

      Public utilities operated at subsidized rates- now there is a novel idea to solve our problems. Quality products designed for maximum utility and recyclable- doesn’t seem utopian to me. The power of mass production directed to the service of people and improved lifestyles is possible now if we can free ourselves from the notion that a few people must be unimaginably wealthy. The proper vision is to be a steward of the world, not an exploiting pirate or strip miner. If you view the world from the perspective of how much you can grab for yourself – then yes- we have some intractable problems to face.

  16. JEHR

    Well, there certainly are differing points of view: probably there is a little truth in both.

  17. walt

    Did I miss something? The sewage is still going into the rivers, while Chicago (and its close-in suburbs) has been treating its sewage for a century.

    1. JTMcPhee

      One version of The Three Rules of Plumbing:

      1. Shit flows downstream.

      2. Payday is Friday.

      3. Don’t chew your fingernails.

  18. PeonInChief

    If Portland faced a carbon charge for all the workers forced to commute long distances because they can’t find affordable housing near their jobs, it wouldn’t seem nearly so sustainable.

  19. Jay M

    I live on the WA side of the river which is strictly a suburban auto-utopia, granted not the subject of the paean. You go through a tunnel in the western hills and voila, Washington county where the ruling corporations are Nike and Intel and another paradise of sprawl. Same thing east, Gresham, though more low rent, south Clackamas the same. The Oregon region is hooked up by the rail system, the MAX, so kudos for that. Portland itself is an old industrial city, center of a regional empire of forest extraction and various manufacturing activities. Great legacy and ongoing pollution problems. The Willamette river meeting the Columbia is a superfund site. But it has a great future of trustifarians selling cannabis and donuts to each other.

  20. cm

    Also, not mentioned so far in the comments, let’s also recall Portland routinely dump raw sewage in the Willamette River. Don’t eat too much fish, as the Columbia & Willamette Rivers have a massive amount of toxic sludge from Portland’s industry.

  21. Ishmael

    Doesn’t look sustainable to me. Some of the highest debt per capita in the country.

    State debt

    See also: State debt
    According to a January 2014 report by the nonprofit organization State Budget Solutions, Oregon had a state debt of approximately $86.7 billion. Its state debt per capita was $22,229. In this report for fiscal year 2012, state debt was calculated based on four components: “market-valued unfunded public pension liabilities, outstanding government debt, unfunded other post employment benefit (OPEB) liabilities, and outstanding unemployment trust fund loans.” The report revealed that altogether state governments faced a combined $5.1 trillion in debt, which amounted to $16,178 per capita in the nation.[12]

    [hide]Total 2012 state debt
    State Total state debt State debt per capita Per capita debt ranking
    Oregon $86,678,268,000 $22,229 8
    California $777,918,403,000 $20,449 9
    Nevada $52,838,629,000 $19,152 13
    Washington $89,579,477,000 $12,988 32
    Sources: State Budget Solutions, “State Budget Solutions’ Fourth Annual State Debt Report,” January 8, 2014
    Public pensions
    See also: Oregon public pensions and Oregon public employee salaries
    Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, the funded ratio of Oregon’s state-administered pension plans decreased from 112.2 percent to 82 percent. The state paid 72 percent of its annual required contribution, and for fiscal year 2012 the pension system’s unfunded accrued liability totaled $11 billion. This amounted to $2,932 in unfunded liabilities per capita.[13][14]


  22. Alex V

    Portland ain’t perfect so there’s no lessons to be learned or examples to be set so we might as well all give up, wherever we live.

  23. Norb

    Ending TINA will not be easy. This is obvious. The society crashing and burning seems the simplest and probable future. Slow decay punctuated by series of catastrophic failures in many forms. Everyone will have to find groups of people they can rely upon for mutual support.

    Michael Hudson has often referred to the difficulty early capitalists had convincing peasants to sever their ties to the land. It took work to convince and force peasants to give up their self-sufficiency in service to merchants and the drive of capital. When viewed in this light, all attempts to reform the excesses of capitalism will be subverted by the underlying forces that drives capitalism in the first place. Namely, to commodify all aspects of human life and the natural world.

    It is dawning on people that democracy is not compatible with capitalism. It can also be argued that human life is rendered more problematic in a capitalist system. The unrelenting drive for profit extinguishing or subverting any form of dissent.

    The point is not that a set of policy decisions is perfect, but moving in the right direction. To make any headway, a critical mass must be reached where people demand something different from the current status quo. I think this point is approaching and that is what is making the elite nervous. At that point, only extreme violence will suppress the desire for change, but that will completely discredit their ability to lead.

    Small oasis in a sea of capitalist destruction will be in our future. The elite will build their bunkers and guarded compounds. Let them have it.

  24. Russell

    It raises the quality of life, happiest quotient to live in beauty & at quiet ease. One gets bit of awe on the edge looking backwards.
    Uruguay is at least 90 percent green now, all done in 10 years. Turbines in the right streams in the oceans are so big that nuclear ought not be even mentioned.
    Engineers make it happen to please the poets who they don’t want to hang out with too much. We defeat ourselves with obedience to the wrong laws that are ethically seen well. Why some laws were passed was specifically to be a brick wall.
    RIT was a campus, and MCO Ohara? is it not very green?
    Good stories are good. Naming heroes for the young profiles like JFK even wrote up. Comic books. I miss those.
    Thanks, Russell

  25. vegeholic

    As a former northwest resident who has transplanted to the midwest, i recently had to spend 2 weeks in Portland. I checked a folding bike as luggage on the plane both ways (no extra charges). i was able to get everywhere i needed to go in the city on the bike, including some weekend trips to Vancouver, WA, a Columbia River beach, and St. Johns. There are a ton of bike commuters there so you feel like the motorists are not surprised by your presence. Sure it is not perfect but it is several orders of magnitude better than my midwest town which prides itself on being bike and pedestrian friendly. Utopia, no, but it is leading in the direction we must go.

  26. oho

    laugh my derriere off—–urban planners have been selling their version of “utopia” for decades.

    I thought utopia arrived w/Le Courbusier and his vertical ghettos in the sky. now how did that turn out for the residents of the banlieues and Pruitt-Igoe?

    Oh wait, I forgot new urbanism fixed everything w/overly grandiose city planning.

    1. Lumpenproletariat

      Don’t laugh, Corbusier and its use of concrete prefab are still the most efficient way to provide high density housing. If cities today were to be built from scratch and if people were completely rational, they’d look like those supposedly dystopian drawings.

      Corbusian architecture was widely derided due to racism, classism, and xenophobes. Poor Black people lived in places like Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green. Wasn’t the buildings’ fault, as working class jobs were disappearing, social welfare was disappearing, and these residents were the most vulnerable. Then we have the reflexive Cold warriors deriding Soviet prefab blocks as dehumanizing. You know, cause a mock Tudor or Spanish Colonial helps us feel human.

      New Urbanism is a product of marketing. Historicist aesthetics are meant to evoke some sort of idealized nostalgia. ‘Cept you’re still paying a FIRE inflated mortgage and you most likely will still need a car for a very wasteful commute.

  27. Norb

    I work with a guy in Chicago who’s only opportunity for employment is freelance work due to changes in our industry. The trend is full time stable employment replaced by freelance and contract work. He is a young, heavy metal loving individual, festooned with tattoos and colored hair. When casually viewed, you would think him unsuccessful. However, he is honest, hardworking and a good person. To make ends meet, he runs a record shop inspired by his passion for music. In order to keep the record shop open, he and his partner decided to open a restaurant in the shop. A heavy metal focused record shop offering good food to boot. His experience is an example of friends, mutually supporting one another and offering opportunities to survive in this crazy world.

    That is our future, in all its forms.

    As a side note, I was in Menards today, and the guy at the counter had to apologize for his sluggish demeanor. He explained he was working 12 hour shifts all week due to mass quitting of the floor staff. Maybe the Big Box stores have finally leveled the playing field -pay wise with the Heavy Metal Record/Restaurants and can’t compete. Its easy to see which workplace would be more rewarding, emotionally.

  28. Take the Fork

    Sure, it’s a nice, white ecotopia.

    But how is an 11 percent increase in housing prices sustainable? And average rent up 41% since 2010?

    In what world is this sustainable?

    1. Former Portlander


      > There’s another Portland you should know about, one unknown even to many longtime locals.

      > It’s an expanse of the city without a single Zipcar spot or independent microbrewery, where you’ll see more pajama bottoms than skinny jeans. It’s a landscape of chain link and surface parking that, by contrast, makes 82nd Avenue look positively gentrified. It’s a cookie-cutter residential sprawl so devoid of landmarks, public spaces and commercial centers that some residents simply call it “The Numbers.” …

      > It’s East Portland, the city’s frontier.

      > More than a quarter of the city’s residents live here, separated from the rest by Interstate 205, a physical and psychological barrier more divisive than the Willamette River. If East Portland were its own city—and in many ways, it is—it’d be the third-largest in Oregon, with 150,000 people, roughly equal in population to Eugene and Salem.

  29. OregonJon

    Yves. I was born in Portland, grew up in the suburbs, graduated from the University of Oregon a year or two ahead of Neil Goldschmidt and recall fondly the days of Dorothy McCullough Lee. (She’s in Wikipedia) But Portland as sustainable? Absolutely. I’m in complete agreement with the author but perhaps with a different mien.

    Portland has shown itself perfectly capable of sustaining poor governance, of sustaining homelessnes, of sustaining the Police Department’s record of shooting before thinking or in its most recent iteration shooting while drunk, and this by the Chief of Police. Portland is perfectly sustainable when it comes to a high school graduation rate that ranks, as I recall, about 48th out of 50 states. So much for the benefits of homogeneity. And Portland is proving its sustainability by pushing light rail basically travels from where people don’t live to where people don’t work. Some will argue that ridership numbers show otherwise, but those who do should remove their head from wherever it might be and look around at the rush hour roads.

    My wife and I owned a house in Oregon to which we were to retire. Reality, and taxes, pushed us north across the Columbia to Washington where we now have the benefit of living in a state with no income tax while shopping in a state with no sales tax. Now that’s what I hope to sustain until my last days.

    1. H S Organs

      I hope the folk I have known in Austin who have emigrated to Portland in search of a ‘purer’ Austin experience are not disappointed.

    2. ks

      we now have the benefit of living in a state with no income tax while shopping in a state with no sales tax

      I hate to be rude, but doesn’t that feel like freeloading?

      1. SomeCallMeTim

        There’s a ‘time tax’ for these folks — getting across the Columbia is a daily headache. Yet still, local financial planners urge their wealthier clients to move north, saying “all the richest people in Portland live in Vancouver.”

  30. V. Arnold

    Portland a sustainable Utopia? Surely you jest. I grew up there and spent 40 years there before self exiling out of the U.S.
    Portland is not exceptional and far, far from a Utopia; poverty, property prices inflating, property taxes out of control, urban compacting, schools broken, and racial segregation forever to mention just a few of it’s white-washed problems…
    Apparently the propaganda is working.

  31. Ep3

    Reducing automobile use in Michigan would never happen. Even though we have the worst roads in the nation. These people think that if we keep giving the automakers billions of dollars a year, they will continue to put up statues commemorating “here was where the last Oldsmobile was built” (now all built in Mexico, if they still made them). And, due to having the largest concentration of Muslims outside the US living in Dearborn, as well as so many blacks, white people have to be able to live deep in the country so they don’t have to live near them. And u need a car to commute those long distances.

    1. Lumpenproletariat

      You raise a good point. The land developers and their symbiotic industries justified the very expensive and wasteful urban sprawl by pandering to and stoking white racial paranoia.

      The developers and land owners got filthy rich from turning rural blueberry patches into more suburbia. The rest of society ends up paying for the increased cost of infrastructure, its upkeep, and car dependency.

  32. tommy strange

    There is nothing sustainable when the population has majority of food coming from factory farms which have huge inputs to global warming, and from food coming one thousand to three thousand miles away. Container ships alone have been noted to pollute more than all the worlds’ cars combined. There is nothing sustainable when a city becomes less dense due to gentrification. I see this on ONE block I’ve lived in , in SF, for 20 years. Half the families kicked out of one of the most dense neighborhoods in the country in yes, only three story houses. Fifteen people in my house getting Ellis. And only two to three will occupy that as a TIC, if even that. A city is not sustainable whatsoever focusing on residential power usage. As we all know, residential usage is a fraction of the problem. Transport of needed goods from far away that could be produced nearby, the USA military, and the methane produced by fracking, tar sands, and resource extraction that destroys carbon sinks, etc are the main problems as is governments that will not EVER stop the rape of the planet. Capitalism is the problem, Politics is the problem, and no personal changes in lifestyle will stop what they do. These feel good articles ruin our chances. They make people complacent. Add to that, there has been no large infrastructure funding for fast rail at all in 20 years. We can’t even build fucking trains here. Sustainable is now denuded of all meaning , as is green. Bikes hoorahs and middle to upper class eating organic is such a slap in the face to realty. It makes me want to stop being a vegetarian. When the blue angels come to SF, they use more fuel than all the cars combined in the bay area during the same time period. One methane leak in southern california did more than the entire states’ residential power usage for a year.

  33. tyorke

    Portland native and former planner at the City of Portland here. The myth of Portland has little to do with the reality. If anyone thinks that Portland is an example of an environmentally “sustainable” city (whatever that means) or is truly moving in that direction, I have some swamp land near a toxic dump on a fault line that I would love to sell him.

  34. milly.c

    I’m a native Portlander and former planner at the City of Portland. Trust me, this place is no sustainable utopia.

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