Portland and the Importance of Sustainability

BY W. SAMUEL HARGESHEIMER · FEBRUARY 22, 2016

Portland, Oregon is ahead of most U.S. cities when it comes to sustainability. Here’s why.

Countless cities across the world have acknowledged the importance of issues such as resource management, renewable energy, economic self-dependence, and overall sustainability. It’s a key concern for allowing a city to grow without negatively impacting its future. From city-wide incorporations of solar panels (through subsidization or outright purchases) to the implementation of recycling programs, modern-day developed cities have been addressing the problems that come with having large populations in a centralized location, and these cities have been doing so rather successfully.

The concept of city sustainability has actually existed for a relatively long time. Ever since ancient civilizations started to invest in agriculture and animal husbandry, there has been a paramount concern for resource management (water, soil, wildlife, etc.) and self-dependence. If a civilization uses methods of farming that do not take into account sustainable levels of resource use, then that civilization is bound to decline in one way or another, much like a city would decline if residents were to practice an over-consumption of drinking water and other natural resources. On the other hand, if a city or civilization continues to grow while keeping in mind how they’re impacting the city’s future, then there is a much better chance of that population to continue to grow in a sustainable manner.

There have been many efforts made by modern-day cities (and even states) throughout America to acquire and maintain a status of sustainability, and among America’s most prominent sustainable cities is Portland, Oregon. The city of Portland dates back to the year 1843, when a Massachusetts lawyer named Asa Lovejoy and a Tennessee traveler named William Overton landed a canoe on the shore of the Williamette River in a land called “The Clearing.” After proposing a land claim to Oregon’s provincial government, the two men split the cost of purchasing the 640-acre piece of land. Originally, “The Clearing” was used as a stopping place for travelers between key cities and locations like Oregon City and Fort Vancouver, allowing for settlers and traders alike to stop for rest and housing along the west bank of the Williamette River. This meant that the location was already an ideal area for transportation and trade via water transport and land transport, therefore the growth of this city was inevitable and issues of sustainability were bound to arise.

According to the Brundtland Commission of 1987, there are three key factors to consider when assessing the sustainability of any given city: social sustainability, environmental sustainability, and economic sustainability. Together, these factors determine whether a city is capable of meeting their current needs without sacrificing the ability of future residents to meet their needs. The city of Portland, Oregon is one of the United States’ best examples of a city that utilizes sustainable development.

Almost every major American city faces the problems of excessive carbon emissions and a lack of renewable energy sources. These are key sustainability problems because the carbon emissions gradually destroy the natural environment, whether in a city or in a rural region, and the lack of renewable energy produces an excessive amount of waste, which can contribute to the damaging of the city’s environment as well. Both of these issues affect the quality of life of the entire city and can affect the lives of future generations. Portland addresses the issue of environmental sustainability in a relatively efficient manner; the city makes efforts to reduce their overall carbon footprint through a number of programs while also incorporating systems of alternative energy. According to the Sustainable Cities Institute, “In 1993, Portland was the first city in the United States to publish a Climate Action Plan.” This plan includes efforts to reduce the effects of landfills by lowering the frequency of how often garbage is collected from residents and corporations/companies. Essentially, this forces the population to not only recycle more often, but also to be mindful of how much waste is disposed on a daily basis. Overall, this reduction in garbage collection resulted in a nearly 40% decrease in waste being transported to landfills, which greatly reduces the city’s carbon footprint and increases the sustainability of the city’s waste program. While effective, there are greater steps the local government could take to further reduce landfill waste; in theory, the city could incorporate a system where recycled materials are collected more often than garbage is collected, which would further encourage residents to recycle more often than throwing things into the garbage. This would require maintaining the every-other-week waste disposal collection and increasing the frequency of recyclables collection.

The second environmental issue that the city of Portland addresses is the problem of adopting a form of alternative energy for the public to use. Without using any renewable energy, the sustainability of the future of Portland would be bleak, with people excessively contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases and ignoring the city’s threshold for carbon emissions. This would negatively affect all future generations, damaging the environment severely and leeching from the limited supply of nonrenewable energies. As a response to this issue, Portland has implemented a “Solarize Portland” campaign that, in 2011, had reached “14 megawatts of installed solar energy capacity,” which surpassed the city’s original Climate Action Plan to reach 10 megawatts by that time. This was made possible through cooperation with neighborhood councils, which would encourage citizens of Portland neighborhoods to purchase and utilize solar power installments in an effort to reduce their carbon footprints and, eventually, their utility bills as well. The only drawback with this plan is how it is only something affordable to those with the money to purchase solar energy equipment (panels, converters, etc.), which can be relatively expensive. This prevents the whole population from being able to incorporate solar energy into their daily lives. To solve this affordability problem, the city could potentially subsidize the costs of purchasing solar energy equipment in an effort to allow more citizens to have access to this utility. Regardless of the affordability problem, the city’s shift to alternative energy has proven to be a successful measure in reducing the city’s overall environmental impact.

Another key aspect of sustainability that Portland, Oregon addresses is the issue of economic sustainability. Specifically speaking, the city of Portland hosts a program that strengthens the relationship between local farmers and consumers in an effort to encourage residents to invest in the local economy, which can benefit the city’s economic sustainability. In other words, rather than abandoning the local economy and investing in corporate goods and services (which is a common problem with economic sustainability), the residents reinforce the local economy by investing in local farms and companies. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program allows residents to financially support local farmers by purchasing a certain portion of each harvest at the beginning of the farming season. According to the City of Portland’s website, “once harvesting begins, shareholders typically receive weekly shares of vegetables, fruit, eggs, dairy, meat, fish, and poultry depending on the farm’s production capabilities.” This allows the consumer and the producer to maintain an economic relationship, where the producer benefits from economic support and the consumer benefits from fresh goods and products. Considering the incredibly fertile lands and productive farms around Oregon, this has proven to be a successful measure in sustaining Portland’s local economy for the present as well as the future. While there are many other options available to the city of Portland to ensure economic sustainability, the CSA program has been one of the major components to the city’s successful economic sustainability thus far.

Portland addresses the third component of sustainability (social sustainability) by acknowledging the needs for efficient public transportation, efficient land use, and public amenities. These are issues that affect the daily social lives of the population of Portland, where people need to travel and utilize the city’s utilities in order to function at optimal efficiency within a social community. In 1972, Portland adopted the “Downtown Plan,” which focused on three key elements: “pedestrian amenities, a mix of densities and activities and land uses, especially retail and housing, and good access through management of parking resources and greater reliance on public transportation.” Essentially, the city executed plans to build a public park (the McCall Waterfront Park), create a bus mall (the Portland Mall), and develop a light rail system, all of which would revitalize the city’s social development. Separately, each of these improvements was relatively minor, but when considered together under the Downtown Plan, the totality of the construction endeavors were purposed to reinforce the city’s equitable transportation and development. Both the bus mall and the light rail system contribute significantly to the city’s transportation capabilities, allowing for further expansion and equitable travel among the population. The McCall Waterfront Park acts as a location that is both equitable for Portland residents and environmentally bearable since it is a nature park. Altogether, these city improvements enhanced the social utilities and sustainability of Portland overall.

After considering these aspects of sustainability, it is apparent that Portland, Oregon is more sustainable than your average American city. From being the first city in the United States to develop a Climate Action Plan to encouraging investments in the local economy, Portland has been making modern efforts to remain sustainable since before 1970s (and before the majority of American cities). Addressing these social, economic, and environmental sustainability issues has allowed Portland to adopt practices and construct buildings/systems that allow the population to meet their needs while also allowing future generations to meet their everyday needs as well. Without these implementations, the future of Portland’s sustainability would greatly affect the lives of future generations and force them to work with depleted resources and tarnished environments.

-By W. Samuel Hargesheimer, Staff Writer