Portland, Oregon, US

Overview Tanner Springs Park © atelier GROENBLAUW, Madeleine d'Ersu

Text by Madeleine d’Ersu

Portland, Oregon is often referred to as America’s number one environmentally friendly or ‘green’ city. Portland has everything: lively and attractive pedestrian-oriented neighbourhoods, 510 kilometres of cycle paths, efficient public transportation networks, the highest number of urban parks per capita in the US, and the country’s greatest concentration of vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants.

Portland is definitely all about sustainable and low-impact living: half its power comes from renewable sources; a quarter of the workforce commutes by bike, carpool (so-called Flex Cars) or public transportation; its city planning minimises sprawl; 35 buildings are certified by the US Green Building Council; 67% of all waste is composted and treated locally; the recycling ethic is widespread; and over 200 green roofs cover buildings. Where do these forward-thinking initiatives and Portland’s quality of living so praised by the press come from?

Smart growth strategy

Portland is a pioneer when it comes to developing strategies for Smart Growth.

In the 1970s, while most American elected representatives were dreaming about shopping malls and promoting automobile-oriented development, Portland was already thinking green. Eco-conscious developments and strong land use planning control are largely the result of state land conservation policies adopted under Republican Governor Tom McCall.

In 1966, legislation known as the ‘Beach Bill’ granted the state government the power to keep control of Oregon’s beaches, thus protecting 480 waterfront kilometres from private development.

In 1971, the ‘Bottle Bill’ launched the nation’s first mandatory bottle-deposit law.

In 1974 the Harbor Drive freeway, which had divided the city in two parts, was closed and torn down, to be replaced with the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, thus opening up the waterfront to pedestrians.

In the late ‘60s, Governor McCall challenged every community in Oregon to establish no-build greenbelts to limit sprawl and concentrate new development around public transportation hubs. Portland’s urban growth boundary, adopted in 1979 and reviewable every 20 years, has made Portland the first compact city in the United States.

Since Tom McCall, politicians (mainly Democrats) and planners have remained true to green strategies and have continued to work on Portland’s Smart Growth strategy, favouring compact neighbourhoods with different types of homes, shops, workplaces, schools, pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly tree-lined streets, enhancing natural and cultural resources and promoting public health. Since 1970, the city’s population has increased by 60%, while between 1990 and 2008 its urbanised area grew by only 11% and CO2 emissions decreased by 19%.

In this regard, Pearl district, a former warehouse and industrial area that is now internationally recognised as a model of responsible urban renewal, followed the line of Smart Growth strategy. Since the late ‘90s, new wooden and glass buildings, of which 30% are social housing, have been built in the gaps between the collection of former warehouses now converted into lofts, offices and shops. Home of the Tanner Spring Park, Pearl district is nowadays a mixed-use, twenty-four-hour residential neighbourhood that reflects the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’. Residents can access all kind of places and services by walking or biking within 20 minutes, a strategy that Portland wants to bring to all of its districts. Pearl district is excellent proof that a high quality of life rich in culture and diversity can arise from a wasteland.

Portland’s free streetcar / Electric cars can be charged in the city © Madeleine d’Ersu / Sebastien Ludwig
Green zones in public spaces / Rainwater harvesting system connected to the theater © Sebastien Ludwig / Madeleine d’Ersu


Portland first doubled the size of its bus network, all powered by biofuel, before being the first American city to adopt a new streetcar system in 2001. Local companies and car parks mainly financed the cost of the project, which amounted to 70 million euros.

The city offers a Free Rail Zone (formerly called Fareless Square) encompassing most of downtown Portland within which bus and streetcar travel is free and automobile access limited.

Since 2005, the Oregon Health and Science University has given a $50 annual incentive to their employees who bike or walk to work. In addition to cash – which plays a significant role in motivating people – they also supply secure bike parking, showers, access to tools and free route maps.

Public investments in mobility and infrastructure are also supplemented by non-governmental organisations like the Community Citing Center, which provides free bicycles for low-income citizens as well as training in cycle repair and road safety.

Thanks to these actions, citizens of Portland already drive 20% less by car than their peers in comparably sized cities.

Green public spaces © Environmental Services, City of Portland Oregon


Portland, innovative also in terms of sustainable urban drainage systems, has developed a world-renowned stormwater management programme, operational since the early 1990s, to avoid sewer flooding, reduce pollutants in rainwater, and protect and enhance groundwater quality.

The Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan intends to minimise impervious surfaces by implementing sustainable design into new and remodelled infrastructures and landscapes, including communication, education, community greening and making the city more attractive.

Strategies range from a simple barrel at the bottom of a downspout in private plots to innovative rainwater harvesting systems such as green roofs, rooftop gardens, buffers, bioswales, permeable paving, and separate stormwater systems with multiple tanks, pumps and controls.

Green roof © Environmental Services, City of Portland Oregon
Green zones in public spaces / Rainwater harvesting system © Sebastien Ludwig / Madeleine d’Ersu

Below are a few examples of Portland’s multi-faceted and successful showcase projects, in which Portland State University is actively engaged.

Portland State University’s Stephen Epler Hall: this first mixed-use LEED-certified building in Portland has been seeking to make stormwater management interesting and engaging for the public. Its rooftop’s rainwater is conveyed to separate downspouts that direct the water to public space, namely to visible rock beds planted with native vegetation. There, water flows via the series of planter boxes and brick pavers’ channels, emptying at the end into a large underground retention tank. The water is filtered through a sand trap and then treated with ultraviolet light before being pumped back into the Epler building to be reused for public restroom flushing and irrigation of the surrounding landscape. According to the Portland State University, “this system reduces the building’s annual demand for municipally treated potable water by approximately 110,000 gallons/year (416 m3/year), saving the University nearly $1,000/year in wastewater expenses”.

The Engineering Building Hydrology Lab was designed and constructed to meet LEED Gold standards. The Engineering Building uses nearly 40% less water than a similar baseline building. Its water coming from the rooftop is stored in a 1,000-gallon (3.8 m3) storage tank, is filtered through carbon, and undergoes UV sterilisation before being pumped to toilets on the 1st floor.

The SW 12th Ave Green Street planters on the Portland State University campus: this green street project won an American Society of Landscape Architects Design Award in 2006. The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services implemented on 12th Avenue a series of four bioswales, designed as enclosed planter boxes containing soil and wetland plants. The street rainwater (carrying oil, sediments, chemicals, etc.) is directed by gutters into the bioswales where the water is filtered by both the soil and the plants. If one swale begins to fill and overflow during heavy rainfall, excess water exits and is channelled into the next swale, either infiltrating to groundwater or, during intense storms, eventually going into the storm drain system after the fourth swale.

These visually engaging rainwater harvesting system pilot projects show the way to manage all stormwater on site, which is the challenge Portland has set for itself within the next 50-100 years.

A number of green street projects have been installed throughout Portland, and more are being planned to retrofit a number of streets with landscaped curb extensions, swales, planter strips, pervious pavement, and street trees to intercept and infiltrate stormwater.

Along with green street projects, Portland also has become a national leader for vegetated rooftops. Notable amongst those are a 2,137 m2 lightweight roof on Portland State University’s Broadway Housing Complex and an ecoroof café and soccer field on an industrial building in design. In 2009 the city initiated a new incentive programme that will provide property owners with up to $5 per square foot to install green roofs. The city has set a goal of increasing green roofs to cover at least 150,000 m2 by 2013.

Furthermore, the city does not overlook the importance of private plots and provides incentives as well as outreach to residents. Thanks to The downspout disconnection program launched in 1993, more than 50,000 homeowners have disconnected downspouts from the combined sewer system to redirect roof water to gardens, removing nearly about 3,800 m3 of stormwater per year from the combined sewer system.

Successful sustainable water programmes such as this one require multi-disciplinary approaches that involve landscape architects, engineers, planners, reviewers, department heads and watershed managers.

Beyond water retention and water quality objectives, these water designs also help to cool the air, provide wildlife habitat and improve property values as public space values, thus enhancing neighbourhoods.

Tanner Springs Park, Portland, Oregon Us © atelier Dreiseitl
Tanner Springs Park in Portland © atelier GROENBLAUW, Madeleine d'Ersu

Nature & food in the city

Supporting the idea of inviting nature back in town, citizens have voted and agreed to increase their property taxes to allow the metropolitan regional government to purchase nearly 4,500 hectares of land to protect sensitive habitats and ensure water quality. In downtown, half of these areas have been turned into pedestrian spaces and gardens. The other lands have either remained wild in order to be able to keep accommodating the birds living there, or converted into bike paths and sport facilities. At the same time, more than 40 community gardens have been created and 415,000 street trees have been planted.

Along with these municipal initiatives, many local and agriculture groups and organisations support permaculture and urban farms while promoting social and environmental justice.

The FLOSS lifestyle (Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal and Sustainable) has been powered in Portland area by a new generation of farmers who are often former city dwellers. Hundreds participate toward the success of the twenty “farmers’ markets” that have blossomed in the city over the past 10 years. Portland also offers bountiful Farm-to-Table dining options. Eating well, locally and healthy is definitely easy to do in Portland. As people are viscerally attached to ‘made in Portland’ products, even the world’s largest corporation, Walmart, had to give up establishing itself in Portland, a unique case in the US.

In 3 years’ time, 32,000 jobs have been created in ‘green businesses’.

The local slogan ‘Keep Portland Weird’ fits well with this city that has been successful at integrating sustainability into all aspects of life while retaining its original identity.