I recently learned about an interesting restructuring in Portland's city government. In December, the city's new mayor announced a plan to merge the Office of Sustainable Development and the Bureau of Planning into one Bureau of Sustainable Planning & Development.
As mayor Sam Adams explained the merger to the Oregonian,
...it is meant to ensure that sustainability principles are at the core of everything the city plans and builds. The council's long-term plan is to position Portland as the global epicenter of sustainable practices and commerce.
As blogger Alex Aylett puts it, "[T]hanks to the merger, Portland's new Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is in all likelihood the most powerful "green" municipal agency in all of North America."
Sustainability coordinators -- or Sustainability Offices if your city is lucky enough to have one -- are usually Davids inside the Goliath of the municipal structure. With little budget and no direct control over policy, their job is to steer cities in a new direction and transforms the ways in which they do business. In this case though, it seems that David has eaten Goliath. The former Office of Sustainable Development was initially funded through recycling revenues and relied on various forms of persuasion and diplomacy to get its work done. It is now at the head of a bureau that is one of the best funded and most powerful in the city.
I chatted with Worldchanging's resident planning experts, Justus Stewart and Ashley DeForest about what this could mean, and what Seattle could learn from Portland's example. Both thought the the effort was a bold and exciting move, and Stewart in particular saw it as a good sign for long-term planning, as sustainability became a constant measuring stick for developing tools like zoning codes for the city. And, he pointed out, the Planning department's info-driven technical tools like GIS could be put to innovative use in the hands of sustainability folks.
Finally, he juxtaposed Portland's department merger against a recent flub on the part of Seattle's City Council. Local residents were vocal in their opposition when the Council talked last fall about possibly eliminating the Office of Sustainability and Environment without offering a solid plan to maintain the Office's influence within City Hall.
What do you think of Portland's plan? How do you think Seattle could incorporate the mission of sustainability more thoroughly into government departments? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo: Portland City Hall. Credit: flickr/Seth Gaines, Creative Commons license.