This U.S. City Is a Sustainable Utopia—Here’s What They Have Accomplished & Where They Are Headed

Jun 2, 2016 by

Local Peace Economy

They have set out to reduce emissions by 80 percent.

Photo Credit: Zhu Difeng /

The following is an excerpt from the new book Can a City Be Sustainable? by Brian Holland & Juan Wei (Island Press, 2016): 

The City of Portland has created and implemented strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, it became the first city in the United States to adopt a comprehensive carbon dioxide reduction strategy. In 2001, Multnomah County (the most populous of Oregon’s 36 counties) and the City of Portland (which is the seat of Multnomah County and Oregon’s largest city) passed their joint Local Action Plan on Global Warming.

In 2009, Multnomah County and Portland adopted an updated climate action plan (CAP) with expanded categories for actions and more-rigorous reduction targets. The plan identifies 93 action steps in 8 categories to reach its emissions reduction goals, ranging from curbside pickup of residential food scraps to expanding the city’s streetcar and light rail system.

Thanks to strong government leadership, science-informed policy making has long been practiced in Portland. To avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change, the city set its latest emissions reduction target by referring to current science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Portland adopted an 80 percent emissions reduction target by 2050, with an interim goal of 40 percent by 2030. In line with IPCC recommendations, 1990 was set as the baseline year for the reduction target.

Expanding Transit and Biking Options

Portland has developed a broad set of policies and programs to achieve its ambitious emissions reduction targets. Some measures far predate the concern about the changing climate but offer important tools in this fight. As early as the 1970s, Oregon adopted a statewide land-use policy to prevent urban sprawl by establishing urban growth boundaries. Guided by this policy, cities were encouraged to develop more-dense urban neighborhoods while preserving farmland and wilderness. This successful policy set the stage for a series of effective greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs in Portland.

With a focus on development that aims to provide accessible transportation options to people within its city limits, Portland has made the expansion of streetcar and light rail systems a priority in the past several decades. Since 1990, Portland has added four major light rail lines (with a fifth under construction) and the Portland Streetcar. Construction is nearing completion on the nation’s first multi-modal bridge that is off-limits to private automobiles, which will carry bikes, pedestrians, and public vehicles over the Willamette River.

In addition, Portland now has 513 kilometers of bikeways, including 95 kilometers of neighborhood greenways; 291 kilometers of bike lanes, cycle tracks, and buffered bike lanes; and 127 kilometers of dedicated bike paths. Portland received the League of American Bicyclists’ highest rating for being a bicycle-friendly community. In addition, Bicycling magazine designated Portland as the number-one bike-friendly city in the United States.

As a result of these efforts, Portland drivers travel fewer vehicle miles than those in most other similarly sized cities. Transit ridership has more than doubled in the past 20 years (totaling 100 million rides in 2013), and, today, at least 12,000 more people bike to work daily in Portland than in 1990. Six percent of Portlanders commute to work by bike, nine times the national average. Although the population of Portland has increased 31 percent, gasoline sales have decreased 7 percent compared to 1990.

Building Greener and Smarter

In addition to providing more transportation options, Portland has implemented a series of clean energy and energy efficiency programs. A strong focus on green buildings has led to more than 180 certified green buildings. Data for 2012 show that Portland had more LEED Platinum-certified buildings than any other city in the United States. The city also is expanding the use of solar energy in its facilities and neighborhoods; the number of solar energy systems has increased from only 1 in 2002 to 2,775 today.

Portland’s energy efficiency program, Clean Energy Works (CEW), was started in 2009 with 500 pilot homes. Aimed at reducing energy consumption by 10–30 percent, CEW provides long-term, low-interest financing to homeowners for whole-home energy upgrades, with on-bill utility repayment of the loan. Because of its innovation and success, CEW attracted $20 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to scale up the pilot into a statewide effort.

The program has realized multifaceted benefits. As of April 2014, more than 3,700 homes in Oregon had been upgraded for energy efficiency. These upgrades help avoid more than 5,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, equal to powering nearly 500 homes for one year. Meanwhile, the program has generated $70 million in economic activity and created some 428 jobs.

Stormwater, the runoff created by rainfall, is another challenge faced by modern cities. Like many older cities, Portland has a combined stormwater and wastewater system, which has resulted in the pollution of local rivers and streams when high storm volume causes the system to overflow. To protect rivers and natural systems, Portland voted to enforce a series of policies that promote green infrastructure, including requiring all new construction to manage 100 percent of stormwater on-site through structures such as green streets and green roofs.

Thanks to these new policies and the city’s ongoing promotion of green roofs, a number of buildings and structures in Portland now have living, vegetated roof systems that decrease runoff and offer aesthetic, air quality, habitat, and energy benefits. Portland is now home to more than 390 green roofs, covering nearly 8 hectares of rooftops. The city also has invested heavily in green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and bioswales (landscaping elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water), with more than 1,200 such facilities in the public right-of-way. Portland uses green infrastructure to manage millions of liters of stormwater each year.

Recycling, Saving Energy, and Creating Jobs

Portland also is a national leader in recycling efforts. It has a 70 percent overall recycling rate for residential and commercial waste. Due to the addition of a weekly food scrap composting service and a shift to every-other-week garbage collection in 2011, residential garbage taken to the landfill has decreased by more than 35 percent, and collection of compostable materials has more than doubled.

Leading by example, Portland also has been setting more-aggressive emissions reduction targets for its own operations. Through efficiency improvements, including traffic lights, water and sewer pumps, and building lighting systems, the city has realized energy savings of more than $6.5 million a year, which adds up to around 30 percent savings in Portland’s annual electricity costs.

Contrary to the widely held assumption that pursuing emissions reduction goals will likely slow down the local economy, the experience in Portland shows that climate actions have reduced the cost of doing business and created more-equitable, healthier, and livable neighborhoods. The number of green jobs is growing in Portland. More than 12,000 jobs in the city can be attributed to the clean technology sector, including green building, energy efficiency, and clean energy. Portland also is a national leader in innovative bicycling product manufacturing and services.

Portland’s emissions reduction programs have been successful. Local greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were 11 percent below 1990 levels (equal to a 32 percent per capita reduction), and Portland homes now use 11 percent less energy per person than in 1990. With all of these efforts and achievements, the City of Portland became one of the 16 local jurisdictions across the United States to receive recognition as a Climate Action Champion from the White House in 2014. In the same year, Portland was among 10 cities worldwide to receive the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Award for its Healthy Connected City strategy. The award honors cities all over the world for excellence in urban sustainability and leadership in the fight against climate change.

Moving Forward

Multnomah County and the City of Portland are in the process of reviewing and revising their 2009 climate action plan. Building on previous successes and lessons learned, the 2015 update incorporates recommendations for action and social equity into the development process.

For the energy program, the city is planning to advance net-zero energy buildings and to require energy disclosure for large commercial buildings. The focus on solar and low-carbon fuel sources will remain, and efforts to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles will be enhanced.

Portland has adopted a set of Sustainable City Principles to guide daily operations by city agencies, officials, and staff. In addition to promoting greener choices in city procurement, these principles seek to balance environmental quality, economic prosperity, and social equity, and to encourage thinking beyond first costs and consideration of the long-term, cumulative impacts of policy and financial decisions. They encourage innovation and cross-bureau collaboration; engage residents and businesses in the promotion of more-sustainable practices; and include measures in favor of a diverse city workforce and ensuring equitable services to communities of color and other underserved communities.

The city now is seeking reductions in global lifecycle emissions from consumption. Lifecycle emissions are those created by the production and use of products, from furniture to computers to appliances. For this, Portland has taken the innovative step of measuring lifecycle emissions generated through consumption by households, public agencies, and businesses. The consumption-based inventory revealed that Portland’s global greenhouse gas emissions are double the in-boundary emissions traditionally measured.

Portland is planning to increase its efforts in this area and to find an effective way to communicate these findings to the local community. There also is a need to help businesses and residents better understand that their consumption choices contribute significantly to global emissions.

Portland recognizes that cities around the country and the world need to collaborate more in order to succeed in their efforts to reduce urban climate impacts. In June 2014, Portland was one of 17 cities worldwide to launch the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which is committed to achieving aggressive long-term carbon reduction goals. The Alliance aims to strategize how leading cities can work together to attain emissions reductions more effectively and efficiently.

From Can a City Be Sustainable? (State of the World) by The Worldwatch Institute which was adapted from the report Measuring Up 2015 from Mike Steinhoff et. al (Washington, DC: WWF-US and ICLEI USA, 2013). Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.

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