Portland, Oregon is now far enough along in its transition away from oil that by 2015 one can imagine this city being able to market and sell its own example to the rest of the world. Most of Portland’s longstanding initiatives, from public transport and the integration of the bicycle, to city agriculture, water and waste management, and use of technology are solutions that will be seen not as discretionary but necessary by mid-decade. When you study the history of this city, and its ongoing transformation as seen through the work of, say, The Portland Sustainability Institute or the Office of the Mayor, you can envision city leaders from the around the US arriving in PDX over the coming years to ask the following question: how did you do it?
Indeed, I’ve just returned from the Pacific Northwest where I concentrated my time in Portland: a waterworld of mountains, gardens, and fresh air. A unique city, which brings together a number of elements in a combination I’d never seen before, Portland reminded me of a number of places I’ve either lived or visited over the past 30 years. The older cast iron buildings recall parts of Providence, Rhode Island while the heavier industrial buildings of the same era evoke Glasgow. The topography is part California, and part Southern Colorado as smaller hills and table-mesa slope grades give way to distant mountains. The neighborhoods are overflowing with gardens, and Berkeley or Cambridge, MA architecture that mixes Victorian, Prairie, and Craftsman styles. In the neighborhoods, Portland seems to have finally broken the typical relationship between greenery and income: for, I passed through many residential neighborhoods of very modest income that contained endless shrubbery, trees, and flowers. There’s alot of oxygen in Portland.
The big presence of course is the Columbia River. At night, flying in over the city, the Columbia is an enormous expanse of dark water. Very much like flying into Logan at night, over Boston harbor. The Columbia is Portland’s conduit to Asia, and is a substantial port and waterway for the export of coal, potash and especially wheat. (Of the many good things I missed: the Port of Portland’s Behind the Scenes tour). I did however drive north one day along the river up to Longview, Washington, where there’s been a recent attempt to significantly expand coal exports. The size and scope of this river system is massive. For a nice graphical depiction of the Columbia, see the excellent work of Daniel Huffman at Something About Maps:
Finally, I think it’s obvious that Portland is now employing urban data-feedback technologies of the kind developed at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. I wrote about some of these, from the Copenhagen Wheel to other mapping and data collection, in a 2009 post, Who Gets to Optimize? See the video from Penn State Public Broadcasting, posted below, which highlights the city initiatives in this area. As my readers know, I am strongly considering relocating to Portland, Oregon for many of the reasons touched upon here. Accordingly, I’ll be writing more about the city in the months ahead. Suffice to say, as someone who has lived in the US, the UK, and New Zealand–and spent considerable time examining many other world cities–it’s clear to me that Portland is one of the few places in the world that has a jump start on the liquid fuels problem that is hitting hard now, and will hit even harder as we move further into this decade.
Images: Looking East from the Amtrak bridge over the Columbia River, between Portland and Vancouver, WA. March 2011, Gregor Macdonald. | Detail of Columbia River map, Daniel Huffman at somethingaboutmaps.com H/T @Paul Kedrosky
Further Reading: WIRED Magazine’s gateway page to articles on Portland. | Portland native and Atlantic Magazine’s Technology Editor, Alex Madrigal’s new book on the history of green technology: Powering the Dream. | The Oregon MicroEnterprise Network.