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Forest Grove residents use more energy and are poorer than their neighbors

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATHLEEN ROHDE - Pacific junior Cassandra Gallegos (far left) mediated the renewable energy and solar energy breakout group at the first of three sustainability conferences sponsored by the city of Forest Grove, Pacific University, Metro and others.This weekend Forest Grove took it’s most visible stab at solving the conundrum of building a more sustainable city.

The eco-friendly buzzword was installed in the vision statement of the city in 2007. Since then, an ad hoc sustainability committee was formed and this year the city spent $3,000 to hire a sustainability intern.

Now city officials hope to build momentum toward tackling the city’s goals with a series of Sustainability Summits, the first held Saturday, Oct. 20.

“What we are trying to do is develop a sustainability perspective for the entire community not just the city of Forest Grove,” said Jon Holan, Forest Grove community development director.

Representatives from the city of Forest Grove, the Forest Grove School District, Pacific University and various organizations, including the city’s ad-hoc sustainability committee, joined together in Pacific’s Marsh Hall the morning of Oct. 20. Together these groups started the process of creating a more sustainable city.

“If we are truly to practice sustainability we need to partner with our friends throughout the region, throughout the country and indeed, throughout the world,” said Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax. “It starts locally, it starts here and grows.”

High poverty, high energy use

To start the summit, Forest Grove sustainability intern and Pacific junior Kiersten Iwai presented an assessment of Forest Grove’s use of water and energy, along with socioeconomic data. The presentation was a sneak preview of the three baseline assessments that Iwai is developing as part of her city internship.

“The high percentage of poverty was really striking,” Iwai said.

She found 19.2 percent of people in Forest Grove are below the poverty level. This is significantly higher than the county average, 9.5 percent.

David Morelli, enterprise database administrator at Pacific University, said the city’s mobile home parks provide housing for the poor.

“This is our ghetto,” Morelli said. “But they’re a large, important part of our community.”

Iwai said another shock — Forest Grove’s energy usage — could inspire more people to become involved in efforts toward a more sustainable Forest Grove.

Energy usage is gauged with kilowatt-hours, or kWh. A 60-watt light bulb lit for an hour uses 60 kWh. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration the average residential household in Oregon uses 964 kWh per month. In 2010 the average residential unit in Forest Grove used more than 1,100 kWh per month. The national average is 960 kWh per month.

“We know that sustainability is good for the environment and we know that it is good for the economy,” said Truax. “There’s no need to make a choice, there’s no either/or.”

Communication, education key

The first way to start on the road to sustainability is for the community to come together and communicate, said Deke Gundersen, Pacific biology professor.

In that spirit, the summit split up the audience into groups that focused on areas of sustainability that interested them most. The breakout groups covered topics ranging from renewable energy to climate change, and from green building to social equity. Each group identified current problems and proposed solutions for their focus area through discussion.

And each group identified the same barrier. The public doesn’t know much about the specific challenges each topic represents.

“Change has to come from the way we think about change,” said Mikaila Way, a Pacific alum and volunteer for both the B Street Permaculture Project and the Dairy Creek Community Food Web.

With that in mind, educating Forest Grove residents about sustainability formed the link between the breakout groups.

“There needs to be more education in general,” said sustainability committee member Brad Ford Taylor. “Education starts changing the community’s psyche.”

More specific ideas emerged as well. Creating a centralized means of communication and collaboration between organizations promoting sustainability was popular.

The social equity group brainstormed having a year-round farmers market. The transportation group considered that 70 percent of Forest Grove residents commute outside the city. The group said employers should start encouraging employees to carpool and that government could make biking safer and more convenient.

The renewable and solar energy group suggested that citizens help the city review its own energy sources.

“The city needs to adopt a rate structure that encourages wind and solar,” Morelli said.

Over the course of the next two conferences, organizers hope to take the ideas built up in the first conference, plan next steps in the second and finally share the results of the initiative at the third conference. The next conference is scheduled for early February.

All these summits will develop an overall framework for how Forest Grove is going to uphold sustainable practices, a city goal. Organizers hope attendance increases with each summit.

“I think given our surrounding natural resources and the size of our city we can become a model community,” said Gundersen. “One that other communities will look at. I really, truly believe this.”

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