This week’s Is It Green comes to you from the lush city of Portland, Oregon. I have lived in many cities, from Los Angeles to New York City to the suburbs of DC to Singapore. I have traveled to many more cities – Key West, Montreal, Tokyo – and can say that Portland embodies the culture of sustainability more than any of them. From green transportation to sustainable agriculture and public policy, Portland offers a shining example that all cities should aspire to. Read on for an in-depth report on the city’s green merits.

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First, Portland offers an excellent array of sustainable transportation options. The city is covered by a comprehensive public transportation network of buses, streetcars and light rail. A lot of routes extend to the ring of suburbs around the city itself. Transit is convenient and buses run frequently. You can also call the number for the transit authority, punch in the number of the bus stop which is prominently displayed with the schedule at each stop, and an automated voice will tell you when the bus will arrive based on its location and speed which are tracked by GPS. It’s also affordable – a $2.00 ticket for 1-2 zones is good for three hours for buses or the light rail.

Portland is also consistently named the number-one city for bicyclists. Many roads have a designated bike lane and sometimes a blocked-off box for bikes to pull in front of cars at stop lights. Portland drivers are very deferential to bikes and will huddle behind you even as you wave at them to pass.

In 1990 Portland enacted a master plan to combat car-caused urban transportation problems like pollution and congestion through the promotion of cycling. As a result buses and light rail trains are bike-friendly. Buses have a rack that fits two bikes on the grill, and light rail trains have multiple hooks for bikes on each train. In April, Portland became the first major American city to be named a Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. The cycling culture has been an inspiration for more than 150 local businesses.


Second, locavorism is big here. Grocery stores and restaurants offer myriad options for locally-produced meat, cheese, beer and vegetables. Some businesses commit to only using locally-sourced ingredients – Hopworks Brewery calls itself the city’s first “ecopub.” They use fresh, local ingredients in their home-brewed beer, and they also compost, buy 100% wind energy, and the building and décor features extensive use of recycled materials. Hot Lips Pizza is another business that’s locally owned, operated and sourced. You can go to their web site and see a list of Oregon farms that supply their meat and vegetables. There are also more than a dozen weekly farmers markets that sell local food until winter.

There is also no shortage of restaurants that focus local. The New York Times wrote about Portland’s dining scene last year in an article that highlighted the city’s tendency to eat local. The NYT wrote that nearly every notable Portland chef lives by the “the gospel of locally grown ingredients.”


But the most striking credit to Portland’s sustainability is its attitude. There is a heightened awareness of sustainability issues in this city, which seems to stem from a reinforcing cycle between residents and government. For example, the government and the Office of Sustainable Development send down mandates from above, which raises awareness of issues and makes sustainable practices more convenient for residents, who then demand more sustainable legislation. For example, the city hopes to increase the recycling rate to 75% by 2015 by making recycling easier and encouraging the public to recycle more. Recycling rates in the metro area were 55.5% in 2008 (the national rate is 32%).

This dedication to sustainability has been ongoing since the 70s, when city planners in Portland enacted legislation that limited urban growth and implemented strict land-use laws. Portland has been ranked first on’s ranking of the 50 biggest American cities in order of their environmental and social sustainability since the survey began in 2005. But according to the city’s sustainable development director, Portland is still aiming higher – their goal is to become a “20 Minute City,” where residents spend 20 or less minutes commuting anywhere.

Is it green?

The city of Portland is an example for the rest of the nation that heightened awareness and government planning can make cities more sustainable in a way that increases quality of life for their residents.

+ Portland Office of Sustainable Development

Lead Photo by Thad Roan