In July, Portland City Council heard a one-year update on Portland's 2020 climate emergency declaration. The city is making progress in some areas, like transit access and affordability, green building code reform, and programs to reduce emissions from large industrial and institutional sources. But other climate initiatives have stalled or not even started. Automobile traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Carbon emissions from existing buildings and transportation represent a huge inertial lag on the crucial need to rapidly electrify and decarbonize our city.
At the moment, the city is hyper-focused on emissions reductions. We applaud this focus, but there is a corresponding need to accelerate adaptation to a changing climate through a coordinated green infrastructure strategy. We must expand the urban tree canopy, remove or set back human infrastructure from floodplains, require ecoroofs city-wide, reduce heat-trapping pavement, and boost access to parks and natural areas — all with a special emphasis on frontline communities. The biggest challenge to this work is not funding but political will and fragmented city bureau leadership.
The city's climate emergency declaration calls for the Bureau of Environmental Services to lead and collaborate with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Parks, Bureau of Transportation, PSU and the community on the creation of a city-wide green infrastructure action plan. The one-year report to the council makes it sound like this work is happening, but the PSU contract has ended, dialog with other bureaus has stalled, community organizations have not been engaged, and critical BES staff are on other assignments.
We need more than statements, big-picture visions, and less-than-forthcoming reports to the council. We need immediate action and leadership. The Bureau of Environmental Services is backsliding to the days when it was simply a sewer bureau. Bureau leadership has forgotten that BES is the city's lead environmental bureau, which is responsible for managing stormwater, improving watershed health, addressing endangered species, integrating green infrastructure and responding to climate change.
No other bureau besides BES has the science and expertise to lead the city in climate adaptation with green infrastructure. The city's future depends on it. Can the council or the City Charter Commission provide a course correction?
Ted Labbe is executive director and Mike Houck is emeritus director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, which advocates for green infrastructure and climate adaptation across the Portland metropolitan region. Labbe is a conservation biologist with 25 years experience in planning, policy analysis, habitat conservation, and community organizing. Houck has worked for more than 40 years on natural resources and urban greenspaces conservation.
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