Known for their Festival of Flowers, earthy home brews, and the glowing White Stag sign in their downtown skyline, the residents of Portland, Oregon, are proud of their green reputation. And it’s well deserved.
For three decades, the city has been a rising national leader in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions from its buildings, businesses, and cars. Take the more than 6 percent of Portlanders who bike to work—compared with the national average of less than 1 percent. Or the city’s history as the first in the United States to create a carbon-cutting local action plan in the 1990s. More recently, in April 2017, Portland pledged, together with Multnomah County, to supply all community electricity needs through renewable sources by 2035 and to reach a complete clean energy transition by the year 2050.
These efforts were acknowledged and rewarded last fall when former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, now special envoy for climate action to the United Nations Secretary-General, chose Portland as one of 25 winners in the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, an initiative in partnership with NRDC and other organizations.
“Cities across the country put forward thoughtful and innovative proposals,” he said in a statement about the contest, geared toward helping cities promote a sustainable future for their residents. Bloomberg’s team chose cities that pitched the most ambitious goals—and, he added, “the most realistic plans for achieving them.”
Portland’s plan treats a more sustainable transportation system as a top priority. For one thing, it will be repurposing 1,000 parking spaces downtown into safer and more pleasant streets for walking, biking, and riding public transit, says NRDC’s director of Transportation & Climate, Amanda Eaken, The Bureau of Transportation is also redesigning the central city streets with dedicated transit lanes and protected bike routes and revamping the pedestrian zones and sidewalks, all with the goal of lowering the city’s carbon emissions and improving residents’ quality of life.
“Our population is growing,” says Gabe Graff, project manager for Central City in Motion, Portland’s plan for these strategic investments in its streets. “We want to create more predictable travel times to serve these riders faster, more efficiently, and get them to where they need to go.” (The project has also produced a handy “transportation wallet” to encourage commuters to choose less-polluting ways of getting around.)
The transportation bureau is also working on creating better, clearer signage for freight, transit, and bicycle lanes in the heart of the city, to ensure safety as people get moving in things other than their cars. “We’ve had a pretty tight street network since Portland was first plotted,” says Graff. “And ever since, we’ve struggled to figure out where to prioritize our bus and bike lanes.” He adds that through these various transit improvement initiatives, planners are aiming for zero growth in single-occupant car trips made in the city this year.
As the center of Portland receives this green boost, planners are taking care to avoid mistakes of the past—errors that undoubtedly contributed to its notoriety as the whitest major city in the United States. Previous urban renewal projects in Portland forced low-income residents and people of color from their homes and out of the city. For example, the construction of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in 1960 and Emanuel Hospital in the early 1970s (a Model Cities Program–funded project) displaced the black communities there. More recent projects have had similar consequences, forcing about 10,000 of its African American residents from the central part of the city to its outskirts due to the rising costs of housing. Today, African Americans represent only about 3 percent of the total population.
Now, as Portland enacts its climate action plans, members of its low-income communities and communities of color are calling attention to the city’s routine failure to invest enough in transit and pedestrian infrastructure for outer neighborhoods like East Portland. There, residents struggle with long commutes to and from the central city due to infrequent bus service, and some of their neighborhoods still lack sidewalks.
“We cannot talk about bike paths [in the city center] without talking about safety for community members who have paid their fair share in taxes and just aren’t getting the infrastructure,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty during an April meeting to discuss the green makeover of central Portland.
In November 2018, Hardesty became the first woman of color elected to the Portland City Council, running on a platform focused on investing in residents left out of the city’s ongoing plans for economic prosperity—who are also, she noted, “the people and communities most impacted by climate change.” In East Portland, where Hardesty is from, residential communities of color are already disproportionately exposed to air pollution stemming from adjacent freeways and congested arterial streets. As climate change increases the number of bad air days across the country, it will be especially dangerous for East Portland’s many asthma sufferers, who represent up to 25 percent of area residents, compared with about 3 percent to 10 percent of residents in whiter, more affluent parts of the city. The increasing heat the city is forecast to experience—the past five years included two of Portland’s hottest summers ever—will also have greater consequences for the most vulnerable communities, who have limited resources to prevent and recover from heat waves and other extreme weather events.
Fortunately, the green dreamers of Portland are responding to environmental injustices like these. Central City in Motion and the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s sister venture, “East Portland in Motion,” both focus on residents who depend on the city’s train and bus lines to get to work. (Eaken points out an average annual income difference of $75,000 between those who commute by transit and those who drive cars.) And in November, voters approved the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefit, which put through a 1 percent tax on the revenue collected by Portland’s biggest retailers to help fund projects that will “lessen the impacts of climate change on those most affected,” Andrew Hoan, Portland Business Alliance president, told Portland’s local OPB News. (The tax does not apply to the basics of groceries, medicine, or health care.) Some projects that will get a boost from the revenue raised include a plan for a community of color–led solar array and the building of local, sustainable food production systems.
Portland’s various carbon-reducing initiatives put the city on track for achieving the goals of its Climate Action Plan, which includes cutting emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. And as new support arrives through the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, local Rose City leaders are springing into action. Last November, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to approve the on-the-ground goals of the Climate Challenge, which includes 18 City in Motion projects. With officials now in agreement, the immediate next question was put to Portlanders via an online survey: Which shall we build first?
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