‘Greening’ the European Green Capital? Lessons from Portland, Oregon

Prior to joining Landmark this summer, our newest recruit to the Landscape Planning team, Morag MacGregor, won the 2014 Landscape Institute Student Travel Award which allowed her to investigate good practice in Green Infrastructure in American cities. Here she shares her findings from the city of Portland in Oregon which, in the year that Bristol celebrates its role as European Green Capital, shows how cities can really deliver environmental benefits that drive economic regeneration. 

Green infrastructure is a concept which has gained such considerable momentum in recent years that it is in danger of becoming a buzz term and losing influence. This would be a real loss to strategic planning and to developing cities. Early examples of where green infrastructure principles have been applied illustrate how effective a tool it can be in terms of creating viable cities for the 21st century. One key early example of city which has implemented GI principles is Portland, Oregon.

blog-GI Oregon2Portland in the 1970s was suffering from many of the issues which plagued American cities at the time. There was serious decline within the city centre, flight to the suburbs occurred on a large scale, and widespread demolition led to a downtown area dominated by parking lots. Proposed skyscraper developments endangered important views to the Willamette River and out into the surrounding environment, including to Mount Hood, a scene which defines Portland.

Portland chose to tackle these challenges through the creation of ‘The Downtown Plan’ which has since been hailed as the “first modern planning document”. This document pioneered the people-friendly-city approach in the U.S.A. The whole plan was based on the assumption that “the highest priority must be given to the human element; to enhancing liveability; and to fulfilling the human need for open space.”

Pedestrians and cyclists over cars

The plan prioritised pedestrians over cars, choosing to transform the city’s demolition site parking lots into a series of public open squares. One such space is Pioneer Courthouse Square, locally referred to as ‘Portland’s Living Room’. This wide plaza is the key open space in central Portland and lives up to its affectionate nickname. Visiting Portland last year, I went to this square on multiple occasions and found its edges continuously occupied, while the central area hosted numerous events during my short stay. During its development, the square experienced funding problems but money was raised by the sale of 50,000 bricks inscribed with the names of local people who paid to ensure that the square became a reality. These pave the urban plaza now, a reminder that Pioneer Courthouse Square belongs to the people of Portland. The square was rated the world’s 4th best city square by Project for Public Spaces and is an example of how the prerogative to place people before parking has left Portland with a vibrant, inhabited urban realm.

blog-GI Oregon3Unlike many cities in the U.S.A at the time, Portland resisted development pressure to build along its waterfront. Instead they developed ecologically sensitive promenades on both sides of the river, which encourage cycling, reduce run-off into the Willamette River and maintain key views into the Portland’s dramatic surroundings. Visiting these promenades, I found well-used, valuable places for recreation as well as thriving craft and farmers markets. Portland’s commitment to creating a cycle friendly city and its implementation of a bikeway system over 320 miles in length has earned it the title of the U.S.A’s “Best Bike City”.

Environment led design

Building on the ideology set out in the Downtown Plan, further initiatives have been implemented by the city to create an environment which is beneficial for both people and wildlife. Perhaps Portland’s most famous environmental achievement is its extensive sustainable urban drainage network of over 900 bio swales and 398 eco roofs. In only the last 5 years as part of the Grey to Green initiative 32,200 street trees have been planted and 867 green street projects implemented. The storm water management system with bio swales, eco roofs, raingardens, permeable paving and incentives for disconnecting downpipes is one of the best worldwide. While I was there, I visited rain gardens attached to schools, municipal building green roofs and numerous examples of roadside swales all over the city. I was struck by how these small scale designs dramatically improved streets, even discounting the drainage benefit. I saw examples where swales had utilised dead space, enabled an increase in the pedestrian area, facilitated safer crossing points and safer roads.

blog-GI Oregon1Portland’s commitment to green infrastructure has undoubtedly resulted in many environmental benefits for the city and its surroundings. Tree planting has reduced the urban heat island effect, the water reaching the Willamette River has decreased in volume and increased in quality and there is now a well-connected series of ecological greenspaces for the benefit of urban wildlife. Investment in green infrastructure has also provided Portland with benefits beyond the environment. The city’s ‘green capital’ has attracted high numbers of business start-ups and young people to the city. The hostel I stayed in while visiting was mainly full of young Americans searching for places to rent, who had chosen to move to Portland for a ‘better quality of life’. Portland’s SUDs network in particular, also attracts eco-tourists’’ to the city, and sharing its knowledge and expertise of this has provides the city with another form of revenue. Portland is a key example of how beneficial investment in green infrastructure can be to a city’s image.

As perhaps the earliest example of commitment to the principles of green infrastructure, Portland is a pertinent example of what can be achieved through this approach. A firm commitment to sustainability has allowed Portland to improve its environment while stimulating economic growth and development. This city’s success should act as a reminder to both the environmental sector and developers that it is possible to create sustainable urban environments that can perform both economically and environmentally.

 

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