After an inspiring few days in Seattle, it was time to move on to our next, and highly anticipated stop: Portland, Oregon. The city welcomed us from the train with sheets of rain, and we got a brief glimpse of downtown on the soggy tromp up to our hostel in the northwest section of the city.
Day one ofﬁcially began with our presentation to the group, when we oriented them about the who, what, where, why and when of the place that is today's Portland. After watching a couple episodes of Portlandia, the self-deprecating satire about Portland's eccentric and often aggressively environmentally conscious under-40s, we decided it would be prudent to prepare our cohort with an improvised skit on how to respond to the Eco-attack and green mania that they might face out in the streets and shops of the city. After a few laughs and some poorly coordinated acrobatics, we ended our performance with a reminder that this is truly a place where you should "keep it weird", a city slogan which we would later see pasted on walls and cars throughout the downtown. We had the remainder of the evening to explore the city which, for most of us, involved sampling some of Portland infamous micro-brewing culture.
On day two of our Portland visit we were lucky enough to get a full day tour from the City of Portland’s, go-to sustainability tour, First Stop Portland. The day started with a tour of the Pearl district and Portland's historic Chinatown by Mark Ragget, Senior Planner with Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. 'The Pearl' as it is called, is Portland's equivalent of Yaletown, an old industrial area, where rows of warehouses once cut through by railroad tracks have been replaced by boutique shops and expensive restaurants. In the mid-century, the development of freeways led to a decrease in rail use, resulting in an emigration of the industries that had located themselves around the rail tracks. With landlords struggling to ﬁll empty warehouses, low rents made the area accessible for artist/bohemian types. As the neighborhood became a "hip" place to be, empty nesters and "DINKs" (dual income no kids) quickly followed suit, and the neighborhood has been predominantly childless since then. As the city prioritizes creating "'20 minute neighborhoods", where the average resident can walk to most of their daily needs within twenty minutes, one of their challenges is around how to bring more families to the area without requiring driving to resources like schools and playgrounds.
Our next stop of the day was the Rebuilding center, a non proﬁt 'community enhancement organization' which seeks to "inspire people to value and discover existing resources to strengthen the social and environmental vitality of their communities." The rebuilding center systematically deconstructs buildings to salvage and recycle materials, which are then sold at the Reuse Warehouse for 50-90% less than market value, and are often donated to non proﬁts. For many of our group, the statistics behind this model were incredibly inspiring. Shane pointed out that the rebuilding center deconstructs in exactly the reverse of the building process so as to preserve as much of the material as possible noting that 80% of building material from a house, apartment building or street block, can be reused. While the positive impacts that this project has on the future of sustainable building are striking, it's impacts on community development were equally impressive. Shane explained that deconstruction creates 6-8 jobs for every demolition job. The center prioritized hiring locally, which pumps income into the
community. Other goals of the center include providing skills training/mentoring to volunteers, and creating a sense of community ownership through cherishing the work of volunteers. Another thing that makes this place so amazing and unique is their open approach to information sharing. The center’s leadership prioritizes making their methodology accessible to other communities, and Shane is excited about former employees leaving the center to start up their own similar projects.
For most of us, this was the highlight stop of the day, a tangible example of how a great project can foster community resiliency, reduce environmental impacts and trigger a culture of thoughtful consumption and material use all while remaining economically sustainable.
After the Rebuilding Center we stopped for a delicious lunch at a cluster of Portland’s famous food carts. Over plates of vegan barbeque, we met with Crista Gardner, a senior planner for Metro. Crista spoke with us about the responsibilities and goals of the Metro Region, which encompasses 25 cities in 3 counties throughout Portland. Like Vancouver’s 2040 transportation plan, the Metro Region hopes to increase alternatives to personal vehicles (like walking, biking, and public transit) in the future. The Metro Region also oversees parks, public spaces, waste management, development, and sustainable living education.
With full bellies, we boarded the bus to the June Key Delta Community Center. Chris Poole Jones, the centers director, told their story of retrofitting of this old brownfield site from an abandoned gas station to a Living Building community center. She even convinced us to do some weeding in their garden!
After the community center, we visited the LEED certified Eco-Flats. Unlike Living Buildings, whose certification is based on the buildings performance, LEED prescribes measures and certifies buildings by prediction of their performance. The Eco-Flats building is targeted at Portland’s growing bike community with no offstreet parking and an entry way full of bike storage. Although the project isn’t net-zero, it prioritizes energy efficiency, boasting solar hot water, passive cooling systems, and daily energy tracking by unit so neighbours can get some friendly competition (or peer pressure!) to keep their consumption low.
To wrap up our day, we met with Michelle Poyourow for a rundown on bike-oriented development. Along with some insights on the future of bike development in a city with a exploding cycling population, Michelle also brought to light some of the unintended social consequences of transportation development. Not only does gentrification push out existing (often poorer) communities, modifying transportation by reducing parking in favour of bike lanes, for example, can result in social conflict. In one area, the lack of parking is causing tension between a long-standing church and the surrounding neighbours. In neighbourhoods that are trying to transition out of motor vehicle use, this social versus environmental sustainability trade-off is important to keep in mind!
On Friday morning, we set off to City Repair (aka "Oregon Department of Kick Ass" according to Mark's shirt) to hear from Mark Lakeman and Mike Simpson about the organization and the Village Building Convergence. Mark began with an inspirational and humor-filled overview of how the organization began. For Mark, City Repair attempts to challenge the Roman military grid style of planning which contemporary western cities are based on. Mark’s criticism of current neighborhood structures is that they compartmentalize life. Land is divided up into little private boxes that lead many people to feel isolated from their neighbours and community. Historically, Mark noted that people gathered where their pathways converged, but these naturally developed public spaces were lost with the implementation of the grid. Today, streets are typically the only "public" space in neighbourhoods and they have been developed for the use of cars rather than people, making them an ideal target for neighbourhoods to reclaim as a true public area that is safe, interesting, meaningful, and beautiful. This act of turning a space into a place where people can convene, meet, and care about each other is known as placemaking which has been a recurring theme throughout our journey down the coast. Matt Hern (founder of Car Free Days in Vancouver), as well as administrators at Vancouvers Insite and Seattle’s Neighbourhood House also discussed the importance of having places where people can meet to develop relationships and foster local economies and social support networks.
After Mark's presentation, we ventured down the street to another group of food carts for lunch before spending the rest of the afternoon with Mike. Mike started us off with a presentation on permaculture (aka "lazy gardening"). He told us about the 5 principles of permaculture: observation, multifunctioning, resilience, relative location, and starting small. It struck us that many of these principles should also be applied to sustainable community development.
Following Mike's permaculture discussion, he took us for a quick tour of the surrounding neighbourhood. As we walked, Mike discussed how many plants growing in urban areas have functions that we don't ever think about, many of which are edible. After sampling some of the edible plants in the neighbourhood, we made our way back to the Village Building Convergence kick-off party for a delicious vegan dinner.
After a couple of long and structured days, Papa Cam decided to set us loose in Portland to participate in the many Village Building Convergence festivities of the day. Our class dispersed into smaller groups throughout the city to participate in a variety of projects from painting intersections to community bee keeping workshops. A few of us made our way to the Fernhill Creative Learning Community (fernhillcreations.wix.com/VBC13) for the afternoon where we partook in straw bale building, stage painting, impromptu mud bathing, pizza, and many laughs. Our time at Fernhill was inspiring because we were able to witness community building in action. For example, when we first arrived, we had no idea as to what consistency the straw and mud had to be mixed, but a man named Clarke quickly passed on his knowledge to us. By the end of our time at Fernhill, Clarke was long gone and we were the ones passing the information on to newcomers. We believe these types of knowledge sharing, shifting leadership, and support networks epitomize what community is all about.