Sustainability Scope

The Coolest City of Them All?

Portland’s Climate Action Plan measures up

By Benjamin Tepler June 30, 2009

There was serious energy flowing at the Portland Climate Action Plan presentation last Monday, in the gym of Southwest Portland’s Fulton Park Community Center. While two staffers from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability unveiled the city’s plan, Southwest residents had mobility on the mind and wanted to talk two things: bus service and sidewalks. Tri-Met’s recent budget struggles have meant severe cutbacks in and out of outer Southwest, and this environmentally-minded group was distressed. (Quote?) “If decreasing the presence of single occupancy vehicles is a priority, we need more access to alternative modes of transportation – like walking.”
The tensions between big plans –like creating “20-minute neighborhoods” in every corner of the city – and meaningful, specific actions are something the town hall meetings aim to address. The primary goal of these meetings is twofold: to present the plan to the community, and to establish, from the public input, what aspects of the plan are priorities, and where. In Southwest, clearly, the primary issue is mobility and public transportation.
Cities across the country are strategizing ways to deal with climate change, and Portland, predictably enough, is no exception. Earlier this month, Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability released a first draft of the City of Portland and Multnomah County the Climate Action Plan (CAP) for public comment, and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is hosting a series of town hall meetings in various neighborhoods to discuss it.
The Rose City has long bloomed brightest in the nation’s sustainability movement. Portland set the nation’s first municipal carbon reduction strategy in 1993, ambitiously aiming to decrease the city’s CO2 emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2010. After some serious data analysis, the city revised its goals in 2001, slicing that emissions target in half to 10% by 2010. Back then, Portland was a pioneer among American cities. Now we’re one of a pack trying to brand themselves as the greenest. The shift begs the question: are we in the front, middle, or back? And, furthermore, is it a competiton?
City-scale planning for climate change as a national trend really began in 2005, when Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels established the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The agreement encourages U.S. mayors to adopt the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction targets (which, at 7% below 1990 levels by 2012, was slightly less than Portland’s amended goals) at the city level. Since then, almost a thousand U.S. cities have signed on and begun the process of launching a Climate Action Plan, and Portland was one of the first cities to do so officially. The general idea is that cities are developing similar general goals, while focusing on certain areas more than others depending on both their particular vulnerabilities and greatest resources.
A large portion – usually, most – of emissions in every city come from unnecessary energy use and climate-insensitive buildings. As a result, places like Chicago and Miami, where respectively 70 and 50 percent of CO2 emissions come from energy inefficiency in buildings, have put particular focus on increasing the energy efficiency of new and existing structures. Burlington, meanwhile, is especially detailed in its plans to enhance localized food production and distribution. It follows that Portland’s strategy is likewise geared toward enhancing our most effective qualities – land use, urban forestry, community engagement – and thinking big in the areas where there are opportunities for vast improvement. One objective that particularly sticks out is the reduction of solid waste, in part through a curbside food-waste collection program and the establishment of a regional composting system. Seems pretty radical.
As a result of excellent framework, Portland has a temporal jump on many other cities. The chronology of these kinds of plans and actions is just one factor, but an important one – climate change issues are nothing if not time-sensitive. That said, an effective plan isn’t just about who got their foot in the door early. Comprehensiveness should be taken into account, too. Larger cities inevitably have more challenges to face in creating a CAP, and as a result, some cities’ plans contain fewer and/or less specific directives than it seems it would take to make a significant impact. Boston’s plan, for example, is pretty wishy washy, consisting of just a handful of small actions like required LEED certification of new municipal buildings, conversion of the city-owned vehicles to more efficient alternatives, and planting street trees to increase the urban canopy. All good things, but even cumulatively probably won’t get them to that 7% goal without a serious and substantial urban vision. New York’s plan is more holistic, but not focused on carbon emissions – addressing climate change specifically is just a piece of their planning pie, and as a result their carbon-related strategies are vague. Los Angeles, in contrast, has one of the most specific, extensive and aggressive plans out there, with . But again, with large-scale quality of life issues such as public health, mobility and resource management to address, they have much farther to go. In the realm of climate change, it pays to be small – Portland is more in the same boat as Burlington and Boulder, which instigated some of the first CAPs in the country.
Of course, we were already well-posed for this kind of planning process. Most of our city’s success is based on decisions that were made upwards of thirty years ago, before climate change became the rallying cry for better city planning elsewhere. Development of the Urban Growth Boundary and bus and streetcar systems were strategies to create a better standard of living. The feasibility of dense, self-sufficient neighborhoods was not measured in carbon, yet it inherently decreased the necessity of SOVs in the region anyway.
That Portland and Oregon have been developing regional long-term, comprehensive smart growth plans longer than just about anybody proves to be a vital asset in the process of addressing climate change issues. It’s much more challenging to start laying groundwork for smart growth – a huge part of the general climate change mitigation goal – in one of those cities that we tend to use as an example of how not to develop. Portland has far fewer basic infrastructural problems to address, and the Climate Action Plan is basically a re-articulation of the goals of the Portland Plan and various other sustainability-oriented city programs – PDC’s economic development strategy, for instance, or PBOT’s bike and streetcar master plan – in the more specific context of CO2 emission reduction.
Addressing climate change really isn’t a competition, and there are a whole lot of more complex factors to consider when attempting a comparison like this that I haven’t included. Fundamentally, however, from any angle it is a race against the clock. That so many places are strategizing in this very specific and goal-oriented way is certainly encouraging, and indicative of a movement towards a deeper, common understanding that trouble is imminent and adaptation imperative.
Public comment on the Portland CAP is being accepted through July 13, so check out the BPS website’s climate protection page to download the plan and find a list of upcoming neighborhood meetings. Can’t make one? Complete the 7-minute online survey. Hey, input is input!

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