Great Neighborhoods: Taking the Long View

The People's Republic of Sunnyside

Neighbors unite to secede from the grid.

With Brian Barker March 16, 2010 Published in the April 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

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According to local legend, the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Sunnyside got its name because it sits outside of the shadow of the West Hills. True or not, the neighborhood shines brightly as the city’s uncontested champion of eco-consciousness.

In 2008, Sunnyside began pursuing an ambitious, district-wide energy plan. The carbon-slashing endeavor involves replacing a pair of century-old, oil-guzzling boilers in the basement of the local Sunnyside Environmental School with a solar-powered heat pump capable of independently warming (and cooling) as many as 350 homes in the neighborhood. If successful, the project—which has support from local green royalty like US Congressman Earl Blumenauer and State Senator Diane Rosenbaum—would trim 5,000 tons of carbon from the air each year.

The district’s energy system could take years to realize. (Linking 350 homes to the heat pump presents a major challenge.) So residents have turned the focus to their roofs instead. This summer, when Southeast Uplift spearheaded Solarize Portland, a bulk-purchasing solar system program, more than 350 Southeast Portland residents, including 20 from Sunnyside, signed up. Little wonder. The neighborhood has one of the state’s highest rates of participation in PGE’s green-power purchasing program. The hit solarization effort has now spun off into Northeast Portland.

“Sunnyside has been a leader in initiative and engagement and willingness to try new things,” says Tim O’Neal, Southeast Uplift’s neighborhood sustainability coordinator. “That’s definitely rippled through other neighborhoods.”

Sunnyside made another splash last year when it became the first Transition Neighborhood in the country, a designation based on the national Transition Towns movement, which creates action plans to wean towns off of oil.

Anchoring this bastion of forward eco-thinking is the Sunnyside Environmental School (SES). Founded in 2004, the K–8 institution uses themes like River, Mountain, and Forest to teach healthy respect for the environment. Each year, some 120 Portland families pick SES as one of their three school choices, helping to nurture Portland’s future green leaders.

But are Sunnysiders really all that different from most Portlanders? O’Neal doesn’t think so. “Sunnyside has the label,” he says. “But the values here, they don’t recognize any sort of neighborhood borders.”

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