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Deron Lovaas’s Blog

Leading the Sustainability Pack: Portland, Of Course

Deron Lovaas

Posted October 3, 2013

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I am one of many longtime fans of Portland. I love the walkable streets of downtown, love the light rail that goes to the airport (PDX!), love the parks such the rose garden overlooking the city, and of course I love Powell’s book store. I have only missed one plane flight because I was enjoying myself too much, and that was at PDX several years ago.

I even love the city’s quirkiness, as captured hilariously in Portlandia clips like this one:

I first studied Portland in the mid-1990s, when as part of a series of events I organized for another environmental nonprofit I contrasted their urban growth boundary (UGB) with Boulder’s growth management policy. Both were enacted in the 1970s, and that’s where the similarity ends.

While Oregon and its metro regions including Portland created demarcations for planned growth including a reserve for future development, cutting red tape and incentivizing new growth within these lines, Boulder preserved a greenbelt of land around itself and limited growth within that line by rationing building permits (here’s a good case study). The upshot for me? Oregon, and Portland, chose more wisely. One of the unintended consequences of the growth-limit policy in Boulder has been remarkably rapid sprawling development elsewhere on the Front Range of the Rockies. This is not surprising, as research shows that limiting population growth in one city or region is actually a recipe for sprawl.

In 1999 I examined Oregon again, when the Sierra Club issued the nation’s first rating of state land use, transportation, open space protection and community revitalization policies. The report, Solving Sprawl, gave Oregon the top spot for land use policy, and co-authors and I profiled their program briefly here.

In 2004, Island Press published a series of essays on Portland’s sustainability success by Portland State University authors in The Portland Edge, on which I rely for another look at the region now. In fact, here’s how the book sums up Portland’s track record:

Playing out on the demographic, economic, and civic landscapes just described, innovations in local and regional planning have contributed to Portland’s reputation as a livable place. The 1970s saw state and local policies that laid the foundation of the region’s reputation as a livable and well-planned metropolitan area. Senate Bill 10 was adopted in 1969, requiring cities and counties to prepare comprehensive land use plans that meet statewide standards. Senate Bill 100 created the Land Conservation and Development Commission in 1973 to monitor local comprehensive planning and compliance with a set of statewide planning goals. These goals are still in effect and focus comprehensively on the preservation of farmland, open space, housing, public facilities and services, urban growth boundaries, and economic development. By establishing a statewide land use planning framework in the early 1970s, Oregon was at the forefront of what is termed today the smart growth movement.

(2004-10-05). The Portland Edge: Challenges And Successes In Growing Communities (Kindle Locations 391-397). Island Press. Kindle Edition.

What have the effects of the state’s landmark policies been? A lot of land conservation, widespread availability of multiple transportation choices – walk, bike, light rail, bus – and a vibrant, walkable downtown. This yields a high quality of life, or what some call (awkwardly, I think) “livability.”

It’s also meant less traffic and driving for commuters and residents, as former Metro councilor Rex Burkholder shows in the graph below (from a 2008 PowerPoint presentation):


Less traffic, of course, means fuel savings and less pollution, including heat-trapping carbon pollution.

So how did Oregon, and Portland, get to its current enviable position vis-à-vis sustainability? It was no accident. Certain events and political leaders catalyzed dramatic changes in policy and governance 4 decades ago. This has driven the region forward, with pressure and support from non-governmental advocates and an activist citizenry (I’ve heard it said half-jokingly that “planning is in the water” in Portland).

Not that the trajectory has been without turbulence. Western state policies often face tough ballot measures, and Oregon’s landmark smart-growth statutes are no exception. And housing affordability has been fiercely debated, since Oregon property values have benefited from its livability too.

So where does Portland stand now, and where is it headed?

I will write about these issues next, and meanwhile if you have analysis, opinions or ideas to share about Portland’s sustainability I urge you to use the comment space below.

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Peter HerringOct 6 2013 03:07 PM

Hi, thanks for the article. I'm a Portlander (OK, live just outside the city) and proud of our accomplishments. That said, I feel we hide a lot behind a certain smugness. Yes, we are more sustainable than some cities. But is PDX sustainability even approaching what we need to see in the world now? Anyone who lives here will tell you that the city is in gridlock everyday around 3 - freeways clogged and stopped. Vehicle emissions are still our worst form of air pollution - including truck diesel, for which we have the lowest standards on the west coast, so that companies actually put their lest efficient vehicles here. We have a superfund river with two-headed fish. We have some of the worst air in the world over some of our poorer neighborhoods - St. John's for one (steel mills, shipping, oil refineries).

In terms of social sustainability - social justice and equity - we have some of the worst stats in the PNW of discrepancy between whites and communities of color - see Coalition of Communities of Color report: An Unsettling Profile.

I work here with a growing group of "communitarians" on establishing a new economic model, driven by the values of inclusive grassroots democracy, social justice and equity, and ecology. Without this tripod of fundamental values, no place can truly call itself socially and environmentally sustainable - and that includes Portland.

I am not degrading a city I love - but I have no more interest in
"sustainable-washing" than I do in green-washing - they're both harmful to people and planet. The only information that we can act on to continue making a better city (and world) is the truth, not self-congratulatory kudos.

Thanks again,


Deron LovaasOct 7 2013 11:03 AM

Thanks, Peter. Good comment.

Reminds me of the lesson I learned from fellow conservationists when coordinating the Sierra Club's rating of states based on their smart-growth policies: Comparing jurisdictions to one another requires a relative not absolute yardstick.

That means that even the high-ranking ones surely have headroom for improvement, something that activists and concerned citizens like yourself are quick to notice and mention.

And that's what I intend to write about next in Portland's case, along with more details about how it has achieved remarkable success compared to peers across the country.

I will use your substantive comment as a reference, and maybe I can contact you as well? Feel free to email me at if you'd like to talk further.

Many thanks,


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