I’ve been quiet on this blog for some time. With good reason. Its called moving 12 hours from tiny but mighty Nevada City, California to the Mecca of green that is Portland, Oregon. A huge move made for many reasons and one that, a month in, I’m glad I made.
As you’ve likely heard, Portland is lauded for it’s sustainability, often being cited as the greenest city in America. Does it deserve it? Mostly.
Just look at the Redirect Guide, a source for local green companies, products and services. It’s more than 200 pages long. Go out to eat, and you’ll find that even the fish and chips restaurant makes a point to tout it’s healthier, more sustainable fare. Farmers markets dot the city, more then one happening every day of the week, the biggest drawing 10,000 visitors weekly.
Bicyclists are everywhere, with well marked lanes, respectful motorists (I've even had a trash truck wave me through!) bike only roads, and bike designated streets adjacent to the busier car trafficked ones. Sunday Parkway events sees miles of road closed to automotive traffic, becoming a mass of cyclists, skaters, and walkers.
Well integrated mass transit covers the majority of the city, well, and with the aid of such things as the free PDX Bus iPhone app, is easily used even if you’ve never ridden before, as I can attest. And I’m not alone, as it was recently revealed the bus system’s servers get nearly 100,000 hits a day, just from this app!
Why is Portland the way that it is? A vocal citizenry and a supportive government helps. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen our Mayor Sam Adams directly answering people’s questions and requests on Twitter and Facebook. It’s clear he’s committed to making Portland an increasingly sustainable city, both on an individual and regional level.
Some less obvious factors contribute to Portland’s famous livability: Metro is a prime example. I’m still getting my head around it, but from what I understand it’s a regional government, distinct from the conventional government structure in place. They help make recycling easier, for people to live more sustainably, and know what’s fun to do They even manage to make outdoor activities sexy, with The Intertwine.
And yet, Portland misses the mark in some key ways.
In the downtown area where I work at Nedspace, a coworking space that donates a portion of rent to Kiva projects and whose directors are involved in social entrepreneurial ventures themselves along with spearheading the African edition of the Maker Faire, there is not one recycling bin to be seen on the street.
In an odd step in my mind, there are instead solar powered trash cans that compact trash, allowing a higher capacity and preventing overspill. A step forward, but why not spend that money on low tech recycling bins, or add a separate compartment in those fancy trash cans?
And there is no curbside compostables collection outside plant trimmings. It’s just now beginning a test run in a small number of neighborhoods. Great to see, but with Oakland having done it for years, and San Francisco now legally requiring it, even for businesses, you’d think Portland would have long ago had a program in place, especially given the plethora of farms both in and outside of Portland.
Overall though, Portland is miles ahead of many places in the US when it comes to sustainability. Having been here a month, getting used to my highly livable home, a question that comes to mind that I’d like you to ponder too:
Can what Portland’s done be replicated in other cities that aren’t currently on the path? Does it take a built in inclination in the population for a city to go greener? Or can it be fostered? Can suburban cities, used to sprawl, being oriented around the car, and community often being a distant afterthought, shift to focus on people, community, and sustainability?
A follow on question is, should cities even try to replicate what Portland’s created? In some ways, I think not. Each city has its unique characteristics, population, needs and strengths. I think they should build a foundation of what’s around them, optimally organized and done in a way that includes a broad swath of the population’s agreement and participation. It’s the only truly, well, sustainable way to go sustainable.
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, blogs weekly on green start ups of note at Triple Pundit and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.