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Bringing It Home – by Harriett Jameson

by | March 8, 2012 0 SERA General, Urban Design + Planning

To kick-off 2012, the Urban Design + Planning studio here at SERA hosted two interns who were interested in getting a glimpse into the Portland culture. As part of their time with us, each intern was tasked with writing a blog post as a reflection on their time in Rose City.

Harriett Jameson, a graduate student in the University of Virginia’s Urban and Environmental Planning program, offers her thoughts:

In universities across the country, Portland is revered as the contemporary Mecca for urban and environmental planning. Today’s planning students learn about Oregon’s urban growth boundary and how it has preserved Portland’s surrounding farmlands from sprawl and over development. We are taught to admire its innovative park and transportation initiatives and public engagement programs. We study significant legal precedents like Dolan v. City of Tigard. Portland is set on a pedestal as a place that has been able to achieve the sustainability and livability goals with which much of the rest of the country has struggled over the past 40 years. So, when given the opportunity to visit for a week and experience how planning actually operates in this mythical place, I, of course, jumped on it. (I was also lured by descriptions of inventive restaurants, tasty micro-brews, and unforgettable scenery, but that is another story.)

SERA offices (photo: Cathy Ballensky)

SERA offices (photo: Cathy Ballensky)

Like any typical East-coaster, I must admit that my interest was fueled by skepticism mixed with curiosity. At my internship in a regional planning office in Virginia, I experienced first-hand the political, financial, and cultural challenges and frustrations tied with public sustainability planning initiatives. It was next to impossible for me to imagine how a place—existing in today’s political and economic environment—could overcome such barriers to establish an ideal model for a sustainable city (East-coast skepticism, I know, and I’m not even out of planning school yet). So, I hopped on the plane bound for PDX with 2 questions:

#1: Will Portland live up to its green hype?
#2: If it does live up to the hype, and this sustainable culture thrives in Portland, how is it able to sustain itself?

#1: Is it all hype?
Nope. It is not, in fact, all hype. Portlanders are as green as locally, organically produced kale.

#2: If it is not all hype, how does sustainability sustain itself in Portland (and, more critical to my work, why has it not been able to sustain itself on the East Coast)?

Now, this is a question to which one cannot ascertain the answer in a mere week’s worth of bike tours, meetings, and informal conversations over locally roasted coffee or pinot noir. However, I did garner a few insights. On the East Coast, we have the same green building and infrastructure technology as they do in Portland. We have architects and engineers who are able to design innovative LEED® buildings. We have planners and policy makers who are interested in creating more sustainable, livable, equitable communities. We have non-profits who work tirelessly to promote alternative transportation, fair housing practices, clean water, and urban tree canopies. We have idealistic, imaginative students who want to build a better world. In many instances, we East-coasters do have the right attitude. However, unlike Portland, the East Coast (and the middle part of the country, as well) has been unable to translate that attitude into positive behavior change.

Tanner Springs Park | Pearl District (photo: Harriett Jameson)

Tanner Springs Park | Pearl District (photo: Harriett Jameson)

From what I have garnered in my short time here, in Portland, sustainable behavior is ingrained into the culture and lifestyle in a way that makes it not an alternative but the standard. It is natural for one to bike to work or bring a personal mug to the coffee shop for a refill or have a trash receptor for returnables in his apartment. This culture is not something that has burgeoned within the past 5, 10, or 15 years, but it has been present for over a generation, so that the children, teens, and young professionals growing up in Portland see this environmentally responsible behavior as customary daily teeth brushing.

All of this is well and good for Portland, but it does not make my task on the East Coast easier necessarily. On the East Coast, we must still work to overcome this attitude to behavior gap, translating our beliefs into actions and those actions into everyday habits. It will be successful when we don’t have to talk or think about it anymore.

My week in Portland has not given me a clear-cut strategy for how to solve this issue. I still do not know how one catalyzes the transformation that ends in a widespread cultural or behavioral shift towards sustainable communities. However, what Portland, in general, and my time at SERA, in particular, has taught me is that this change cannot be achieved solely with green building technology or sustainable planning theory, political clout or deep financial pockets. As a product of the culture, it is dependent on the people.

Coming out of this week, I believe now, more than ever, that if I want a community to be more sustainable, I must focus on its residents. Investment in citizen engagement, education, and social capital are imperative to changing values and behavior, if slowly and circuitously. Then work can be made on the built environment, as a successful built environment should be a reflection of the values and the beliefs of the people who live, work, and play in it every day.

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