Saturday, February 14, 2009

Portland - City Government

During my visits to Portland area organizations, I heard consistently positive reports about the efficacy of city government. The city of Portland was the first to develop a climate action plan and boasts the most effective regional government in the nation. Portland's understanding of and commitment to sustainability is a rarity among cities and they are a model for the rest of the nation.

I met with Julia Thompson, communications director for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. The recently formed bureau is a consolidation of the Bureau of Planning and the Office of Sustainable Development. The concept of combining the two departments is incredibly telling. The folks in Portland understand that sustainable development happens on building, block, neighborhood, city and regional levels. Incorporating "green" building into urban planning brings it much closer to where it needs to be. Of course, there's more to a sustainable Portland than the organization of the OSD department...

I am somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to governments having an impact on city-scale sustainability initiatives, the city of Portland caused a shift in my thinking. Government can't do all the work themselves, but they can provide inspiration and guidance. They can ensure that they stay our of the way when good things are happening. And when they stumble upon a golden opportunity, they can seize it.

The foundation of sustainable city organization in Portland seemed to be friendly people. The director of the bureau, Susan Anderson very much understood that sustainability is more about a shift in thinking than a shift in laws. At a recent conference, she told the attendees that clients of high-powered lawyers feel good when they see helmet hair on a guy making $500k a year. It doesn't hurt that she actively seeks out private grants and funds for the public department.

These shifts in public attitude take a long time to foster and Portland has been successful due to their sustained commitment to sustainability over a generation. The removal of a downtown freeway 35 years ago was the beginning of a trend towards responsible civic engagement and action. In the mid-80s, they were one of the smallest and earliest cities to install a light rail system. The early 90s brought an early curbside recycling program to residents and commercial recycling was mandated later in the decade. The total city-wide recycling rate is 63% (!) and headed towards a goal of 75%.

Portland began using the LEED standard for city buildings in 2000 and now requires that new and rehabbed city buildings meet LEED Gold. In 2003, they began running workshops to bring designers and contractors into the green building loop. They have consistently advocated the the carrot end of the "carrot and stick" metaphor but their patience seems to be running thin. Their mission is now to convince the late adopters to get on board or else... It seems that in Portland, "or else" means a stern talking to from a friendly city employee. It's enough to make even the most money grubbing polluters reform their ways.

I won't bother you with the extent of specific programs that put the rest of the country to shame or about the metro planning authority that makes other regions salivate, but I will tell you about a very interesting idea coming down the chute. After an energy audit with useful tips on improving home efficiency, residents could take out a low interest loan from a special state fund. This loan could only be used to improve home efficiency and instead of being tied to the individual, it would be tied to the property. The loan would be billed to the utility bill and would not transfer with ownership.

This is such a wonderful program. It makes sense to tie sensible property investment to the property itself. I hope other states adopt similar measures.

All in all, you know something is going right when asking residents about their government results in smiles instead of frowns.

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