The greenest little city in the world

Leslie Carlson

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is on a mission. He’s often stated his plans to make Chicago “America’s greenest city.” Along the way, he hopes to revitalize a polluted, industrial giant of a city into a thriving metropolis that provides high-paying jobs and a high quality of life for all citizens.

Oddly enough, Mayor Daley started with tree planting. Upon becoming mayor in 1989, and upset because the many trees he remembered from his childhood had been cut down or devastated by disease, he decided to plant trees. Not just a few trees, but 400,000 of them. Roundly criticized for his foolishness (he was called the “Martha Stewart of Mayors”), he persisted. But something strange happened, as Barry Burton, a horticulturalist and member of Chicago’s Planning Department relates:

Suddenly life springs up, and there are cafés and people where there were none before. Then it becomes, let’s not just make it attractive but a healthier place. Trees reduce the heat-island effect and clean the air. Landscaping is labor intensive, so we provide a lot of jobs. That has turned into a model of economic development based on green technologies, attracting renewable-energy companies, and creating a sustainable landscaping industry.

Today, Mayor Daley has plans to make all new public buildings green (there are 1,300 such buildings in the pipeline), he’s created support for the construction of more eco-roofs (including one on top of Chicago’s City Hall) and he’s put a $100 million into a green building fund. Most importantly, however, he’s recognized the link between sustainability and economic development, creating the Chicago Center for Green Technology.

Of course, there’s another city—tucked into the rainy Northwest corner of the country—that also has a reputation for being green. This city, while much smaller than Chicago, boasts the most green buildings in the country, hundreds of businesses who run their operations in a sustainable manner and an aware, committed citizenry who recycle more and buy more hybrid cars per capita than any other municipality in the country.

This is a city that could show the country how you can combine an environmental ethos with a thriving, successful economy—what’s often called sustainable development. Yet for some unknown reason, this city isn’t doing it. It’s not going head-to-head with Chicago to become America’s greenest city.

This city, of course, is Portland.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a number of people who are working to make Portland (and Oregon) more sustainable. These include Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who’s turned the Portland Office of Sustainable Development into one of the most successful agencies of its kind. There’s also Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who runs the Oregon Sustainability Board.

Most importantly, there are the local private companies who are making money with a business model infused with sustainability; companies like Intel, Nike, Rejuvenation House Parts, Neil Kelly, Collins Pine and Hot Lips Pizza.

We just aren’t acting in any cohesive and strategic way to transform ourselves into a city that combines a sustainable ethos with economic success. Why? First, and probably foremost, it’s a controversial idea. The political leaders who move forward like Mayor Daley have to be ready to take the heat of a hot, hot kitchen.

Second, it requires us to approach economic development in a new way. But what’s the alternative? That we continue to compete for jobs with the likes of Mississippi, Mexico and Singapore? Give more and more tax breaks to companies who, when faced with a market downturn, pull up stakes for somewhere else? I’d argue that our success as city and a state should be more closely modeled on the likes of places like Chicago and the Netherlands—the places who I think will be selling the green technologies and products of the future to the rest of us.

So what’s needed? Well, we first need to re-shape the City’s economic development model, run primarily by the Portland Development Commission, into one that focuses on sustainable companies with a strong business model and the ability to provide high quality jobs. The strategic plan for the City--currently being developed by the Mayor--should have explicit sustainability goals in it, goals that reflect a focus on integrating the economy, the environment and social equity among citizens.

Our Mayor and City Council members are at a disadvantage, of course, since in Portland's Commission form of government you need three votes to make things happen. Chicago has a “strong mayor” system, which allows Mayor Daley to make decisions on his own that our Commissioners can't.

But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, or that it isn't imperative that we change with the times. "The end of the human race is that it will eventually die of civilization," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. Let's hope he isn't right.

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    Amen! But I think we need to preach the gospel at a regional level, not a City of Portland level. Let's be the greenest region in the world.

  • iggi (unverified)

    gr8 post...

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    As the cost of energy rises, it will be more and crucial to build green buildings. I would note, by the way, that New York is actually the greenest city in energy use per capita, by far, I believe (recent article on this I think in the New Yorker). People take the subway and live in energy-efficient apartments.

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    I think promoting Oregon's green-centric vision is a very smart idea, but in terms of losing out to Chicago any time soon, it'll be a cold day in Evanston before people think of Chicagoland as greener than Portland.

    The way I see it, Daley's at least 400,000 trees behind. :)

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    Our city commissioners are policy peas in a pod compared to just about any other major-city council in the country.

    If a program like this can't move forward because three of them have to agree, there's gotta be a serious flaw in the program.

  • Michael (unverified)

    One of the more interesting cities in the world that is dealing with this is Curitiba, Brazil. They have won a number of awards and it is well worth taking a look at what they have done. M.W.

  • Michael (unverified)

    While I may object to much that goes on in the name of urban planning, I do realize that if it is going to be done, it needs to be done well. I should have posted this website for Curitiba in my first comment on this. Here it be and it is well worth looking at. Enjoy. It is just one of a number of sites. M.W.

  • Kristin Wolff (unverified)

    Way to go Leslie! I'm a native Chicagoan living in Portland who worked in Chi-town for several months last year (and seem to be continuing that trend this year...). Have been following the mayor's initiative(s) informally for some time, even met with the very serious, smart, and creative people leading it (them). When Daley first said, "Chicago's going to be the greenest city in America," uproarious laughter followed, along with comparisons to Detroit's green efforts (there were none) among those of other smoke-stack laden cities... But then trees came (and as you rightly point out, not just a few)...then the Center for Green Technologies (which has has its difficulties but is a great thing), and then a cascade of small but crucial successes--the living room art/furniture campaign (outside--on the newly tree-laden streets), key green conferences, tons of promotion (including marketing to Chicagoans themselves), and (the prize) Millenium Park--a gorgeous and sophisticated public space that also manages to make fun of itself as much as others made fun of the mayor (yes, it also had its traumas--and now it's open and people love it, next question?). Last month, Daley was named one of the world's 40 (I think?) design leaders in ID Magazine. I can't open my mail anymore without seeing his name, green, and vitality in the same sentence. Chicago's economy (heavily manufacturing and transportation dependent) was slammed during the last couple of years, but people didn't leave in droves (sound familiar Portland?). There's a working theory among former green-mayor-skeptics that the trees (et. al.) helped weather an otherwise nasty economic and political storm... Also not to be underestimated is the transformation of thought occuring across the city. People now expect (and demand) more attention to what you might call "green-ness" among private and public sector leaders (not just the mayor). The trees, as it turns out, were not just intended for Michigan Avenue. Something to be said about stating a bold vision and achieving it.... Any takers?

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    Friends of Trees has been helping make Portland a greener place for 15 years. Check them out, get involved.

    From thier website Friends of Trees is celebrating its 15th year of inspiring community stewardship by bringing people in the Portland-Vancouver area together to plant, care for, and learn about city trees. We plant trees along city streets and in urban natural areas. In addition, Friends of Trees makes the planting of trees in yards affordable through our Branching Out program. Volunteers are always welcome to help plant trees, work in the office, or organize events

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    "Something to be said about stating a bold vision and achieving it..."

    I've been following Mayor Daley's progress for awhile and wishing we could harness what we already have here in Portland in one bold vision and move forward. I'm hopeful something similar will soon take hold, with similar benefits for the city, but as you rightly point out, Kristin, it will take a leader who believes in the vision and is willing to persevere.

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