City of Portland, Oregon

Rebecca Foon, Director, Sustainability Solutions Group
Published February 24, 2011

Case Summary
Portland has had climate change action plans in place since 1993, and its most recent Climate Change Action Plan, revised in 2009, aims for 80% reductions in emissions by 2050. With respect to inner city transportation, its targets are for 90% of residents to use bicycles for short trips. Through an integrated design process for storm water management, eco roofs, cycling, green streets and green roofs and building design and redesign, they have adopted a systems wide approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation and the implementation of sustainable development. The City of Portland demonstrates a clear commitment and creative thinking through its volunteer programs, its public/private partnerships and its collaborative planning and implementation with communities. The city is committed to supporting community building throughout all of its sustainable development and climate change initiatives, unifying the city residents around the goal of becoming a leading sustainable city. This case study demonstrated the importance of investing in education and finding leaders and experts in their specific fields who can be community advocates, building strong community support for the city’s initiatives. Portland has also shown the effectiveness of using demonstration projects, monitoring and evaluation in order to get buy-in from multiple stakeholders. It has proven through its Green to Grey infrastructure developments, that there can be significant reductions in capital improvement costs through embarking on sustainable stormwater management projects (i.e. focusing on green streets instead of replacing pipes to address sewer back ups).

Sustainable Development Characteristics
Portland aims to reduce its carbon emissions to 80% below 1990 levels, by the year 2050. The city has an interim goal to reduce carbon emission by 40%, by 2030. Portland is looking at ways to make existing buildings more efficient, along with implementing better building guidelines and sustainable elements for new buildings. The city has completed an initial analysis of the benefits and possibility of introducing district heating to the neighborhood of North Pearl. Early estimates show the possibility of a 10-70% reduction in energy emissions depending on the fuel source used.

The city is also setting goals for inner-city transportation. The goal is to have 90% of Portland residents using bicycles for short trips, by 2030. To achieve this, the city is expanding its bike lane infrastructure. The city is also implementing a “20- minute neighborhood” idea that ensures long trips by car are not necessary for residents to fulfill their basic needs. Grocery stores, pubs, restaurants, drug stores, laundromats, transit stops, and parks are all to be included in each neighborhood in the 20-minute neighborhood plan.

The city is also developing a green stormwater management plan to improve watershed health and increase social capital by beautifying the city. Over the last 10 years, the city has closely integrated green with grey infrastructure, optimizing the system. Portland has a combined sewer system designed to transport sanitary sewage and stormwater. Much of the roof drainage is plumbed into the combined sewer system causing rainwater to over flow the system. In 1991, a 20-year plan was created to address the issue and will be fully implemented in 2011. As it is more cost effective to keep stormwater out of the sewer system, green technology has become a priority for the city’s stormwater and sewer system management.

The city’s green street initiative manages stormwater by removing the impervious surfaces along the streets of Portland, exposing the soil. Under this initiative, the city is bringing in additional soil. The city has already implemented this initiative to 900 streets and is planning to green another 900 city streets. The city has a Green Street Steward Program designed to engage and involve the public in the overall maintenance of the green streets initiative. The city also plans to have 43 acres of eco roofs on buildings by 2012 as well as to plant 80,000 new trees. The city’s Eco Roof Incentive program pays up to $5 a square foot to owners and developers. There is also a green building policy for city buildings, implemented in 2009, enforcing requirements for green roofs for both new construction and retrofits. Portland’s green infrastructure developments are multi-beneficial, benefiting the community (livability, street design, bicycle and pedestrian safety, health), watershed health, river health, and their integrated approach is helping to break down departmental silos.

Critical Success Factors
The strong support from neighborhood associations, advocacy groups, the Mayor, and local government has been critical to Portland’s overall success with its sustainable development agenda. The green stormwater management plan is successful due to strong citizen involvement and advocacy. The city’s regulations have been fundamental in improving the quality of the river and addressing storm water management in response to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permits. The city has integrated improving the river health, stormwater management, and watershed health with green infrastructure projects. The city’s bureaus must monitor and report on their green initiatives’ progress annually. Demonstration projects are also regarded as a critical factor in obtaining city-wide support for the city’s various green initiatives.

A collaborative approach is integral to they City of Portland’s working culture, which helps to get sustainable initiatives off the ground. The city bureaus work together to enhance the overall success of the city’s green initiatives. For example, the stormwater management group brought together key players including senior managers from different bureaus to develop standard specifications for use across city departments.

Community Contact Information
Rhetta Drennan
City of Portland
Environmental Services Department
Community Outreach and Involvement Specialist

What Worked?
The City of Portland has a strong outreach program and continually refines its tools based on feedback. The Green Building Department gives 100 presentations a year to the general public. The department’s ‘fix it fairs’ are held in low-income neighborhoods to give workshops on simple retrofits. Portland also has a community outreach program to highlight its eco roofs and green streets initiatives; city staff reach out to public and individual owners to educate, motivate and gain their support. With residential buy-in, street parking has been reduced, which is an important factor for the success of the green streets initiative. The city works closely with Portland State University including collaborating with the Urban Studies Department to research and monitor the impacts of eco roofs and solar panels, as well as different community engagement techniques.

Through extensive modeling, the city has determined how much stormwater needs to be removed from its sewer system. The city’s disconnection program has successfully reduced the amount of rainwater entering the city’s sewers. Volunteer groups and organizations are disconnecting thousands of down spouts from houses throughout the city to allow rainwater to penetrate soil and flowerbeds. The city has been partnering with schools to create rain gardens and is looking into creating bio swells throughout the city’s parking lots. These initiatives have been extremely cost effective for the city as it allows sewer pipes to eliminate upsizing to handle rainwater runoff.

City officials consider it important to conduct on-site visits to each neighborhood to detail the actual landscape of the streets and note the site conditions including conditions of curbs, overhead power lines, the trees at the given location, and the adjacent property use. Gathering specific data has been instrumental in knowledgeably discussing a neighborhood’s needs with its residents, and developing designs under the green streets initiative, which make sense for the residents.

Solarize Portland is an idea that was developed through a neighborhood association in Portland. The community collaborated and, with technical assistance provided by the city, issued a request for proposals to install solar panels in the neighborhood. The community received a lower price by working collaboratively. Three other communities in Portland have now used the same collaborative process and installed solar panels.

Small Trips Portland is a program designed to help people learn ways to reduce their driving through outreach programs including telemarketing and door-to-door communication. This is a low cost program with a large impact, reducing single vehicle occupancy trips by 8-10%. A large cycling culture has emerged in Portland over the last few years.

What Didn’t Work?
In the beginning stages, city officials experienced difficulty in obtaining buy-in from the different city departments regarding the green stormwater initiatives, as it was an innovative and creative idea with which colleagues were unfamiliar. Officials needed to demonstrate the science behind the benefits and brought external experts with the knowledge and science backgrounds to the discussions on their various sustainable development and climate change initiatives.

In the initial design stage, the city encountered problems with individual green street designs. The city constantly monitors performance and modifies the green street designs, incorporating the best vegetation and planting designs. An integrated design process has been fundamental to the overall success of their green initiatives.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources
The city estimates it is more cost effective to keep stormwater out of the sewers than build new grey infrastructure, and therefore is prioritizing green technologies. Planting trees, building eco roofs, bio swales, rain gardens and creating green streets reduces peak flows in the city. Maintenance costs, however, can be expensive due to sediment issues and maintaining the health of the plants. The experience with the city’s green initiatives shows, however, that maintenance costs are lower than projected. There’s an enormous amount of interest in the city’s green initiatives from the public and people have been eager to volunteer. While slow to initially involve large number of volunteers, the city has now created a volunteer maintenance program, the Green Street Steward Program, which helps reduce maintenance costs. The combined sewer overflow controls projects are projected to cost $1.4 billion.

Portland funds its construction projects through revenue bonds (borrowed funds) and pays the debt service and principle on the bonds through the revenues from the city’s sewer and stormwater rates. Eighty-five to ninety percent of the capital improvement projects are funded by borrowed funds. The city’s green stormwater management initiatives are financed as part of the capital improvement program and funded as operational expenditures.

The city works together through both public and private partnerships to coordinate and manage the many different elements of its green initiatives. The Portland Development Commission provides funds towards major retrofits and new LEED construction projects. A green roof fund has been developed from the capital improvement funds, allocating $5 a square foot towards green roof development projects. The city is also trying to provide incentives for people to install swales on private property with city operating funds.

Research Analysis
This case study was prepared using in-depth personal interviews with city officials from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and from the Department of Environmental Services, City of Portland. A review of government documents, literature and websites was completed as background research. Interviewees were selected based on their involvement and leadership in guiding the City of Portland through its sustainability initiatives. Open-ended interviews were conducted including questions concerning the city’s key challenges and successes with regards to sustainable development. They were also asked to provide insights into replicating similar models in the Canadian context.

Detailed Case Background Description
The City of Portland has a decentralized form of government. The Mayor and four other members of city council, each responsible for different departments, together make up the council and vote on ordinances to make the city laws. The Mayor designates who is responsible for each agency.

The Mayor’s duties are split amongst the four other city council members. Consequently, there in not one solely accountable; the Mayor does not assume all of the responsibilities. Coordination is a challenge as people report to different members of city council. Council approves any amendments or implementation of city legislation or city codes. The Mayor and the other four members of council each have a vote. Three to five votes are needed for an ordinance to move forward.

The city consists of 20 boroughs each with its own sustainability plan. The city has developed a climate plan and is committed to identifying better ways of quantifying land use planning on carbon emissions. Up until two years ago, the climate plan was the responsibility of the Energy Office (the first plan was created in 1993). Over the years, the Energy Office and the Waste and Recycling Office were combined, then developed into the Office of Sustainable Development. In 2009, the Sustainability Development Office and the Planning Office merged to create one office – the Planning and Sustainability Bureau with a staff of 110.

Portland has a collaborative and dynamic governance model, whereby different stakeholders and departments come together to forge partnerships and push sustainable plans and initiatives forward. Although Portland does not have a ‘sustainability plan’ per se, the city is a leading example of implementing major sustainable development initiatives and climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. This illustrates that the city is committed to implementation, showing results, and pushing its sustainable development agenda forward quickly, while not loosing too much time in the planning stages.

Portland has a Climate Action Plan, revised in 2009, which builds on earlier climate protection plans from 1993 and 2001, and on the 2007 recommendations of the Peak Oil Task Force. Created in 2006, the Peak Oil Task Force is a citizen advisory group examining the impact of rising oil and gas prices on Portland and its residents. A Climate Action Plan Steering Committee guides the implementation of the Climate Action Plan. There are eight target areas that Portland is working within to achieve their overall goal of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The target areas are: buildings and energy; urban form and mobility; consumption and solid waste; urban forestry and natural systems; food and agriculture; community engagement; climate change preparation; and, local government operations. The plan outlines the total percentage of the city’s emissions each sector is allowed in order to move toward a 40% emissions reduction target, by 2030. By 2030, the consumption and solid waste sector will be allowed the highest emissions (35% of all emissions), and city and council operations will be allowed the lowest emissions (2% of total city emissions). The overall magnitude of emissions reductions, the scale of economic and community benefits, and the ability of local governments to facilitate the implementation process are key challenges the city is addressing. The city has not currently done an assessment of climate vulnerabilities nor created an adaptation plan. The city is experiencing drastic changes in precipitation patterns and the Water Bureau has undertaken extensive research around water supply and demands.

The City of Portland is committed to watershed health, improving water quality before it gets released to the treatment plant, stormwater management, floodplain management, salmon restoration, tree and native shrub planting and habitat enhancement. Through green infrastructure, the city is managing stormwater runoff at the source and removing as much water as possible from the combined sewer system. The city treats a large percentage of the street pollutants through its vegetated stormwater facilities or living systems (the first green facility went into the ground 10 years ago). New development or redevelopment over 500 square feet must adhere to the Portland stormwater management manual; this is now part of city code. The downspout disconnect programs diverts a billion gallons of water per year from the sewage system. The program has inspired community building throughout the city. Boy Scouts troops, schools and community members volunteer for the disconnection work. Some are taking it one step further by building rain gardens. The city has completed intensive modeling and is working closely with property owners to complete the biggest urban water enhancement project of its kind in Portland. Through the Private Property Program, the city works with property owners to build stormwater retrofit projects on private property.

Communication programs and media coverage on the city’s green initiatives, as well as door-to-door campaigns help citizens understand the various city initiatives and engage them. Bike tours, community events including build your own rain garden events, focus groups and school presentations are held. As well as art exhibits travel around the city’s coffee shops and art museums. The city works closely with the residents in each neighborhood on their green street designs and the residents choose the plants, trees and bulbs. This helps to create a collective feeling of ownership and commitment to the street project.

In 2001, the City of Portland developed a green building policy for city buildings requiring a minimum of LEED gold certification for new construction, as well as performance targets around waste and water. The policy has been updated over the past years. The policy has led to increased LEED certification with currently over 150 LEED buildings in the city. The Portland Development Commission requires all projects receiving city funding and urban renewal money to meet LEED silver certification. The city is working on a green building policy focusing on existing commercial buildings and is developing a benchmarking disclosure initiative to track energy and water use and waste generation of all commercial real estate. Through federal stimulus dollars, Portland is piloting a seed fund that allows homeowners to borrow low interest loans for retrofits and pay them off through their energy bill savings. Financing is available to qualified homeowners; 500 homeowners are currently participating in this pilot project. City plans include making this program available to the commercial sector as well.

The Portland Sustainability Institute, a not-for-profit organization, in partnership with the city, is currently leading a pilot taking green building to a district level. Through state, federal and community collaboration, the project is addressing stormwater, energy and transportation issues in five eco districts. The city’s goal is the development of district energy within the five eco districts. Portland State University has developed a district steam system, and the city has developed a methane digester (micro turbines) at the sewer treatment plant.

The city has invested heavily in light rail and, in 2001, added a three-mile line streetcar. Since the streetcar development, Portland’s local streetcar manufacturers have gone back into business. The city is focusing on creating walkable neighborhoods and is mapping various features of neighborhoods, taking note of where key streets do not connect, which neighborhoods do not have sidewalks, as well as land-use implications. The city is educating and informing the public on how density increases services and walkability; the city is currently engaged in a public process with community residents around creating walkable communities.

Portland is also committed to a five-year strategy to end homelessness (the city is currently in the third year of the strategy). An interim city-wide plan will be released next year.

Adaptability to Case Studies in Canada
This case study highlights the following elements as essential to effective implementation of sustainability planning at the municipal level in Canada.

Integrating collaborative and dynamic approaches and ensuring effective communication between government departments.

Integrating multiple efforts between government departments, while using one stream of funding in order to develop and implement sustainability initiatives.

Facilitating integrated design processes.

Ensuring on going public engagement and community outreach, helping to build community.

Integrating sustainable development into policy and decision-making.

Using practical demonstration projects to educate and inform the population, and to build synergies.

Bringing in community leaders and experts.

Ensuring ongoing monitoring and reporting of all sustainability initiatives.

Strategic Questions

  1. Can Canadian municipalities implement an urban green stormwater management plan similar to the City of Portland?
  2. Can Canadian municipalities benefit from collecting stormwater/sewage rates?
  3. Would it be of benefit for Canadian municipalities to implement initiatives like the 20-minute walkable neighborhoods initiative?
  4. In addition to managing rain water with impervious surfaces what other impacts could the city's green street initiative have?
  5. Portland has been thinking about and planning for climate change since 1993, what does this mean for the rest of the cities in North America in terms of being able to adapt to climate change?
  6. Is the target of 90% of residents to use bicycles for short trips practical? How could a strategy like this be implemented?
  7. How has the city been able to unify the city's residents around the goal of becoming a leading sustainable city.

Resources and References
City of Portland. Bureau of Environmental Services. “Ecoroof, Portland’s Ecoroof Program.” Programs. n.d. Available: Retrieved October 26, 2010.

City of Portland. Bureau of Environmental Services. “Portland Green Street Program.” Programs. Available: Retrieved October 26, 2010.

City of Portland. Bureau of Environmental Services. “Grey to Green.” What We Do. Available: Retrieved October 26, 2010.

City of Portland. Bureau of Environmental Services. “Sustainable Stormwater Program.” Programs. Available: Retrieved October 26, 2010.

City of Portland. The City of Portland and Multonmah County Climate Action Plan 2009, October 2009. Available: Retrieved October 26, 2010.

City of Portland. Clean river rewards program. Available: Retrieved December 22, 2010

City of Portland. Downspout disconnection program. Available: Retrieved December 23, 2010.

City of Portland. Ecoroof policies. Available: Retrieved December 23, 2010.

City of Portland. Green street policy. Available: Retrieved December 23, 2010.

City of Portland. Grey to Green initiative. Available: Retrieved December 23, 2010.

City of Portland. Private property retrofit program. Available: Retrieved December 23, 2010.

City of Portland. Sustainable Stormwater management homepage. Available: Retrieved December 24, 2010.

Sustainable Sites initiative. Available: Retrieved December 24, 2010.

Sustainable stormwater management program. Available: Retrieved December 24, 2010.