A Living Cully Walks community bike ride. 

Credit: Verde

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When Green Infrastructure Is an Anti-Poverty Strategy

In Portland, inspiring stories of how resident leaders — mostly lower-income, non-English-speaking, stay-at-home mothers — push for change in their community.

Story by Barbara Brown Wilson

Published on Jul 8, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt fromResilience for All: Striving for Equity Through Community-Driven Design,” by Barbara Brown Wilson, published by Island Press. In it, the author chronicles examples around the U.S. of community-engaged design led by vulnerable, historically marginalized populations advocating for equitable, positive change. Here, she explains how nonprofit groups in northeastern Portland, Oregon, have fought displacement and pushed for safer streets.

Cully, a neighborhood in Northeast Portland, is among the most ethnically diverse in Oregon. It is also marked by poverty, rapid gentrification, and inequitable access to quality public infrastructure. Many green infrastructure project teams flounder when trying to couple social justice with their environmental goals, but in Cully green infrastructure provision is linked explicitly with wealth building and anti-displacement goals through a coalition called Living Cully. Living Cully is the brainchild of Verde, a community-based nonprofit with a mission to “build environmental wealth through Social Enterprise, Outreach, and Advocacy.” Using the momentum and resources in Portland’s EcoDistrict approach, but focused on grassroots, resident leadership to drive urban change, Living Cully is now a robust network of community organizations and resident leaders all working in concert to build local resident capacity, improve local infrastructure, and fight the forces of displacement those improvements might otherwise bring. One of the most powerful parts of the strategies employed by Verde and its partners was their use of resident-driven wayfinding and green infrastructure as a part of a larger antipoverty strategy.

Cully suffers from a lack of safe, high-quality infrastructure — with flooding streets, limited sidewalks, poor street lighting, and few high-quality parks. But adding these civic amenities would likely spur resident displacement if a thoughtful plan was not in place. Verde deputy director Tony DeFalco describes the Living Cully vision:

We define green infrastructure around community wealth. If you have nice streets and nice trees, these things produce both economic and health benefits. … We are interested in how this publicly owned infrastructure can increase equity if we advocate for it as a community, if we are able to influence the delivery of the assets. And that is really important, because often what happens is you get a new street, or a new park, and there is no corollary activity around having affordable housing nearby or hiring people from the community to perform the construction.

Living Cully invests in local residents through leadership development and job training that allow lower-income residents to contribute to positive change in their communities, while also building their own capacity to stay as revitalization occurs. Early “signature projects” included gaining the development rights to transform a brownfield into the community’s vision for a public park, and installing a set of wayfinding signs crafted by the community to highlight their community walks and biking programs. The wayfinding project also helped the community in their effort to convince governmental agencies of the need for better pedestrian and bike infrastructure.

A Living Cully project map. (Credit: Verde)

These successes laid the foundation for a series of housing improvements, including a project that helped tenants of a mobile housing development cooperatively buy their property from the owners and a nationally significant pilot project with Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East to focus deeply on the area, including retrofitting existing neighborhood homes. Residents are also transforming an old strip club into a thriving community center and affordable housing.

Mapping Cully: The Rogue Ecodistrict

Northeast Portland’s largest neighborhood, today Cully encompasses more than three square miles and is home to more than 14,000 people. In comparison to the rest of Oregon, Cully is quite diverse; more than 25 percent of Cully’s residents are Hispanic, and almost 20 percent are foreign-born. USA Today created a diversity index based on 2010 census data, which estimated that “3 times out of 4, a person in this Census Tract had a different racial or ethnic background than another random person from that same Census Tract.” Low-income residents of Cully are at high risk of gentrification-driven displacement. A 2013 study of gentrification in Portland highlights the Cully neighborhood as a high-risk area — reminding the reader, “the key distinction between revitalization and gentrification is the negative consequence of involuntary residential displacement.” Community improvements alone do not spur gentrification; it is marked by a pattern of (typically publicly subsidized) physical improvements resulting in the involuntary displacement of its lower-income residents.

The median household income in Cully is $41,000, with more than 18 percent of the neighborhood population living below the poverty line. Therefore, when the median home price increased by more than 57 percent from 2010 to 2015, many Cully residents felt the pressures of potential displacement. As a result of activist efforts, the Portland City Council adopted a resolution in August 2012 to study and prevent displacement in Cully as they sought to encourage revitalization of the neighborhood. Living Cully continues to reference this commitment as issues arise and uses it as a platform to hold the Council accountable when asking for City support of affordable housing strategies and resident capacity building programs.

The City of Portland has gained national attention for its focus on the creation and implementation of EcoDistricts. EcoDistricts require collaboration across district-scale institutions to accelerate neighborhood-oriented sustainability. The concept originated with the Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI) in 2008. In 2012, the EcoDistricts team launched a nonprofit to formalize their approach. The team created certification systems in which practitioners could be trained and credentialed, and it began consulting with cities across the globe about the best strategies for becoming more sustainable at the neighborhood scale. Verde appropriated the language of EcoDistricts that the City was using to frame its investments, but rejected the formal protocol. Verde sees this protocol as insufficient to ensure that the benefits of green infrastructure and other sustainability investments result in positive outcomes for low-income residents.

Making Green Infrastructure Accessible to All

The Living Cully coalition formed to ensure that low-income residents receive equitable access to the benefits of ecological restoration in the Cully neighborhood. This is not a huge conceptual leap; green infrastructure improvements create jobs, provide public health benefits, and are often implemented along with streetscape improvements that increase pedestrian safety. In practice, however, the employment opportunities rarely benefit local residents, and the streetscape improvements are not done with respect to the local cultures. Rain gardens and other green infrastructure elements often appeal to more affluent, white investors. They can cause real estate values to rise, which often results in involuntary displacement. Good civic investments should, at minimum, attempt to build the adaptive capacity of the most vulnerable community residents to the stressors that might result. Ideally, local knowledge will inform the public infrastructure improvements; thus the space will reflect the values of the community and make residents feel welcome. This is what the coalition of groups that make up Living Cully set out to do. The Living Cully network is managed by Verde and includes resident leaders as well as local community-organizing entities, including Hacienda Community Development Corporation and Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East, Portland State University, and other groups invested in supporting the positive transformation of the Cully neighborhood with and for its lower-income residents.

One of Living Cully’s wayfinding workshops. (Credit: Verde)

Verde is a Cully-focused nonprofit organization with a mission to “build environmental wealth through social enterprise, outreach, and advocacy.” Founded by Alan Hipólito in 2005 as an offshoot of Hacienda Community Development Corporation, Verde uses a place-based, coalition-building approach to implement its mission. Hacienda is Oregon’s largest Latino-led, Latino-serving organization, and the oldest affordable housing provider in the neighborhood, building and rehabilitating more than 380 units since 1992. Prior to founding Verde, Hipólito worked for Hacienda for five years, supporting affordable housing agency programming such as microenterprise and workforce development, and the partnerships between the two remain strong today. Verde operates two social enterprises: Verde Landscape (which implements and maintains green infrastructure projects like rain gardens) and Verde Builds (a licensed general contractor that develops environmental infrastructure and weatherizes homes).

The Living Cully coalition helps Verde identify community capacities and local and regional needs around which viable businesses can be built. Verde then uses the social enterprises as a mechanism to invest deeply in resident capacity building. Subsidizing these businesses through grants and donations, Verde is able to offer its employees on-the-job training, professional certifications, classes in English as a second language, general education development test preparation, and individual development accounts for financial planning — all based on an individualized learning plan that is developed for each “crew member” at the beginning of his or her tenure with Verde.

In 2008, Verde began working with Portland State University to conduct background research that would aid in accessing needs and community capacities in order to craft a place-appropriate antipoverty strategy for the Cully neighborhood. Methods employed in this community-university partnership range from more traditional statistical analysis of demographic change to community walks to workshops to photovoice activities with neighborhood children. Photovoice is a particularly useful tool; residents are trained on photography techniques and image analysis for community-driven research efforts when the lived experience of local people will solicit knowledge not available elsewhere. In this case, the Cully PHOTO (Photography cHanneling yOuth To cOmmunity) Project, provided a platform for youth to capture the challenges in their built world that contribute to health disparities and contributed data to the ongoing Living Cully efforts. In the Portland State class partnership, statistical analysis, community workshops, and interviews lead to the development of the Living Cully Anti-Displacement Plan. Portland State students benefit greatly from engagement with Verde staff, so much so that the university is now working with Verde’s deputy director so that he may be compensated directly for the teaching he does.

Living Cully is the primary mechanism through which Verde conducts its outreach and policy work, although Verde does much of the base-building, resident leadership development work to ensure that resident leaders have the capacity to guide this advocacy work. In 2010, Verde created the Lideres Verdes Leadership Program, an eleven-month leadership development program for Cully residents. The program provides participants with child care, transportation, stipends, and translation services as needed to facilitate their full engagement.

Goals of the Lideres Verdes program are to activate the inner organizer in participants — to educate them on the inner workings of politics in Portland so that they can speak effectively for themselves. Programming is aimed at helping community members to become effective advocates for their own needs to city government. It teaches participants how to give testimonials, how to educate others on issues important to them, and how to organize their community around shared concerns.

Participants graduate from the program ready to contribute to advocacy discourse on issues important to them. Many of the participants in Lideres Verdes in Cully wanted to improve the poor pedestrian and cycling infrastructure that prevented residents from safely walking or biking to local schools and parks. Resident leaders formed the Andando en Bicicletas en Cully (ABC) neighborhood group and began hosting community walks and bike rides to map out the safety challenges. The Cully Walks program became embedded in the local culture.

ABC and Living Cully partners began working with Hacienda’s Expresiones After School Program to educate resident youth on mapping, safety, and advocacy for public infrastructure. After several years of community walks and bike rides in an effort to celebrate these collective efforts and to make the issues more legible to public officials from whom Cully needed infrastructure investments, the community collaboratively designed and installed a series of bilingual wayfinding signs. Living Cully leaders installed the temporary wayfinding system in 2015, and after a year of collective editing and refinement, they sent the permanent version for installation in 2018.

By investing in the leadership development of local residents, a grassroots effort transformed a common tourist tool into an advocacy platform for safe, active transportation and park infrastructures. The wayfinding initiative materialized the resident-led Cully Walks program and contributed to a broader campaign for equitable community change. The Living Cully coalition’s successes illustrate the power of social capital generated through investments in resident leadership.

How It Worked: The Lideres Verdes of Living Cully

Led by Lideres Verdes graduates, the Living Cully Walks program began in 2012 “to enhance pedestrian and bicycle access to Cully’s open spaces through community-based planning (access to such open spaces decreases obesity rates, improves nutrition status, and increases exercise).” Living Cully Walks is a formal program managed by the Living Cully coalition; it can accept grants from agencies like the Metro Regional Travel Options program, but is confined by the formal confines of the Verde nonprofit structure. The Andando en Bicicletas en Cully (ABC) group, alternatively, is a resident-led initiative formed by Lideres Verdes alumni “to unite the community with activities and events to spread awareness about the benefits of cycling … and to inform and support the community regarding pedestrian and cycling safety, and infrastructure issues.” This coordinated effort resulted in a positive culture change for participating residents and an effective advocacy strategy to pressure municipal and regional agencies to mitigate the infrastructure disparities.

In the past four years, ABC and Living Cully Walks organized regular group pedestrian, bicycle, and transit trips to neighborhood parks that included hundreds of participants of all ages. During these community outings, participants noted any impediments to a safe, enjoyable walking or biking experience. Resident leaders documented the best pathways to each of the green infrastructure assets in the community. After amassing an incredible amount of local knowledge through the walks, community leaders knew the work needed to be officially documented through both local and municipal channels. To physically make this organizing and advocacy work manifest in the built world, the network developed the Living Cully Wayfinding System. During a wayfinding workshop in June 2015, residents identified proper placement for 20 signs over a three-mile area to introduce a temporary signage system to prototype the concept. With help from the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, the community mapped this vision for this first phase of wayfinding.

Cully residents volunteer in the community garden. (Credit: Verde) 

Residents hung the temporary signs in December 2015 and continue to solicit feedback on the design, effectiveness, readability, and location from their peers and other major stakeholders. In addition to resident feedback, Living Cully invited municipal staff and leaders to tour the area and provide their input as the team works toward the permanent signage system.

Residents Design Good Parks

Although adults are a major contributor to this effort, the school-age children benefit through increased physical activity, and also by engaging in projects that improve their neighborhood while providing hands-on learning and exposure to career paths. The Hacienda Community Development Corporation’s Expresiones After School Program became a critical partner in this aspect of the effort. Living Cully partners host an active transportation class every summer for the youth, and the wayfinding signage is featured prominently in their learning experience. As Expresiones teacher and Cully resident Ana Mendoza explains, “We have done many Living Cully Walks up to the parks, always taking different paths, and ask the children, ‘What needs to change?’ At the end of the active transportation class last summer, we took the children around to the wayfinding signs that we created as a community — they learned how to read a map, they learned how to read a legend. We want our youth to be able to see it for themselves.”

Youth designers also feature prominently in other Living Cully projects. Since 2010 Living Cully has stayed focused on a signature project, aptly named Let Us Build Cully Park! As Verde worked to win development rights for the transformation of a former dump into a new public park, youth from multiple local schools and Hacienda Community Development Corporation’s Expresiones program led the design of the 10,0000-square-foot play area at Cully Park. For the playground design, students worked with Verde, Vigil-Agrimis, and EarthPlay (a Cully-based business) to learn basic design concepts, map reading, scale, and area calculation using an architect’s ruler. Each group developed an initial play area design, combining typical playground features with nature play elements. Middle school students from Scott School also designed the community garden at Cully Park in six design sessions, working with the landscape architecture firm Terrafluxus, to consider park layout, amenity provision, accessibility design techniques, and connecting to the larger park.

NAYA, along with partners at the Portland Youth and Elders Council, Native American Youth & Family Center, Native American Community Advisory Council to Portland Parks, and Portland State University’s Native American Student and Community Center, led the design for the 36,000- square-foot Inter-tribal Gathering Garden highlighting indigenous food and cultural practices in the center of Cully Park.

An early prototype for the Cully’s Wayfinding program (Credit: Verde) 

Living Cully raised more than $6 million to implement this plan and entered into a public-private partnership with the Portland Parks and Recreation Department to develop phase one of the park themselves. The Living Cully Works program ensured that more than 18 percent of those hired to work on the development of the park were lower-income Cully residents who had come through the Verde social enterprise training programs.

In 2013, as market pressures began to rise considerably in the Cully neighborhood, Living Cully invited the Habitat for Humanity Portland/ Metro East chapter in as a core member of their network. Habitat for Humanity wanted to pilot a new approach to their work that paired their new, single-family home construction foundation with a Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) that acknowledges existing community needs for a diverse set of tactics to increase the supply of high-quality, affordable housing for lower-income families. Portland Habitat’s first NRI site was the Cully neighborhood; Living Cully partners identified weatherization and critical home repair as essential needs for Cully’s lower-income homeowners. Although Habitat’s credit and deed restrictions initially slowed the NRI’s impacts, Habitat remained a flexible partner to find workable solutions to these problems while also lending its bank sheet to Living Cully signature projects. In 2015, Living Cully bought a former strip club with the help of Habitat for Humanity’s considerable equity as leverage, and are turning what was once the Sugar Shack into the Living Cully Plaza Community Center.

This more robust Living Cully network continues to sharpen its focus on anti-displacement efforts, and the group is now contributing to such networks across Portland. An important sibling to ABC is the Cully Housing Action Team! (CHAT!) Group, which includes both residents and allies and is also convened by Living Cully. CHAT!, another group driven by Lideres Verdes alumni, draws from its leaders’ community-organizing skills to bring large groups of lower-income residents for targeted, but much more ambitious, campaigns. For instance, in 2016, the Oak Leaf mobile home park, which houses 25 low-income families in the Cully neighborhood, was up for redevelopment. CHAT! organized its membership to help save the mobile home park, which Living Cully then cooperatively bought through a loan from the Portland Housing Bureau (fig. 6.9). Although Portland has 62 mobile home parks, this was the first time a nonprofit had bought it for the purpose of affordable housing preservation. This victory was significant, not only because resident organization played a major role in convincing the City of Portland to act, but also because it models a community-driven approach to affordable housing preservation in that rapidly gentrifying city.

Cully residents speak out to save the Oak Leaf mobile home park. (Credit: Verde)

CHAT! also contributed significantly to campaigns needed to advocate for a first-ever citywide affordable housing bond that will provide more than $250 million to mitigate displacement in Cully and other vulnerable communities. CHAT! organized 129 volunteers to knock on more than 1,300 doors and do outreach at community events. All three of Cully’s precincts supported the measure at the November 2016 election, and CHAT! was honored by a citywide coordinating coalition for their tremendous effort. The results of these compounding resident-led efforts in the Cully neighborhood are astounding.

What Does Success Look Like?

Living Cully continues to identify ways it can monitor progress and hold itself accountable to coalition goals. Successes can be counted through the 36 residents trained through the Lideres Verdes program, the temporary and permanent installations of the community-designed wayfinding system, the municipal and regional leaders educated on Cully resident needs through their engagement in these design and advocacy projects, the hundreds of local people trained and employed, the substantial square feet of community-designed parkland created, the green infrastructure implemented, the considerable public and private economic capital committed to these goals, the homes weatherized, and the policies changed.

But less quantifiable metrics include the increased adaptive capacity of resident leaders engaging in these organizing and job-training efforts, the culture change beginning when a generation of youth see walking and biking as important to their community, and the impact of young leaders actualizing many new professional techniques to better their community as part of their middle school skills set. Resident leaders are proud of their work, and they intend to continue fighting for the right to stay in this community as it becomes the safer and greener place they envisioned.

Nonetheless, challenges exist in any urban initiative. Verde is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization with a traditional governance structure that gives more power to the board of directors and staff leaders than to resident leaders. But Verde has been working to address this imbalance by inviting Lideres Verdes alumni to join in both board and staff positions. The focus on Latino-serving residents by Hacienda and on Native American residents by NAYA risks alienating other racial minorities, but this is also remedied by the citywide efforts and substantial wealth-building programs available to all lower-income Cully residents. Finally, staff continue to self-critique the focus on job creation more so than on wealth creation. Microbusinesses are a part of the Living Cully service provision, but a small part in comparison to the job creation platform Verde provides. Staff leaders ask themselves, with genuine concern, “Is this enough to prevent displacement?” Only time will tell.

Adapted from “Resilience for All,” by Barbara Brown Wilson. Copyright © 2018 Barbara Brown Wilson. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Barbara Brown Wilson’s research and teaching focus on the ethics, theory, and practice of sustainable community design and development, and on the history of urban social movements. Wilson's current research projects include understanding how grassroots community networks reframe public infrastructure in more climate and culturally appropriate ways across the U.S. and helping to elevate the standards of evaluation for community-engaged design around notions of social and ecological justice. She is a member of the Equity Collective, whose work is featured in the Cooper Hewitt Museum's By the People: Designing a Better America Exhibition. She is a co-founder of the Design Futures Student Leadership Forum, a five-day student leadership training which convenes students and faculty from a consortium of universities with leading practitioners all working to elevate the educational realms of community-engaged design; and a co-founder of the Austin Community Design and Development Center (ACDDC), a nonprofit design center that provides high-quality green design and planning services to lower-income households and the organizations that serve them.