In the background, Gerding Edlen's LEED Platinum office building at 12th and Washington in Portland---yup, those are wind turbines on the roof.
Twenty years ago, my girlfriend and I put everything we owned into a 2-seater Honda CRX and drove 3,000 miles from Northampton, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon, where we ended up living for a year in Northwest Portland, a.k.a. the cutest urban neighborhood in the entire U.S. of A, bar none and still true today. Then we moved to Seattle. And ever since I've been vexed with this question: Why is it that Portland is so much cooler than Seattle in so many ways?
That is, of course, not an original observation, and if you're among the throngs who are similarly puzzled, there's an event this Friday evening that you ought not to miss. Alex Steffen's sustainability non-profit Worldchanging is hosting a fundraiser, starring the mayors of Portland and Seattle, details here.
Today, in terms of the most critical factors of urban sustainability, Portland and Seattle aren't that different---for example 14 percent of households in Portland are car-free, compared to 16 percent in Seattle; Portland's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher than Seattle's, but that's only because Seattle happens to be blessed with abundant carbon-free hydro power.
However, all indications are that the prospects for the future favor Portland. There are so many areas in which Portland is a step ahead of Seattle it's hard to keep track of them all. (Tacoma is also, apparently, putting us to shame.) Rail transit and cycling infrastructure are two of the most well known examples. This post at Worldchanging gets into some of the more innovative ways in which Portland is working towards becoming a more sustainable city.
To add to that, here's a pseudo-random list of "Portland envy" items that have caught my eye recently, in no particular order:
- Portland has 80 "Energy Star" buildings, compared to 69 in Seattle.
- Portland is moving ahead of Seattle in highly energy-efficient housing, including net-zero energy and passive houses.
- Portland has 351 green roofs covering 26 acres, compared to 62 on 9 acres in Seattle.
- Portland has a produced a much more comprehensive Climate Action Plan than Seattle has.
- Seattle just installed its first bike box; Portland got busy with bike boxes starting in March 2008.
- Portland has committed $613 million to fund its new bike plan; Seattle has come up 70 percent short on a $240 million commitment to fund its Bicycle Master Plan.
- The Denmark-based wind turbine manufacturer Vestas selected Portland for its new U.S. headquarters.
- Gerding Edlen, arguably the Pacific Northwest's "greenest" developer, is based in Portland.
- Portland has a much higher caliber of urban design and planning firms than does Seattle; Portland's market-leading firms include Urbsworks, Crandall Arambula, Walker Macy, Urban Design Group, Criterion Planners, PB Placemaking, the National Charrette Institute. and Green Building Services, as well as newer, more cutting-edge non-profits such as the Portland Sustainability Institute and Post Carbon Institute.
- Portland has a development authority---the Portland Development Commission---that facilitates complicated, large-scale urban redevelopment projects; Seattle has nothing like it.
- Portland can implement tax-increment financing; Seattle, nope (though that's the State's fault, not Seattle's).
- The City of Portland merged its planning office with its sustainability office; Seattle's sustainable development efforts are diffused through multiple departments.
- Portland and Multnomah County formed a joint Sustainable Development Commission; Seattle and King County have no such formalized effort.
- Portland sponsors multifamily design competions; Seattle wrangles for years over multifamily code updates.
- Portland's Pearl district is a national model of high-quality urban redevelopment; Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood is struggling in fits and starts to get there.
- In 2006 the Portland City Council established a Peak Oil Task Force; the Seattle City Council is intent on building a deep-bore tunnel that will further lock the City into fossil fuel dependence.
- Portland is aggressively redeveloping its South Waterfront; Seattle is nervous about any new development at all on its waterfront once the Alaskan Way viaduct is gone.
For sure, Portland got very lucky when its founders decided to plat the City with 200-foot blocks that, compared to the 250--350-foot blocks typical of Seattle's core, make for a superior pedestrian environment. But there's a lot more going on down there than luck.
True, Portland's economy is not as strong and diversified as Seattle's. But if future-oriented firms like Vestas keep choosing Portland, that situation could end up reversed in the long-term.
So what is it about Portland? To an outside observer, the people in the two cities are pretty much culturally indistinguishable.
Is it related to the corporate mindset in Seattle driven by the influence of mega-corporations like Boeing and Microsoft? Seattle's history as a more extraction-based economy? The differing organization of City Council and Mayor in the two cities? River versus Sound? Would Portland build the deep-bore tunnel?
Hopefully the mayors of Seattle and Portland will have some answers at Worldchanging's event this Friday night.