Archive for April, 2010

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A One Stop Shop for Sutainability?

April 27, 2010

GreenToolsImageThis is a unique opportunity for exercising collaboration and creativity about creating sustainable communities…  It’s also your one-stop shop to learn about the most cutting-edge topics… – including the unveiling of GreenTools’ “Toolkit2” – which will become every municipality’s favorite sustainability planning tool this year!

Announcement for the GreenTools Government Confluence, May 5, 2010 co-sponsored by King County GreenTools and Cascadia Green Building Council.

It is encouraging that Cascadia Green Building Council focuses on communities and not solely on buildings. The topics in its GreenTools Government Confluence (co-sponsored with Washington’s King County)–Living Buildings, Affordable Housing, Existing Building Stock, Low Impact Development, Eco-Districts and District Energy, Green Building Financials, Urban Food Production, Social Equity—are important parts of sustainable urbanism.

But I am not sure that the Confluence covers all the bases or is, as advertised, a “one-stop shop.” Let’s take a look at how one community that has worked hard to reach the front of the pack in sustainability ratings got there.

What if…

What if a community could point to these accomplishments in comparing itself with its own 1990 levels?

• Transit Ridership:  Up 85 percent

• Bike Commutes: Quadrupled

• Vehicle Miles Traveled: Down 7 percent per capita

• Untreated stormwater entering streams and rivers:  Down by 64 percent

• Dollars staying in the local economy:  Up by $800 million calculated on car travel savings alone. [i]

Would that community be moving in the right direction to address both structural change in the economy and climate change?  Would it be moving toward a more sustainable, perhaps more prosperous future?  The above is actual data for Portland from 2005 compared with 1990.

Nationally renowned economist Joe Cortright believes that because Portland has planned for density, arranged land uses more compactly and provided transit alternatives to a wide range of neighborhoods, Portlanders,

… compared to other urban Americans, drive less, take shorter trips, use transit more often, and purchase more green vehicles.  And far from individual or social self-denial, these choices have produced a tangible green dividend for the region – more than a billion dollars in savings on out-of-pocket spending for transportation, as well as another $1.5 billion savings in time.

Cortright points out that this reduction in vehicle miles traveled stimulates the local economy because the time and money saved by less driving produces more demand for other local goods and services.

Doug Farr, Architect and Author, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature echoes Cortright in his keynote address for the National League of Cities last year in Portland:

Portland’s unique status is the result of a range of investments in and policies promoting a sustainable yet distinctively urban way of life. These elements – which include transit, land use, bicycling use, high density development, green building and recycling – combine to form a culture and knowledge base that perpetuates Portland’s sustainable lifestyle.

My point here is that we cannot address community sustainability without addressing both the land use-transportation connection and some of the finer issues of urban design that allow people to get out of their automobiles.

What’s Missing. . .

Based on the opinion of the nationally respected commentators above that much of Portland’s sustainability reputation is based upon its transportation and land use connection, let’s ask whether the Confluence is missing any important points for making a community sustainable.  Might it be missing a Sprawl Repair Kit or a Complete Streets or a Transit-Oriented Communities session?  Might it be missing any focus on urban design that makes communities walkable.  Might it be missing any session on LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND)?

I will be the first to admit that Portland has a long way to go in the urban design realm and that it must be vigilant in maintaining its political will.  Its business community is calling for increased parking allowances in downtown buildings, maintaining that more onsite parking is necessary for downtown to become more competitive with the suburbs. Portland also has its share of policies that lead to poor streetscapes. It even has design firms that are willing to sacrifice on-street parking for a series of stormwater infiltration bump-outs.

Additionally, Portland’s Economic Development Strategy outlines Clean Tech as one of its four top traded sectors without giving a nod to urban designers–showing that the city is not immune to the focus on “technology will save us” mentality that has swept the nation. But the city’s leaders obviously get it that smart community design is a major component of building a sustainable city.

Going Forward

Green Tools for communities should also give communities the kind of urban design tools to make them places where people want to walk and have destinations that allow them to meet their daily needs while doing so.  While important, the GreenTools Government Confluence can not be a community’s “one-stop shop” to sustainability if it doesn’t adequately address issues of urban design. To reduce carbon footprint more quickly, improve community health and well-being, save more money and create more local jobs, Washington communities would do well to take part in the Futurewise Series on Creating Transit-Oriented Communities as well.  All communities pursuing sustainability would do well to join the Congress for the New Urbanism 2030 Communities Campaign—a campaign to reverse the U.S. per capita increase in vehicle miles traveled and adopt LEED-ND as a municipal standard by 2030.  Finally, communities would do well to consider Sustainable Urbanism’s chapter RFQ for Sustainable Urbanist Professionals .

This post first appeared on Sustainable Industries blog on 4-24-10.

Mary Vogel

Mary Vogel is a Portland-based Congress for the New Urbanism-Accredited planning and urban design consultant offering sustainability services to local governments and private organizations.  She is a problem-solver who helping communities become more efficient and resilient, more compact and walkable, more connected to nature’s services and more prosperous and self-reliant—better prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century.


[i] Portland’s Green Dividend:  A White Paper from CEOs for Cities by Joe Cortright, July 2007, p.2.