Biophilia, Ecosystem Services and Civic EngagementMarch 2, 2010
This posting originally appeared as my Plan Green column for http://blog.sustainableindustries.com/2010/02/26/plan-green-biophilia-ecosystem-services-and-civic-engagement/
There’s been a lot of talk in Portland lately about the importance of civic engagement in creating the sustainable economy. It’s one of the six categories of our newly revised Climate Action Plan and it’s a pillar of our effort to create EcoDistricts. That’s because when a community steps up and clearly asks for it wants, the project is likely to serve it sustainably and the city and planet beyond. Unfortunately, in an era of contracting budgets, local government is not often able to support this kind of rare effort when it happens. That needs to change if we’re to build the New Economy Sustainable Industries readers are promoting.
Projects that activate what E. O. Wilson terms biophilia or “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life,” have the potential to bring the greatest number of neighbors into civic engagement toward a sustainable economy. By bringing nature into people’s daily lives, the Green Street, designed well, will enhance their commitment to live more sustainably. It should be encouraged.
Many Portland neighborhoods, including my own (Downtown), have clamored for green streets (streets that utilize and mimic nature in dealing with stormwater). But the efforts of Northwest District Association (NWDA) stand above the others.
In 2008, members of the NWDA Planning Committee Green Street Subcommittee held a meeting with the previous Mayor’s Office. Those members spent a great deal of time developing a concept plan for a “Green Street” that would stretch from Portland’s largest natural area, through the adjoining Pearl District to the Willamette River.
Pettygrove Green Street Definition
A park-like street with extensive living vegetation and natural stormwater
control, visually connecting twoNorthwest parks, Wallace and The Fields, promoting primarily bicycle and pedestrian use.
Pettygrove Green Street
A lot of skillful work earned NWDA a promise that the proposed Pettygrove Green Street would become a priority. Since then a new Mayor, Sam Adams, came into office. He is the city’s top champion of green streets—and is behind Portland City Council’s adoption of its NWDA Planning Committee. Adams specifically endorsed the Pettygrove Green Street. The head of the Bureau of Environmental Services Sustainable Stormwater Division—the person the Mayor refers to as the Green Street Czarina—endorses it too.
Now the neighborhood is being told that there is no funding available for planning and design. What funding is available is only available for construction of shovel-ready projects. The neighborhood is not daunted. Instead they are planning their next moves.
The City of Portland does as much as any local jurisdiction in the country to fund sustainable stormwater management, but it cannot find funding to fulfill its promises to this sophisticated and persistent neighborhood association. That’s one reason those of us involved in sustainable industries should be pushing for sustainable stormwater management in the next federal transportation bill.
I chose this example of civic engagement, not only because it demonstrates the kind of persistence those of us in sustainable industries need to be prepared to make in an era when capital seems scarce and budgets are being cut, but because it demonstrates what I believe is one of the first prerequisites for civic engagement toward sustainability—a realization of our connection with the earth and all living things. It’s a connection that needs to be modeled more often. This will give elected officials concrete examples of the value of investing in projects that enable nature to work for us.
The folks who are promoting the Pettygrove Green Street recognize that urban design that allows nature to play her role will bring innumerable benefits. Those “ecosystem services” are the unobtrusive foundation of daily life. By using sunken gardens filled with native wildflowers, shrubs and trees to filter stormwater, their street would keep pollutants out of the river and even become a basis for a corridor for connecting the wildlife habitat of Forest Park with that of the river. (Imagine green roofs atop all of the rooftops along the way too!) And it would allow neighbors to better connect with each other as well.
I believe that we here in the Pacific Northwest have made the most progress in the sustainable stormwater arena and that there should be more support from the federal, state and local level to build it into a sustainable industry that we export. Cascadia CNU agrees with me and has made integration of sustainable stormwater into urban design a central theme for its new chapter. Chapter hubs in Seattle and Portland will be holding tours to model sustainable stormwater sites this spring—and will be joining Transportation for America to push for sustainable stormwater treatment in the next federal transportation bill. It may be our fastest route to the kind of civic engagement that will move all of our industries forward.
Mary Vogel, a Congress for the New Urbanism accredited professional, is principal of PlanGreen a Woman Business Enterprise in the State of Oregon that seeks to bring ecosystem services to excellent urban design. She was active in developing LEED ND, the Sustainable Sites Initiative and Light Imprint New Urbanism. She is a founding member of the Cascadia Chapter of CNU and active in CNU’s national Water Initiative as well as Project for Transportation Reform.