Portland and Energy Transition

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.

  • Oh do I wish that Toronto would follow this lead. We might have been heading there barely with a major light rail transit plan. Our new mayor though is committed to the free flow of the automobile and has scuttled the play (to be replaced by only one light rail line instead of 4, and a major and yet unfunded subway expansion on an underused line).

    Civic politics aside, it seems there is still a political class around the world that doesn’t want to talk about the cost of fuel and the effect it has on communities.

  • The Dude

    Native Oregonian, resident in the North Willamette Valley since 1985. By my calc the Oregon side of the Portland urban area consumed about 61 kb/d of gasoline in August, hence the miles and miles of stop-and-go traffic – did you do all your travelling around the area in the middle of the night or something? In 4 years PDX won’t be off the petroleum teat by any means, maybe they’ll slobber on it a bit less. When I lived in Portland 1998-2005 I biked/bused/walked exclusively and am quite familiar with the MT system’s shortcomings. It simply doesn’t always get you where you’re going at an appointed hour, as should be obvious, along with the usual other caveats – zombies, being packed in like sardines, etc.

    I’m getting a good laugh at the video’s depiction of the fancy GPS Android app letting you pick the perfect bus to take at a given hour – wow, I used to do that just by glancing at both of two bus schedules, huh. Knowing precisely how late your bus will be, golly, that’s killer tech too. I can imagine getting a chuckle from drivers by razzing them about how they’re 20 seconds late to a stop, otherwise what use is that? Maybe your bus isn’t going to show, so walk? All 5 miles? Ouch. Or you could call in late. Or have employers that understand MT’s shortcomings.

    All of these Green initiatives are great, but most of Metro are pretty oblivious to it.

  • Anonymous

    I watched the video, though despite their embrace of technology, which is pretty cool, it doesn’t factor in Peak Oil. I tend to side with Jim Kunstler when it comes to technology. He has been noted to say, the Web, cell phones may not be around that much longer, including the electric grid. And I have to agree. As I’m sitting here making a post. 🙂

    The best take away was the walkable communities. That will be a major requirement for all, in the near future.

  • Nice to see how you incorporated that video into your post.

  • Nice to see how you incorporated that video into your post.
    Despite the obvious rah-rah solution of the technology it does show an attempt to supply smarts to issues affecting a community. Some of that thinking can span future dystopian outlooks.

  • I’ve always admired the ‘idea’ of Portland, particularly the land use policies that have shaped the city over the past 30 years. 25 years ago I seriously considered moving there but the cost of living & lack of employment opportunities for a kid out of college changed my mind.I know a lot of people from Portland, who after college came to the Midwest as there wasn’t much work to be had in their home economy. There is a bike culture certainly, but the auto is still pervasive.

  • gregor.us

    Thanks for the data points. I think it’s important to remember that my views about Portland are on a relative basis, to the position of other world–and in particular–American cities. Most American cities have a long, long way to go to get to the place Portland has already achieved, don’t you think?


  • gregor.us

    I have hopes for Toronto. The rail grid (legacy) is pretty good. The political class in most countries remains inextricably bound to the Auto-Highway complex, as that system is well embedded into construction and labor markets. Transition is hard.

  • gregor.us

    One theory is that we have already harvested a majority of the energy/industrial savings possible by the use of IT and telecom. I’m agnostic on that question. I try to be pro technology however as an incremental influence at the margin of the much harder, more intractable fact of the built environment. With all its wasted (but still embedded) energy.

  • gregor.us

    Thanks for the tip. Yes I’m not starry eyed about this stuff. But I do like to believe technology can help at the margin.

  • Anonymous

    When I was in Toronto several years ago I was impressed that the local health food stores were selling veggies from California. Sure, they have a subway and street cars, but they also have enormous highways and aging nuclear reactors powering the skyscrapers. Transition is a nice euphemism, collapse is probably more accurate. It will take a lot of energy to keep Toronto from freezing in the winter especially now that Canadian natural gas has probably peaked.

    Portland Metro (a conglomeration of local governments) just rubberstamped approval of a new “Sunrise Freeway” superhighway to get to the newest suburbs – over a billion dollars for a new eight lane road. The Portland area is planning to spend about twelve billion dollars for new and wider highways for the rest of the oil age, although economic contraction and the end of the Alaska Pipeline’s flow will probably truncate their plans.

    The idea that Portland is supposedly getting off of oil has no real connection to how that city functions. Sorry. They have a nice rail system and farmers markets, but it’s a small amount of their total energy and food supply. It takes a never ending flow of food delivery trucks to keep Portland fed. And what about Peak Electricity? That’s either here or near, after the multiple meltdowns of Fukushima. Portland is part of the western power grid, which is half powered by coal.

    Mark Robinowitz
    Eugene (other end of the Willamette Valley)

  • Jennifer Fulford

     Am moving there this summer from Asheville, NC. 

  • Anonymous

    There is a lot of hype about Portland. I spent a year there fresh out of college and couldn’t get any foothold in the job market. That was 2005. Had to move back east.

    The climate is awesome. You can live without AC and just a little heat. Ocean, river, mountains, and a big city all within easy reach. The transit is excellent for a city it’s size and the biking is a phenomenon. However I still noticed a huge amount of what I would call California Car Culture. You see people with rare antique fancy cars there all the time – like you never do on the east coast; People for whom you can tell – their life and identity is bound up with their car. On the east coast people would just buy a small fuel efficient car and be done with it. Don’t get me wrong, the historical urban fabric is wonderful. The small blocks are very pedestrian friendly. But like most of America west of the Mississippi, the vast majority of the Portland region was built firmly in the post WWII golden age of the automobile. Another thing I didn’t like about Portland was how incredibly white it is for a major city. In Europe that would feel normal but coming from the east coast it just feels weird. People are very willing to make eye contact, but I found people rather clickish, snobby and hard to befriend beneath that veneer of warmth.

    Boston – where you live Gregor, is a great city too. But I wouldn’t want to discourage you from Portland. If I could have found work, I could happily live there. The trees are so lush. Summers are awesome. The grey rainy winters are good for reading, writing and cafes. 

  • I live here, and have to agree that it is substantially over-rated.  It’s also undergoing Manhattanization, as the former suburbanites return to the core and the working class gets pitched out to the lesser burbs, which are fairly sprawling.  Urban area voters (including the burbs, of course) just voted down buying new buses for TriMet, the embattled, crumbling transit agency.  The light rail is just a start.  To become truly liberating, it needs twice as many lines and trains.  Not likely to happen.

    The culture is perhaps a bit ahead of the rest of the country.  A cycling breakthrough is conceivable, when things get bad.  Certainly, there lots of opportunity to re-establish rainfall farming, if one could ever reclaim the god-damned grass seed farms hogging up the valley.

  • Richard Elder

    I went to University in Portland four decades ago at the very start of Portland’s effort to become  a people friendly urban environment.  Those four decades have witnessed seemingly unlimited access to cheap energy and to credit, but we now face both the end of the petroleum age and the collapse of finance debt capitalism.  With all the progress made in Portland toward becoming a model city, is it more than 10% of the way toward sustainability in the world we will see in emerge over the next few decades?  I don’t think so.

    Collapse will treat Portland more favorably than it will a Phoenix or LA,  precisely because of the same reasons the pioneers crossed the plains to settle here— mild climate and agricultural land suited to growing real food. The actual carrying capacity  of the Willamette  Valley in the post-petroleum age is probably 40% of the present population.  That implies a catastrophic transition to sustainability, even in this most favored of locations.