Image: Gracia Lam

Given the drumbeat of deflating news about Portland and environs this year, it's easy to feel downcast about the city's future. And while it's undeniable that the city has its issues, and needs to face them head-on, it's also true that there are transformative initiatives, big and small, already underway all over town. Here are 12 of our favorites.

The Universal Flu Vaccine From OHSU

COVID-19 vaccines hold the honor of being the fastest developed in history, due in part to the undivided attention of both the public and private sector. Now, focus returns to other scientific moonshots—including a universal flu vaccine, work on which is happening right in our backyard.

Oregon Health & Science University professor Jonah Sacha is the lead researcher on a six-years-and-counting project to develop a universal flu vaccine using the hospital system’s pioneering vaccine platform, and testing it on primates. The new technology uses cytomegalovirus, a harmless herpes virus, to evoke a strong T-cell immune response. The resulting vaccine would be effective against any strain of the influenza virus, providing protection even when the virus mutates and evolves (as it continually does), though it’s not yet clear how long protection would last. That would blunt the need to develop a new vaccine each year that’s resistant to the specific strain of that season.

COVID-19 research commandeered the specialized lab space used for researching hazardous pathogens. When the pandemic forced borders to close, exports for nonhuman primates used for research came to a halt. Now, Sacha’s research is back on track: Primates at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Louisiana have been given the OHSU-developed flu vaccine and will be exposed to influenza at the end of the year.

“We’re trying to do better than natural immunity,” Sacha says of the effect a successful universal flu vaccine will have (not to mention that seasonal strains of the flu kill up to half a million people worldwide each year). —Carisa D. Brewster

Image: Gracia Lam

The Worker-Owned Sri Lankan Restaurant

How do you open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the middle of a pandemic—and thrive? One answer: Break the paradigm and go co-op, à la Mirisata, Portland’s only Sri Lankan restaurant, which is also vegan and entirely BIPOC- and worker-owned. The SE Belmont spot’s prospective owners prove themselves not with a fat wad of start-up cash, but via a few months of a trial working period. During the height of the pandemic, Mirisata went from pop-up to brick-and-mortar restaurant using small loans from customers and friends.

Another innovation: a buy-in membership program for $40 a year, which includes perks like discounts on orders. So far, Mirisata is Portland’s only restaurant operating under a co-op model, but its worker-owners say it’s a way forward for those who’ve historically faced barriers, including women and people of color, to gain business ownership in a notoriously brutal industry. —Jade Yamazaki Stewart

The Drug Reform Mandate Getting Imitated Across the Country

Last fall, Oregonians passed a revolutionary mandate that made ours the first state in the nation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs. In practice, that means possession will be more akin to a civil violation, like a traffic ticket.

“[The measure] will save lives,” says Tera Hurst, the executive director of the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, by directing more dollars into rehabilitation for those struggling with substance abuse. The goal is to eventually bring down the state’s spiking rate of overdose deaths, which shot up by 70 percent in the spring of 2020. In addition, she says, the measure should “nearly eliminate racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions.” 

Hurst is confident that decriminalizing small possession is the silver bullet for the War on Drugs. And other states have taken notice—similar campaigns are already underway in New York, Washington and Virginia. —Aurora Biggers

The Push to Make Portland's Playgrounds Accessible and Inclusive

Who says trampolines aren’t for everyone, regardless of their mobility? Not Portland Parks & Recreation, which is pioneering some of the country’s most groundbreaking all-accessible playgrounds. The prototype is North Portland’s Harper’s Playground, but the new kid on the block is Southwest Portland’s Gabriel Park, where an underway redesign calls for a ground-level-entry trampoline and spinner, allowing users to walk or wheel right on.

“A lot of inclusive play equipment still requires a child to get in and out of their mobility device, which may be challenging for a caretaker, especially as the child gets bigger,” says project manager Gary Datka, who worked with local design firm 2.ink on the Gabriel Park plans. “For all children visiting an inclusive playground, they learn that people may experience the world differently, but we can still play together.” Look for a grand opening next winter. —Julia Silverman

The Green Homes That Aren't Ugly

Put aside your passive-aggressive tendencies, Portland. It’s time to go full passive.

Created in Germany in the early 1990s, the Passivhaus is a rigorously certified, computer-modeled home that’s built for maximum energy efficiency, with state-of-the-art filtration, ventilation, and energy systems. In a country where 28 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions comes from operations like keeping buildings warm in winter and cool in summer—more than is emitted from our autos and factories—the benefit is obvious.

Josh Salinger, whose design firm Birdsmouth is one of several companies building passive homes in Portland, says the certification is too often wrongly associated with boxy, unattractive designs. But the standard is not design specific: passive houses can be ranches, Craftsmans, midcentury showpieces, and anything in between. “If we want to make a difference in the planet,” he says, “we can’t force people to have ugly houses.” —Marty Patail

A Plan for Universal Preschool

At some point in the next five to 10 years in Multnomah County, parents-to-be will no longer have to put themselves on preschool waiting lists, seeking a spot for a baby that is still in utero.

They won’t have to budget thousands of dollars a year to pay for it, either. And preschool teachers—right now, often underpaid young women of color—will be making living wages. It’s all due to the county’s universal preschool measure, funded by a tax on the highest earners. The ballot measure passed last November to relatively little local fanfare, only to gain rapturous national press coverage for its big-tent approach. Since then, interest from other jurisdictions in how we built this has come from Hawaii, Michigan, Virginia, and New Jersey, says Kim Melton, chief of staff to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.

Preschools can start applying to be part of the initiative in the fall; parents of 3 and 4-year-olds can follow in early 2022. Rollout begins with highest-need families and kids, and scales up from there. Melton says the payoff will reverberate through children’s entire lives: “If we as a community really want to focus on children’s success and in a way that’s equitable, we start at the beginning.” —JS

The Portland Church Taking Our Houseless Crisis Into Its Own Hands

“Jesus tells us to love our neighbors,” says Pastor Andy Goebel of the Portsmouth Union Church in North Portland. “It’s really hard to love your neighbors if they can’t stay there for you to love.”

Such beliefs fuel the affordable housing project Goebel and co-pastor Julia Nielsen are building on church property for their houseless neighbors. They lobbied for a citywide change in church property usage to tear down a third of their building to make space for 20 affordable housing units, opening in winter 2022. The church also created a new interfaith coalition to invite other congregations to do the same. Says Goebel: “We don’t want to be—and we know we won’t be—the last church that will do this.” —Fiona McCann

The Coming of Age Mushroom Leather

Even with sustainable, small-batch companies, getting leather goods comes with inherent problems. As an animal byproduct, there’s the ethical issue on top of the environmental ones that accompany massive livestock farms and chemical dyes. Traditional synthetic leather solved the first problem, but as a petroleum-based product, it’s still mired in planetary woes.

Enter Mylo Unleather. The brainchild of Bolt Threads (based in San Francisco and Portland), it’s a mycelium-based fabric, commonly known as mushroom leather. The lab-grown, renewable material is not only without the ethical and sustainability woes, it’s flat-out stylish. Fashion royalty Stella McCartney this spring released a sleek Unleather bustier and tapered pant with a campaign starring Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael, who says she is “grateful to be on the right side of change ... saving the animals and the environment one thread at a time.” —Eden Dawn

Roads Sans Police

Over the years, Portland has grappled with all kinds of police reform and accountability proposals, without much to show for it; tension over the future of local law enforcement remains at an all-time high. Here’s an idea that was just announced by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland Police Bureau Chief Chuck Lovell: take the police out of the business of routine traffic stops. That’s a concept first piloted in Berkeley, where the responsibility for monitoring for broken tail lights, blown stop signs, and expired plates would instead go to unarmed public works/transit officers. For many Americans, getting pulled over is the time in their life they are most likely to encounter a police officer face to face; for Black drivers, those interactions are empirically more dangerous, especially if the stop is just a pretext to ask questions about previous run-ins with the law or to search a car without a warrant. (In the final quarter of 2020, almost 18 percent of drivers stopped by Portland police were Black, though only 6 percent of the city’s population is Black.)

More Cool Ideas from Local Big Thinkers

The folks at Microcosm Publishing are behind Bang!, an inclusive new guide to masturbation, including self-pleasuring tips for trans people and the physically disabled. Portlander Emma Kimble-Maerki couldn’t find ethically sourced hijabs anywhere, so she’s hoping to start her own company. Engineer Calvin Young is working on a new bike tire inspired by NASA’s Mars rover that is airless and super-elastic, and will never go flat. —JS

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