An Interview with Portland Mayor Sam Adams

Portland’s mayor and GE’s Kevin Decker fill in Katie Drennan on the city’s EcoDistricts program, and its partnership with GE.

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In 2009, the Portland Sustainability Institute and the City of Portland launched the EcoDistricts Initiative, meant to act upon the region’s commitment to sustainability. The initiative revolves around the selection of five EcoDistricts, neighborhoods or districts “with a broad commitment to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability.” The five pilot districts are the Lloyd District, Portland State University, Gateway, Lents and South Waterfront – North Macadam.

According to PoSI:

EcoDistricts commit to achieving ambitious sustainability performance goals, guiding district investments and community action, and tracking the results over time. PoSI recognizes that technologies and strategies for enhancing neighborhood sustainability, such as energy and water management systems, green streets, and resource conservation, are well known. However, the widespread deployment of these strategies has been slow to develop due to lack of comprehensive assessment tools, scalable project capital, and public policy support. The EcoDistricts Initiative focuses on removing these implementation barriers and creating an enabling strategy to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability.

Portland is involving a number of partners, both public, private and nonprofit, to make the EcoDistricts happen. One potent partnership is with GE, which will provide broad-based support to the initiative, assisting local businesses, implementing energy retrofits, physically developing the EcoDistricts and helping build the Oregon Sustainability Center.

Earlier this month, Portland Mayor Sam Adams and GE’s Kevin Decker sat down with Next American Vanguard member and Transportation for America staffer Katie Drennan to talk about EcoDistricts and what they mean for the future of the city.

Katie Drennan: Can you tell me about how EcoDistricts came about?

Sam Adams: Portland already has in place many of the necessary pieces in place for EcoDistricts. We saw that we could weave together these threads into deeply sustainable and green districts – in some cases new build, in some retrofit. These districts would emphasize not just sustainable energy but also sustainable stormwater and drinking water.

Are the five chosen districts meant to be mixed use? How are you shaping what goes in the districts (retail, residential, etc.)?

Adams: Portland’s standard approach to district-making is to have mixed-income opportunities. Our best work is in housing, and we are now applying the same expectations to affordable, small independent commercial. We are moving forward on triple-bottom-line sustainability, not just for a shallow environmental footprint, but to provide people with economic security and prosperity and make sure that opportunities are equal for all to achieve more social justice and equity. Portland suffers from the same trends, to a lesser extent, as the nation at large in terms of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Meanwhile, the middle class is challenged like never before. Another focus of social equity is that in Portland, communities of color are in a worse position in terms of economic security when compared with similar communities in Seattle and San Francisco. So we have a lot of work to do. We get high praise for environmental sustainability, but we shouldn’t sit on our laurels. We should always do more.

What about the community engagement process?

Adams: We’ll need the voluntary enlistment of residents of the EcoDistricts. We can’t force them to be a part of it, so we’ll need lots of outreach and education to help them see the benefits. People will need the assurance that when they unplug their home heating and cooling systems and plug into the collective system, they will have protection against higher costs. The more people that opt out, the less we can achieve the full benefits, so outreach is key. One way we’ve worked to get people to throw the switch is through Clean Energy Works Portland, now Energy Works Oregon, in which we used $2.4 million from federal stimulus and some of our own money and partnered with ShoreBank, NW Natural, PacifiCorp and PG&E to start the nation’s first on-bill financing and payoff for clean energy retrofit homes. In the past few years 2,800 Portland residents did the original energy audit, but never acted on it. Now we have the opportunity to understand how to get people to do the right thing.

What are some other new technologies to be used?

Adams: Portland already has buildings that don’t have sewage outputs, harvest gray water, have wind mills and are solar powered. The scale of going from a single building or project to an entire neighborhood of 20 acres with sustainable electricity, water, and sewage is a whole new voyage. Portland, being a smaller city, must be scrappy; we have to throw ourselves into the innovation effort by becoming a living laboratory. Our job is to be a competitive city in a global economy by being the change that we seek to be, and then monetizing that. Portland development firms take green expertise and sell it around the world. This is part of the justification for the EcoDistricts. We also involved the private sector.

How will you determine when you will expand the project beyond the initial five districts?

Adams: First, we have to get some implementation done and learn lessons. At the same time my team has already identified the difference in urban types, but what you learn in a low-income residential neighborhood that was historically developed in an agricultural setting and turning that into an EcoDistrict may not be easily translated to Conway and Slabtown because they are highly urbanized areas. We will learn and get clues one from the other.

How is GE involved?

Adams: EcoDistricts that encompass energy, water, sewage, and waste in totality haven’t really been done. GE has an “Ecomagination” program in which they actually make products. They also have many green internal practices, and have figured out a way to array their products and policies so that they can still make money on the intellectual capital of putting it all together. That’s why we sought out each other. It’s a good fit with what Portland is trying to do with EcoDistricts because it’s never been done before. Portland has to be strategic and put ourselves on the line to compete in the global economy by being a living laboratory. We risk failure because we don’t have a choice – mid-sized cities like us must figure out our place in the global economy.

Kevin, why did GE as an international company want to work with Portland?

Kevin Decker: We’re attracted to Portland because they’re doing brave, new things and we want to be a part of it. We’re an infrastructure company and they’re doing infrastructure things. We’re a green company; they’re doing green things. They’re not just doing energy or sewage, but they’re doing the whole gamut of solutions. They also figured out how to work with a plethora of entities – not just government, not just NGOs, but corporate and private industries. The mayor has established not just city agencies to watch over partnerships, but NGOs and tangential organizations that have creative thinkers who have a directive to go after these big ideas. They are not weighed down with bureaucracy, and it makes them easy for us to work with.

What should a city do attract GE’s attention? What would they need to do to prepare themselves to enter a similar partnership?

Decker: If they wanted to do something as pervasive as Portland, they’d have to figure out what structures they might need internally. Are you serious in that you have actionable plans? I want to be green in 2080 as well, but do I have things that I’ll do this quarter, next quarter, or the one after that can actually get this done? Do I have the human financial resources or the alignment and ally backing or the federal or state resources that I need to get it done? Actionable plans, an internal structure and a project champion – the mayor has to be involved. That, I think, is sufficient to get the ball rolling.

Adams: There a lot of cities in the U.S. that are primed for this kind of bold leap. Whether it’s GE or some other company that they want to work with, cities can’t do it on their own, or you’re leaving expertise on the table. There are companies that want to work with you. Federal and state governments are cutting back. Cities are cutting back. So my goal is to gain market share. A city’s market share is hard to quantify but it starts with doing things others haven’t. EcoDistricts are part of that.

Decker: Portland is world famous for its thinking around green and sustainability. It’s always on the first wave and that’s what attracted GE.

How do you sell a big project like this to Oregonians in tough economic times?

Adams: It takes leadership. It takes providing folks with fact-based credible information about how this is in their interest individually, for their family, and for their community, and how making smart investments in down times can pay off immediately and in the long-term. Our unemployment rate is 12.4 percent. We’re all looking for resilience. We have to take care of the people and businesses that are hurting the most in this recession. But you also have to set your city up for more permanent and resilient success in the future. If you just do one without the other, I think that’s folly.

How do you harness this smart, capable young class attracted to Portland that is unemployed? How do you get them involved?

Adams: We’re attractive to the highly educated 18-34 age group, and a huge percentage move without jobs. We’re the lowest-cost city on the west coast, so people can afford to hang out unemployed. Within reason, I think this is a huge asset. We’ve had 4,000 new business licenses taken out in the last two years. With that I’ve created the city’s first small startup seed fund because I can’t get the bigger lenders to crack open the vault for anything that smacks of risk. We’ve done our research into what industries have local strengths that match up with industries that will grow the fastest. Meanwhile, you have to have an R&D aspect. EcoDistricts fall under R&D, but also a lot of products and services that will go into EcoDistricts are made in Portland.

Decker: This notion of capital is good because you’re not going to hire talented young people without companies that are paying them and letting them work on interesting things. You can’t do that without money and you need investment. The best investments are things that have a bright future, and green is going to be one of those big things. The Portland-GE agreement centers on the opening up of $2.5 billion of GE venture capital. Two billion goes to updates, and half a billion goes to ecosystem technologies. We can guarantee an audience with his top 20 companies that he really wants to place bets on, which have good intellectual property. Pretty soon we’ll have a big pool of companies that want to look at these viable interests. As soon as they get capital and start exporting their intellectual property, they can start hiring again. They’ll get bigger. We’re not looking for Silicon Valley, but soon this area could be a hotbed of this type of thinking and professional talent.

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Tags: infrastructureportlandnext city vanguard

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