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Changing a City: Inside Portland's 80 Percent by 2050 Target

An Interview with Deputy Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Micheal Armstrong


by Alex Aylett

Last week the City of Portland and Multnomah County jointly passed one of North America's most ambitious Climate Change Action Plan (CAP), which commits the city and county to reducing their overall emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Portland has been a leading city on climate change policy since 1993, when it became the first city adopt a strategy to reduce carbon emissions. It is also the only North American city that has managed to reduce its emissions below 1990 levels (despite an 18 percent growth in population). Nonetheless, the plan opens with the sobering point that “perhaps the most important lesson learned from local climate protection work to date is the frank recognition that our good not
nearly enough.” (A familiar mia culpa, well in line with how serious things have gotten.)

What follows in the rest of the 70 page plan (pdf) is an example of what it might look like if cities truly take sustainability seriously. The plan is packed with useful information and strategy. You can find more complete review here.

The standout element is the way the city has positioned itself to facilitate a broad shift that extends well past what it controls directly. This is much more than leading by example. Through a combination of educational programs, public consultations, economic development planning and the coordination of financial incentives, the municipality is leading change across the city as a whole. To find out more, I caught up with Deputy Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Micheal Armstrong via e-mail.

Alex Aylett: Early municipal climate action plans, both in North America and in Europe, tended to focus on things that the municipal government controlled directly: street lighting, municipal buildings, landfill sites, etc. Portland's new CAP, on the other hand, really is an action plan for the whole city. Tell me a bit about that more ambitious approach to municipal sustainability.

Micheal Armstrong: Since 1993 Portland’s climate-protection work has consistently included both its own operations and community-wide emissions. Our operations represent about one percent of total local emissions, so there’s a modest but real opportunity to achieve meaningful reductions. We clearly need to be making the same prudent investments in efficiency and renewables that others are making.

But our ability to set policy and to invest in infrastructure is a much more powerful lever in influencing local carbon emissions. We have an important role in shaping the overall form of the community -- which is perhaps the single most significant factor in emissions, as well as in integrating transportation systems, enforcing the building code, and regulating garbage and recycling collection, among many other thing.

AA: All true. But this goes beyond good land-use planning. Renewable energy and efficiency gains in private homes and commercial buildings, for example, make up 29 percent of the city's planned GHG reductions. "Food choice" (something significant that never makes it into municipal policy) accounts for another 10 percent.

Often cities avoid things that they can't directly regulate. You've gone a very different route. How has the city approached targets that can't be met solely through regulation?

MA: In the Climate Action Plan we prioritized actions the City of Portland or Multnomah County could either take ourselves or strongly influence, while at the same time trying to identify the full range of potential options for reducing emissions. If we do not put issues like food choice or how much stuff we consume on the list, it makes it that much more difficult — and expensive — to reduce emissions, since we’re limiting our options for where we can make reductions.

Food is a good example, too, where historically local governments have not had much of a direct role. We see that changing. Last year, for example, we provided gardening and food-related classes to more than 700 local residents, and we expect even more participants this year.

We’re also actively reviewing our code to address ways in which it makes it more difficult to grow, sell, or distribute locally produced foods. And we continue to identify parcels of land owned by the city that may be suited to urban gardening. We’re looking at options for expanding the number of community garden plots, and we now have several larger parcels of land that are being gardened by residents. We need to enable a much more active urban agriculture.

AA: Funding is also a big issue here. High up front costs are often cited by homeowners and property managers as a barrier for efficiency retrofits. What's Portland's approach to that part of the puzzle?

MA: With the help of federal stimulus funding, Portland has put together a program, “Clean Energy Works Portland,” that deals with this issue head on. The program pays for the cost of installing efficiency improvements, and the homeowner then repays the cost on his or her utility bill over time. The program puts contractors to work today, provides homeowners a more comfortable, more valuable home, and delivers energy savings and carbon reduction for decades to come.

We’ve also worked hard to ensure that the program provides quality jobs. We developed a “community workforce benefits agreement” that brought together contractors, unions, social equity organizations, and environmentalists to ensure that the jobs created through the program reach historically disadvantaged parts of the community.

This program is still in a pilot phase that will retrofit 500 homes by June 2010, but we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to scale it up from there.

AA: How important are the links between these projects and other local benefits like creating jobs or improving health?

Connections to other benefits are essential. But we view it more as choosing carbon-reduction actions that help create a future community that people want to live in.

In the Climate Action Plan we describe a “vision for 2050” that we hope is appealing, attractive, and desirable – not so much because it doesn’t depend on carbon emissions to succeed – but because it’s simply a place people want to be.

One of the things that gives me hope that we can achieve very large carbon reductions is that many people enjoy the exact things that make a low-carbon community possible: walking to the neighborhood business district; eating fresh, seasonal food; enjoying a cozy, well insulated home; and having affordable, convenient choices about how to get around town.

Alex Aylett is a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia studying the politics behind municipal climate change policy. He is currently a Trudeau Scholar and has worked as a consultant and researcher for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the International Centre for Sustainable Cities. His articles have appeared in The Tyee, THIS magazine, the Montreal Gazette and ReNew Canada magazine. He splits his time between Durban (South Africa), Portland (Oregon) and Vancouver (BC). You can read his blog here.

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Love the article, thanks for sharing this!
Quick comment though: the link to the plan you provided above is to a pdf of Vancouver's 2020 plan, instead of Portland's? Vancouver's plan is also interesting, but not quite the right link I think? Alex's blog has the correct link, so I'm guessing something got lost in transition?
Correct link to Portland's plan, for those who'd like it:

(Feel free to delete this post if I'm in error, or if the link gets fixed.)

Posted by: Ryan on 5 Nov 09

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