Keeping Portland green

Portland, Oregon, is a regular feature at the top of American and worldwide green city lists. Noel Williams explores how the residents of the city are driving sustainability by doing things a little differently 

Portland has a reputation as one of America's sustainability hubs.Nestled in between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascades Mountain Range in the United States’ top left-hand corner, Portland is a city that exudes green.

An hour’s drive from the beach in one direction and year-round skiing in the other, with waterfalls, rainforests, deserts and pretty much every other geographical feature in close proximity, the natural environment is a dominant feature of the city, despite its status as the West Coast’s sixth largest city.

And although it was home to the US’s first ‘Bottle Bill’ or container deposit legislation, and has pushed forward with governmental commitment to renewable energy, excellent public transport and green building initiatives, much of Portland’s sustainable vigour is down to the people that live there, who have embraced small-scale circularity in everything from coffee to the city’s famous craft beer.

This is reflected in the number of community resources there are to help with day-to-day jobs: there are paint recycling and reuse centres, at least three tool libraries and a number of Kitchen Share centres providing tools for preparing and preserving food. Reclaimed wood, metals and other materials for home improvement are available in spades.

Writing in the American Studies Journal, community cultural development consultant Bill Flood has suggested that Portland’s proliferation of local coffee roasters, independent microbreweries and pop-up grub spots ‘not only fuel the local economy, but provide important gathering places for people – very much  in the manner of traditional European “café culture”. These places aid in creating [...] “social capital”, which is essential for the development and maintenance of healthy communities.’

Notice boards and shop walls around the city talk of upcoming workshops to improve composting, fix electronics or any other circular activity you can think  of and there is a vibrant community sharing thoughts on how to greenify the home – just like Vienna, then.

Foundations of success

Chloe Lepeltier, a native of central France, was lured to Portland by its offer of an artistic, outdoorsy and sustainable lifestyle. Inspired by Portland’s green energy, she set up a blog – Conscious by Chloe – to harness the city’s active community and created Zero Waste PDX to provide tools and resources for making most of the city’s DIY sustainability culture.

Lepeltier offers weekend classes at her Northeast Portland home to show how she has incorporated zero- waste techniques into everyday life, to lead a more sustainable, but still maintainable, lifestyle (no mason jars of waste here). She has also helped to organise the Portland Zero Waste Conference, a chance to formalise the community and share lessons to keep up the sustainability momentum.

When I visit, the rest of the class is made up of Portlanders, keen to learn more about how they can use the resources on offer in the city. Over two hours we move around the house, exploring practical tips that can make little differences in every aspect of home life. It’s little ideas that can create great results, and, says Lepeltier: “In Portland, you’re never going to be the weird one, someone else will always be doing it too”.

Lepeltier says that the City of Portland government complements the community ethos with supportive policy. The Oregon Bottle Bill became the first of its kind in the US when it was introduced in 1971. After changes in 2007 and 2011 it now requires glass, plastic and metal drinks cans or bottles to carry a minimum deposit value of 10 cents. The legislation has had mixed results, but its pioneering nature is considered a feather in the city and state’s environmental cap.

The City of Portland’s Sustainability at Work programme matches businesses with a sustainability advisor and provides a variety of services to conserve resources, boost efficiency and improve workplaces for employees, all for free. It also awards a tiered certification to businesses that have proven their environmental chops.

The programme also hosts workshops and conferences throughout the year to enable businesses to network and share best practice for bringing bursts of green to their operations. “[The local government] invests in people, the future of Portland,” explains Lepeltier. “It is a green city and wants to be a green city. We had a harsh wakeup call last year with China not wanting to buy our recycling any more, because Portland prides itself on the fact that it recycles a lot. Portlanders realised that it’s been recycling wrong all along. Now the city is investing in that by making either individuals or businesses take ownership of their impact.”

At the kerbside, most residents in Portland have a service more comprehensive than the US norm: four containers for fortnightly residual waste collection and a weekly collection of glass, other recycling and organic waste. A Metro Hotline is manned throughout the day, six days a week, to answer any recycling, disposal and waste prevention questions and provides an online treasure trove of resources to ensure residents are recycling correctly.

The City is also a partner in the Master Recycler programme, which offers training on waste reduction and outreach techniques, with graduates then going on to spread the word within the community. Lepeltier is enthusiastic: “The city educates you about the system and wants you to become an agent of change, so that you’re going to educate more people in your community.” So while the city’s environmental enthusiasm may be organic, support from the government acts as fertiliser.

It’s cool to be green

Challenges are, however, on the horizon. Business in Portland is booming, and that brings with it transplants from around the country and beyond. The city’s population has grown by around 25 per cent since 2000, and the interest is pushing house prices up and changing the physical landscape as period homes are bulldozed to make way for larger condos, but it is the city’s cool and green personality that is driving the rapid influx.

One such transplant is Dresden, a tour guide in the city who moved from California two years ago. He says that as a newcomer there was real societal pressure to join in the recycling revolution: “The Portland community is adamant about leaving less of a carbon footprint. I knew before coming into the city that recycling was a world-saving practice, but I didn’t take it seriously until I saw everyone around me taking it seriously. Because I was newer to recycling then other Portland locals, I’d often have to ask my roommates if the plastic I was holding was the recyclable kind. I think what’s essential is that there’s a culture of sustainability everywhere you look.”

This article was taken from Issue 96

He points to programmes like Outdoor School, teaching kids about natural resources, and the Green Street Programme, diverting stormwater through the addition of urban green spaces, as well as the culture of upcycling that is evident throughout the city, particularly through community resources like the Rebuilding Centre. It’s hard to escape for a newbie. In fact, asking around, a common suggestion was that it is almost socially unacceptable to not be engaged with sustainability.

That will be key in maintaining momentum as massive companies, not exactly compatible with the personal eco-vibe, are moving to Portland in their droves to take advantage of the relatively low cost and high quality of life on offer. While Nike was founded just down the road, it has been joined by the likes of Adidas, Intel and Columbia with ever more headquarters arriving Downtown and in the city’s surrounding towns.

The local pressure to live green is, Lepeltier says, noticed by big business, and she suggests that these companies have brought a “burst of creativity”. Designers are flocking to the city for work, she says, and are being influenced by the environmental ethos. Flood, meanwhile, notes that key clusters for growth in the city are ‘directly related to the urban youth culture’ that is helping to drive thinking forward, as well as larger businesses blooming from that DIY culture.

Let’s hope that the new arrivals to what is being dubbed ‘Silicon Forest’ buy into the ethos that has pushed community sustainability into the heart of Portland life.