File Under Portland Envy

This past October the Portland City Council adopted a new Climate Action Plan, coauthored by the City and Multnomah County. The Plan includes a greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory, similar to the report recently published by the City of Seattle, but that’s where the similarity ends. Because apparently unlike Seattle, Portland is taking the issue of climate change seriously enough to follow up their GHG inventory with in-depth analysis, goals, and proposed actions.

The Portland/Multnomah County GHG inventory results look a lot like Seattle’s, with two notable exceptions. First, Multnomah’s total emissions have not fallen as much as Seattle’s—in 2008, Multnomah County’s emissions were one percent below 1990 levels, as compared to the seven percent drop achieved in Seattle. Seattle fared better because of larger reductions in emissions from the industrial and building sectors.

Second, Multnomah’s inventory doesn’t include air travel, so with that subtracted from Seattle’s data, Seattle wins the per capita emissions contest—9.2 metric tons per person per year compared to 11.9 metric tons in Multnomah. But, as has been discussed previously, the low carbon intensity of Seattle’s electricity complicates interpretation of these data points. In 2008, per capita electricity consumption was nearly the same—13,355 kWh in Seattle, and 12,074 kWh in Multnomah—but the per capita GHG emissions associated with that electricity use were 21 times higher in Multnomah than in Seattle.

It’s debatable how to account for regional elements like the electricity grid in local GHG inventories. But if Seattle gets credit in the GHG reduction contest for taking the initiative to build hydropower dams, then they also have a corresponding responsibility for the decimation of the salmon runs, which impacts the entire Pacific Northwest.

Another artifact of the higher carbon intensity electricity in the Portland area is a reduction of the relative contribution of transportation to total GHG emissions—it’s 38 percent in Multnomah, compared to 62 percent in Seattle. But that doesn’t mean people are driving less in Seattle. Depending on who’s numbers you believe (e.g. here, here, here, or here), per capita vehicle miles traveled in both places are in the range of 20 miles per day.

The short story is that carbon footprints are similar in Seattle and Portland because people’s lifestyles are essentially the same in both cities. But one marked difference between the two cities is how they followed through on all that GHG data they collected. Seattle’s analysis was minimal, as noted in previous posts (here, here, and here). In contrast, Portland uses the GHG inventory as a foundation upon which to build and extensive set of goals and actions for addressing climate change.

Reduction targets are established for 2030 and 2050. Goals and actions are divided into broad range of categories: Buildings and Energy; Urban Form and Mobility; Consumption and Solid Waste; Urban Forestry and Natural Systems; Food and Agriculture; Community Engagement; Climate Change Preparation; and Local Government Operations. And it’s all packaged up in a 70 page document with great graphics and thoughtful writing. The table below provides a good summary.


Portland envy among urbanists has become a cliche, and there may well be more hype than substance. But still, there is something palpably exceptional about Portland’s approach to promoting sustainable urbanism, and in particular they always seem to be a few steps ahead of Seattle. For example, here’s a list of Portland area organizations that contributed to the Climate Action Plan:

  • City of Portland Peak Oil Task Force
  • Portland and Multnomah County Sustainable Developoment Commission
  • Portland and Multnomah County Food Policy Council
  • Mayor’s Planning and Sustainability Cabinet

Did you catch that? Portland has an official Peak Oil Task Force. Here in Seattle I get the sense that most of our electeds are uncomfortable even uttering those words. And that last item in the list sure has a familiar ring to it.

It’s a curious thing, this cultural contrast between Portland and Seattle. Demographically, the populations are almost indistinguishable. At the risk of overly generalizing, perhaps the most pertinent difference between the two cities is that Seattle is more “corporate.” Is it as simple as that?

17 Responses to “File Under Portland Envy”

  1. Wells

    I realize the importance of studies which tally emissions so they may be quantified, progress tracked etc, but there’s a couple main differences between these Northwest rival cities that makes the differences in their green credentials easier to understand.

    Portland began its process of judicious urban planning nearly 40 years ago with Oregon’s statewide UGB (Urban Growth Boundary) Law. Within the Portland(metropolitan area UGB) there are 24 cities which plan collectively where growth and development occurs. The Seattle metropolitan area paid little attention to the concept of regional planning until the 90’s, and serious misunderstandings continue.

    Portlanders can foresee how growth and development of many regional cities and commercial centers will improve their economies, restore habitat, reduce regional traffic, etc. Seattlers are downtown and inner-city centric. (Sightline reports MLK Way has ‘not’ seen much development. Portlanders see a lot of development on MLK and more to come.) Portlanders see beautiful regional destinations becoming conveniently accessible on rail transit. Seattlers can’t see past inner-city skyscrapers.

    In the 90’s, Portland harvested national kudos for inner-city pedestrian amenities, parks, storefront business modelling, light rail, associated environmental benefits, etc. (Seattle then hopped on the bus inebriated.)

    Portland’s strategy for guiding growth came to be associated with the principles of New Urbanism. This is the other main difference between Portland and Seattle. Seattle is far behind in applying sensible principles to both regional and inner-city planning. Selfish Seattle ignores its regional context and extravagently shortchanges its inner-city infrastructure.

    Seattle’s transportation planning department is an obsoletely car-centric holdover from the 1950’s. “Don’t worry, a bigger AWV would be nice, electric cars are the solution. Too bad they don’t fly,” Peter Bagge would say.

  2. Jay

    Once again Wells proves that he can’t say anything without resorting to insults. Still wonder why no one takes you seriously Wells?

  3. Cow

    Awesome work, Portland.

    What we’re doing here in Vancouver is pretty exciting, too — quoting a recent press release, because I’m too lazy to reword right now:

    GCAT Plan Promises Big Green Changes by 2020

    Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson and the rest of the GCAT team are laying down the ground work for a ten-year plan to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world. The new report released by GCAT suggests a number of goals to improve the city’s green economy, ranging from leading the world in green building design and construction, to reducing the carbon footprint of our food by 33% by 2020, to creating 20,000 new green jobs by 2020.

    The GCAT is composed of 14 local environmental leaders including Dr. David Suzuki and former Premier Mike Harcourt. The group was assembled by the Mayor in February 2009, and has since issued its first report Greenest City: Quick Start Recommendations to council in April. The Quick Start report contained 44 recommendations for action, three-quarters of which have been initiated or completed. [Quick Start report at ]

    To read the full 2020 Vancouver: A Bright Green Future report, click here [ ].

    Good stuff. :D

  4. Wells

    Jay, Once again you add nothing to the discussion. Your ‘shoot the messenger’ comments are worthless.

  5. Eric de Place

    Dan wrote: “But if Seattle gets credit in the GHG reduction contest for taking the initiative to build hydropower dams, then they also have a corresponding responsibility for the decimation of the salmon runs, which impacts the entire Pacific Northwest.”

    At the risk of sounding like a shill for Seattle City Light, it’s worth pointing out that the SCL dams on the upper Skagit were built above a natural barrier for salmon. So, unlike some the big dams on the Columbia, they actually don’t obstruct salmon passage or close off habitat. Of course, it’s true that the presence of dams upstreams alters river-flow and other hydrodynamics that affect fish, but SCL is pretty widely regarded to have done a good job of managing flow to protect spawning fish.

    There are other dams in the Skagit Watershed, such as PSE’s Baker Lake complex dams that are, in my understanding, more harmful to fish.

  6. Ross

    Wells: I totally agree with the first two paragraphs. I think from there you exaggerate a bit. The Portland area deserves a lot of credit, but the greater Seattle planning suffers from quite a few bad decisions and a bad tax system. We have no income tax, so any tax will raise the already high property or sales tax. This makes it hard to get big transit projects done. The greater Seattle area rejected rail plan after rail plan before we got the current (half ass) system we have now. We did manage to approve a very nice monorail, only to see it fail because of an accounting error. Probably the worst part of the state’s tax system is the requirement that gas tax money go to roads.

    I guess I would quibble with your assessment a bit, in that the big problem in the Seattle area is that it took us so long to have any growth plan in place, not that our growth plan is focused on the city. Over the last twenty years we’ve had plenty of growth in the suburbs, while we’ve put limits on the skyscrapers downtown. If we had a more organized system, then much of the suburban growth just wouldn’t have happened (Microsoft would have located in downtown Seattle, perhaps, or maybe Everett or Tacoma). Had that happened, then the current voting trends (towards spending money on transit) probably would have happened much quicker.

  7. The Coolest Park & Ride Ever | hugeasscity

    […] keep my employer out of HAC, but recent discussions of park & rides combined with a bad case of Portland envy compel me to break that rule presently. For you see, my GGLO colleagues and I just responded to a […]

  8. Wells

    Ross, I tried to portray the differences I perceive between Portland and Seattle and their respective metropolitan areas. If there’s a principle difference, it’s that Portland metropolitan area cities more carefully practice infill development than does Seattle area cities, even though Seattle area landscape consists of more wetland, forested hillside and watershed. Personally, I really can envision the cities within the Portland region developing into thriving and marvelous places, much like inner-city Portland.

    It may be that property taxes indeed discourage homeowner support of taxation for transit systems, but I doubt it. My take on all urban and transportation planning is bare bones engineering, not funding mechanisms. The Greenline Monorail in my opinion was very poor engineering. I favored the East Queen Anne route along Westlake and along the downtown Seattle waterfront in place of the AWV and above Battery Street. I figured it had lower impact, triple the ridership base, and affected much more development. No one took the time to think about it. I still support monorail to West Seattle and Ballard following that route though I’d plan to extend to Northgate and Seatac Link LRT station junctions/terminii.

  9. Bill B

    from Publicola:
    At yesterday’s city council retreat/question-and-answer free-for-all, newly elected City Council member Mike O’Brien asked his former Sierra Club cohort, Mike McGinn, what sounded like a softball: Given that McGinn was elected on an environmental platform, and given that McGinn supporters have been clamoring for policies that will make Seattle the nation’s first carbon-neutral city, O’Brien asked, what kind of forward-thinking climate initiative might McGinn push as mayor?

    McGinn’s somewhat surprising (underwhelming?) response: “I’ve only thought a little bit about it. … I’m not terribly inclined, frankly, to stick some bold stake in the ground about where we’re going to be in the future. … It feels good to set bold goals… but it doesn’t feel good to set bold goals and then take steps that are inconsistent with them.”

  10. John MCain SEO

    Saw your blog bookmarked on Digg.

  11. Guadalupe Wyles

    Arthritis in dogs can be a huge problem that many people never even think of in senior dogs.

  12. location gite guadeloupe

    Super ce blog, merci de partager votre avis, je suis tout à fait d’accord avec votre opinion. Moi j’ai pris un gite en Guadeloupe et j’y ai passé les plus belles vacances de ma vie !

  13. chambre hotes finistere

    Mille merci pour ce sujet intéressant, cela m’a bien aidé!

  14. Louboutins Shoes

    Super ce blog,Given that McGinn was elected on an environmental platform, and given that McGinn supporters have been clamoring for policies that will make Seattle the nation’s first carbon-neutral city,

  15. wood working projects

    wood working projects…

    […]File Under Portland Envy | hugeasscity[…]…

  16. Anonymous

    massachusetts criminal records…

    likewise, sussing out up your new zero and the risk of person who’s done something in the past times is ne’er zero….

  17. Repeating The Case For Inelastic Land Supply | The Urbanist

    […] a valuable perspective to the debate. He has a lot of planning experience, and a long history advocating for a more sustainable city. Discussion with Roger Valdez from Smart Growth […]