In partnership with UNEP

Portland’s trailblazing Climate Action Plan

Susan Anderson

Susan Anderson, Director, Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability

19 June 2013 | Cities & the Built Environment, Energy, Policy & Legislation, North America

Because of its amazing natural resources, Portland, Oregon, USA, has worked for several generations to bring together what in many other places are often seen as competing goals – an economically prosperous community and a healthy environment.. The progress in the last 20 years proves that this can be done.


Portlandhas been a national leader in the USA on urban policies and investments that have resulted in a prosperous, healthy and more resilient city. Often called the most sustainable city in America, Portland’s brand is both emulated by other cities and parodied on television in ‘Portlandia’. New urbanism, transit oriented development, green building and sustainability practices were common tools in the city long before they had garnered much attention elsewhere.

Much of the work began in the 1970s and 80s. As many American cities pursued an approach of expanding freeway networks and creating sprawl, Portland took a different path and focused inward. An Urban Growth Boundary was established for the metropolitan area to protect surrounding agricultural land and forests. Federal funding for a new freeway was redirected to one of the first modern light rail lines. This was built out over the years into a 52-mile light rail system connecting through downtown and the metro area, and a 15-mile streetcar (tram) system.

Much of the early focus was on building the community. The interstate highway was moved from along the Willamette River and replaced with Waterfront Park, bringing the community together instead of bisecting it with an impassable freeway. A downtown parking structure was torn down and replaced with a more European public plaza, Pioneer Square, often called Portland’s living room.

"Federal funding for a new freeway was redirected to one of the first modern light rail lines"

At the same time, a comprehensive plan was completed to balance and integrate goals such as economic development, housing, water and air quality, transport, parks and urban forests, and resource efficiency. The oil crisis of the mid and late 1970s spurred the development of the first local energy plan in the USA, which included specific actions to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy resources such as solar and wind power.

In the 1990s and 2000s, many new efforts were begun that focused on sustainable building, energy and water efficiency, recycling and waste reduction, bicycle infrastructure, solar and wind power, storm water management, and creating walkable 20-minute neighbourhoods.


A successful Climate Action Plan

In 1993, Portland became the first US city to adopt a Climate Action Plan for its entire community. At that time, few Americans cared much about what was then called ‘global warming’. The focus of the plan was to reduce carbon emissions, but to do it in a way that would help families save money, reduce local air pollution, cut operating costs for businesses, and build more liveable, walkable neighborhoods.

The City took action on climate change for two reasons: first, 20 years ago the Federal government was moving very slowly and it seemed unlikely that much change would happen at the national level. And second, Portland felt it could do its part because cities can have a major impact. They often have responsibilities for:

  • Creating and implementing zoning and building energy codes
  • Constructing streets, sidewalks and bicycle lanes
  • Developing transit systems or working closely with transit authorities
  • Collecting solid waste, recycling and composting, and
  • Owning public electric utilities or having partnerships with utilities and NGOs to help businesses and residents reduce energy use.

The 1993 plan has been updated regularly and has been a success. Since 1990, per capita carbon emissions are down by more than 25 per cent, with total emissions down 6 per cent. At the same time, carbon emissions in the US have increased by about 10 per cent. So it is clear that Portland is moving in the right direction, and the gap between the two diverging numbers leads to a compelling story – that American cities can be both prosperous and reduce carbon emissions.


Raising the bar

Unfortunately, even with the success of the original plan, Portland residents and leaders have taken note that while the city is heading in the right direction, a 6 per cent reduction is only a small step towards the 50-85 per cent reduction needed according to climate scientists.

In response to the growing urgency of the need to shift to a low-carbon economy and community, in 2009 Portland adopted a new Climate Action Plan with a goal of reducing 1990 level emissions by 80 per cent. To reach that goal, the City has focused on both innovative and practical solutions in such areas as transport and land use, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and solid waste reduction. The following examples illustrate a few approaches and results.


The transport ‘green dividend’

Over the past 20 years, gasoline sales per person have dropped nearly 25 per cent, and vehicle miles travelled have dropped 8 per cent. At the same time, bicycle riding has steadily risen from less than 1 per cent to more than 6 per cent of people commuting to work. With more than 300 miles of bikeways, Portland is consistently ranked one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the USA.

More and more people want to live in neighbourhoods where they can bike or walk to parks, school, shops, restaurants, grocery stores, libraries and other amenities. Portland calls this ‘living in a 20-minute neighbourhood’, and has a goal for 80 per cent of residents to live in such a neighbourhood by 2035. While this may just seem normal in most of Europe, it definitely is not the norm in America, where so much of urban design and planning has been focused on the private car.

"With more than 300 miles of bikeways, Portland is consistently ranked one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the USA"

In many communities in the US, people agree that sustainable development and protecting the environment are important, but conclude that taking action is too expensive. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In comparison with other US cities of a similar size, Portland residents drive 20 per cent fewer miles each day. That’s just four miles per day per person, but it does add up, and it equals more than US$1 billion annually in reduced transport costs. This money is then available to purchase other goods and services. And, since Portland has no oil drilling or refineries, a dollar spent on just about anything besides oil recirculates in the economy many more times than buying another gallon of gasoline, and it provides for economic growth.


The City Government Energy Challenge

In the early 1990s, Portland began a systematic and aggressive review of all of its buildings and facilities to improve energy efficiency. The result is a saving of more then US$5.5 million annually.

Projects range from lighting, heating and cooling improvements to solar panels on City buildings, to LED street lights; and generating nearly US$1 million worth of electricity each year from sewer gas at the waste water treatment plant.


Green building and LEED

In 2001, Portland took a first step and adopted a green, high-performance building ordinance that required new City-owned buildings and any project that received any City tax

credit or financial incentive (such as for low-income housing projects) to meet the LEED building standard. The City also established a technical team to provide green building training to architects, designers, engineers, homebuilders and commercial developers through workshops and hands-on review of building plans.

Several developers saw an opportunity to establish Portland as a national centre of on-the-ground, practical green building expertise. The results were phenomenal considering that Portland did not change the actual building energy code, but instead provided training and marketed successful buildings. The State of Oregon assisted with this transition by providing a tax credit to developers who exceeded the LEED standards for energy performance.

"In Portland, 168 commercial projects are now LEED certified"

In Portland, 168 commercial projects are now LEED certified. LEED Gold and Platinum have become the norm for quality building in the city. In fact, Portland has 31 LEED Platinum projects, three more than New York City – a successful result for a community with only 7 per cent of New York’s population.

The green building story in Portland goes beyond reductions in carbon emissions. An entire industry has evolved with hundreds of architects, engineers and developers providing sustainable building expertise to cities throughout the USA and the world. In addition, Portland’s new economic development strategy focuses on clean technologies and services, with one of the most significant concentrations of firms in the USA involved with renewable energy, energy efficiency, environmental services and green building. A recent employment report showed about 60,000 employees have clean-tech jobs throughout Oregon.


Clean Energy Works

In 2009, Portland began a pilot project to provide an easier, more efficient way to enable homeowners to make energy efficiency upgrades to their homes. The pilot provided a comprehensive package including low-cost, long-term loans, assistance from an independent energy adviser, and the convenience of repaying monthly loan obligations on their electric or natural gas utility bill. Not only did pilot project participants undertake deeper upgrades than their counterparts in other local energy efficiency programmes, but they also made the decision to take action more quickly.

The pilot project attracted national attention and was the recipient of a US$20 million federal grant. The programme now is well under way and thousands of homes have been ‘weatherised’. The City started the programme, but quickly realised it would be more successful as a non-profit organisation, so Clean Energy Works Oregon was born. The organisation now offers services statewide.

Clean Energy Works Oregon goes beyond traditional energy saving programmes by focusing on the social side of sustainability via a Community Workforce Agreement. This agreement was the first of its kind in the USA. It set specific high standards for hiring local workers, especially women, veterans and minority contractors. It established a higher minimum wage, and required that workers receive health insurance or additional wages in lieu of coverage.


Solarize Portland!

In 2010, the first ‘Solarize’ campaign started as a grassroots effort to help residents overcome the financial and logistical barriers to installing solar energy systems on their homes. What began in one neighbourhood quickly caught on with residents across the city. With technical assistance from the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Energy Trust of Oregon, neighbours organised a bulk purchase of solar electric systems and negotiated a volume discount.

About 1,500 solar systems have been installed as a result of this project, and more than a dozen other American cities have started their own Solarize programmes.


Recycling and composting: beating the plateau

In 2011, Portland took the bold step of shifting to a household garbage collection every other week, continuing the weekly recycling collection, and adding weekly food compost to the garden debris regularly picked up. This change resulted in a dramatic 38 per cent reduction in residential garbage.

Portland began weekly household recycling collection more than 20 years ago. Participation has always been strong, yet in recent years household recycling had hit a plateau of about 60 per cent. While this is more than double what most cities recycle, Portland wanted to take it to the next level. The City Council established a goal to recycle 75 per cent of all commercial and residential waste by 2015. Commercial waste recycling is currently at about 70 per cent.

"The City Council established a goal to recycle 75 per cent of all commercial and residential waste by 2015"

To make sure the programme ran smoothly, advertising and direct communication with households took place for several months before the change began. Each household received a free countertop food waste bucket. In addition, each household already had three kerbside containers – one for garbage, one for recycling, and one for garden debris. With the new programme, all food (meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit, etc.) and food-soiled paper can now be placed in with the garden debris. T

he debris and food waste is taken to a few large sites, composted and then sold to farmers, landscapers and residents as quality compost, a valuable product from what would have been waste just a few years ago. Waste reduction, recycling and composting are powerful tools for reducing carbon and methane emissions.


What’s next for Portland?

Achieving an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 remains a very ambitious goal. Proposed new efforts on the horizon include:

  • More bikeways and an additional seven miles of light rail
  • Enhanced energy efficiency programmes
  • New rules for energy performance disclosure for commercial buildings
  • More solar and wind power generation
  • Investments in district-scale energy systems and community-owned solar energy installations
  • Improved zoning and a new comprehensive plan that focuses on creating more connected, 20-minute neighbourhoods
  • More technical assistance for companies pursuing sustainable operations
  • The City’s first climate preparedness plan.

Portland’s success relies on its strong partnerships among residents, businesses, charitable and academic institutions, and other governments. Together these individuals and organisations work as a catalyst for action, as they continue to seek new partnerships with cities throughout the world.

Susan Anderson

Susan Anderson

Susan Anderson, Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, leads urban design, planning and code development for Portland, and builds partnerships to advance energy efficiency, solar, green building, clean energy technologies, waste reduction, composting and recycling, toxics reduction, sustainable food, and historic preservation citywide. In the early 90s, she led the development of the first local government Climate Action Plan in the United States. Susan has presented at over 100 venues nationally and internationally on sustainable urban development. She has held director-level positions in the public and private sector, and has a B.A. in Economics, B.A. in Environmental Science and Masters of Urban and Regional Planning.

Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability

Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, through partnerships and collaboration, provides: Citywide strategic and comprehensive land use planning; neighborhood, district, economic, historic and environmental research, planning and urban design; policy and services to advance energy efficiency, green building, waste reduction, composting and recycling, solar and renewable energy use, and local sustainable food production; as well as actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change.