Portlandia: A Mecca of Sustainability?

October 29, 2013

Written By: Colleen Flaherty

Recently I took some time off to visit Portland, Oregon. I heard some pretty awesome things about sustainability in the city, so I was excited to see just how well it stacked up to its reputation.

In many ways, Portland does not fail to deliver on the sustainability front.  I was able to easily get from the airport to the city center via their light rail system. From the city center I had the option to take buses, street cars, and light rail in and around the Greater Portland area. All of the transport options were clean, on time, and offered instructions and stop information in England and Spanish. For five dollars a day, getting around Portland was a steal compared to the MBTA.

Portland is a bustling city with a fair amount of traffic, but biking just seems easy there. Most streets have bike lanes and many of the highways that cross the city have raised bike lanes. There are a number of bike/walk only paths that take one through beautiful parts of the city (Waterfront Bike Trail and Forest Park).

What greatly aids the relaxed vibe around Portland is the driving culture. Oregonians are incredibly nice drivers! Coming from Boston, I found it shocking for drivers to let pedestrians cross when they had a “Don’t Walk” signal. It is no wonder many people choose not to drive around the city; it takes longer to get around and you spend much of your time letting others pass or walk in front of you.

Portland’s sustainability credentials do not end with transportation. Most restaurant menus, even budget restaurants, had lots of local food. There wasn’t a plastic bag in sight and you had to look hard to find large, chain stores. Could it be a sustainable utopia?

Alas, no, Portland, like any city, is not perfect. Portland has a very large homeless population. If we use the question "what sustains us?" to frame our discussion of the city's sustainability, there is a large group that is unable to sustain themselves and thrive. Portland continues to attempt to provide services for homeless people, but the underlying issues of income inequality and lack of jobs means the city has some serious work to do.

What are your thoughts on Portland? Have you ever been? Interested in visiting?

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