The first thing that hits you is the sheer physical beauty ― evergreen forests, distant peaks, the shimmer of the skyline, and the graceful span of bridges across the Willamette River.
The next thing most people notice about Portland is its sublime livability, borne out by any number of statistics. It has the highest percentage of bike commuters in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The most green buildings per capita, as rated by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The toughest anti-sprawl ordinances in the nation. The first formal plan from an American city for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Clearly, this town is doing something right. And it all boils down to one simple idea: In Portland, people work together to get stuff done. Three couples ― from a pair of new homeowners to a duo of veteran activists ― show us what can happen when living green becomes a citywide passion.
THE NEW HOMEOWNERS
A young couple lives green with a compact house and close neighbors
Every monday night, Laura Ford and Josh Devine sit down to dinner with their neighbors. The event is called "Family Supper," and each week a different member takes a turn providing the food and setting the table for nine. "It's mainly about socializing, but we also throw in a little business so we don't have to have formal meetings," Laura says.
The reason for these weekly get-togethers? The couple is part of a new infill community called Sabin Green ― four homes on a 75- by 100-foot lot that once housed only a single two-bedroom bungalow and garage. Created by Eli Spevak, a developer specializing in affordable housing, and designed by Mark Lakeman, the homes have porches and trellises and face a central courtyard that includes built-in benches, gardens, a bike shed, and a teahouse with a living green roof. The thriving Alberta Arts District is three blocks away.
Josh and Laura's house, which they bought last year for $143,000, is a mere 530 square feet. "The greenest thing about our home is its size," says Josh, a math and social studies teacher at a school for special-needs kids. "It's the perfect way for young or low-income people to get into the housing market." The arrangement is also a handy mixture of principle and practicality. Says Laura, an assistant for the Food & Farms program at a nonprofit called Ecotrust, "Living in a tiny home really helps with our footprint, but at the same time, it's what we could afford."
Cohousing arrangements such as this one ― in which a homeowners' association owns the lot but residents own their own houses ― are increasingly popular in Portland, where urban-growth boundary laws create a need for higher-density development. Of course, common values are essential to simply getting along. Sabin Green's four households ― which include a retired couple, a family with two young children, and a single woman with a dog ― make decisions as a group, from the purchase of mulberry shrubs to the implementation of more ambitious goals. Recently (and not without some initial apprehension) they downscaled from a 90-gallon community trash bin to a 30-gallon can that gets emptied once a week. Spurred on by that success, the neighbors are considering other green initiatives, such as reducing their recycling output and reusing their gray water. "I hear a lot of people say, 'You're really doing your part,' " Josh says. "But it's not that hard to do much, especially in a place like Portland."
JOSH AND LAURA'S TIPS
Buy edibles in bulk "We cut way back on our packaging waste by shopping in bulk for things like flour and granola," Laura says, "and reusing the plastic bags that they come in."
Reduce junk mail "Write companies and ask to be taken off their mailing lists," Laura suggests. "It takes a lot of energy to recycle ― it's just another form of trash." Sign up for the free service at catalogchoice.org to decline unwanted catalogs.
Pool resources The four households have one newspaper subscription and also share gardening tools and Internet access (they are among the beta testers for a new wireless system called Meraki).
A pair of entrepreneurs carves out a family-friendly niche in the heart of the city
Five times an hour, the Portland Streetcar stops right outside Justin Yuen's loft building, a converted 1910 warehouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That access was a major reason that he and his wife, Katrina Gonzalez Yuen, decided to make a home for themselves and their 2-year-old daughter, Malina, amid the trendy restaurants and high-rise condos of the Pearl District. "We'd been living in Amsterdam when Justin worked for Nike, and we wanted to have that same kind of lifestyle here," Katrina says.
A former marshland along the Willamette River that was converted into railroad yards and warehouses at the turn of the 20th century, the Pearl became the focus of urban-planning efforts to create a mixed-use neighborhood in the 1980s. In partnership with property developers, the city drew up goals that ranged from the construction of the streetcar line to the preservation of the cobblestone streets that help give the area its character.
Now the Pearl is a natural incubator for start-up companies like the one founded by Justin, whose office is eight blocks from home. Once part of Nike's corporate responsibility team, Justin launched a software firm called FMYI, which provides online tools (from shared databases to discussion boards) that make it easier and greener for groups of people to collaborate. "Our ultimate goal is a paperless workplace," he says. Nike is among FMYI's clients, and so are Target and Sony. Katrina runs her own homegrown business, an online boutique called MNL Style featuring artisan-designed housewares and accessories from her native Philippines. Many of her products are crafted out of natural or recycled materials, such as juice boxes woven into brightly colored grocery bags.
Even in the city's urban core, a strong sense of family life prevails. Malina waves at her favorite streetcar drivers and romps through the grasses at Tanner Springs Park (an artistic homage to the area's original wetlands). Katrina keeps up to date with daily reports on the neighborhood blog. "The Pearl is a great example of developers working with the city to create a community from the ground up in less than 10 years," says Justin, who cochairs Portland's Sustainable Development Commission (whose recent report helped the city secure more than $1 million in funding for green businesses). "It has to do with the values people grow up with around here ― collaboration, the environment. The culture of Portland is about doing a lot of little things well."
JUSTIN AND KATRINA'S TIPS
Go green at work Bring sustainability into the office by discussing potential improvements with coworkers. One suggestion from Justin: "Reduce paper and travel by collaborating online."
Limit impulse buys "Our biggest challenge comes in not buying Malina things she doesn't need," says Katrina. "We're trying to be a little less emotional about our purchases. We've also started doing toy swaps with a neighbor."
Educate the next generation "The best thing parents can do is to involve kids with decisions they make," Justin says. "Discussing choices as they grow older will have the most impact on sustainability."
Team spirit takes on a new meaning for a duo devoted to bartering, recycling, and community
When Mark Lakeman and Lydia Doleman got married last August, their 260 guests took the party into the streets. The ceremony was held at the intersection of S.E. Ninth Avenue and S.E. Sherrett Street, in the bungalow-rich Sellwood neighborhood. Handmade streamers adorned elaborate treelike gateways carved by volunteers, friends brought platters of savory food, and the bride wore a floor-length satin dress that she'd bartered for sculptural work. The wedding was creative, inclusive, a little eccentric ― and wholly representative of the couple's worldview.
Mark and Lydia are frequent collaborators: He is an ecological designer, she's a builder specializing in straw-bale construction. ("He wears the tie, I wear the pants," Lydia laughs.) But what truly excites them is grassroots activism. "One of the least sustainable things about a modern city is the idea that streets are only for cars, not for people," says Mark, who has traveled around the world living with indigenous communities in places from Italian hill towns to the Mayan rain forest. "We're trying to turn the intersection back into a public gathering place."
Their wedding site is a prime example. Dubbed "Share-It Square," the revitalized crossroads is a source of urban pride, with a tea stand, kids' playhouse, bulletin board, and "freecycling" station. As part of a volunteer organization called City Repair, the couple helps neighborhood groups create building projects with the goal of bringing people together. Mark is also the founder of a design collective called Communitecture, whose services (as its name implies) combine architecture and community development. Clients are charged on a sliding scale and seen in a donated office space. "We basically don't turn anyone away ― we're constantly reinvesting in our community," Mark says.
Another of their collaborations is the ReBuilding Center, a veritable cathedral of architectural salvage. The 64,000-square-foot structure was designed by Mark, with a striking entryway made by Lydia from cob ― clay, sand, and straw. "The center has totally changed Portland's aesthetic," Lydia says. "Now almost everyone has a reclaimed window."
To meet the couple is to come away brimming with ideas yet remain connected to an elemental truth. "For me, the real proof of sustainability goes back to the simple things in our lives ― the quality of our relationships, the health of our kids," Mark says. It's a community vision we can all buy into.
LYDIA AND MARK'S TIPS
Bond with your neighbors "Bring people together with things you already have in common, like food, before tackling more stressful topics like construction," Lydia says.
Shop for salvaged materials Not only does it keep usable goods out of landfills, it's also more affordable (the ReBuilding Center, for example, prices its inventory at 50 to 90 percent off retail value).
Carpool whenever possible Mark and Lydia's pickup trucks, which run on biodiesel and vegetable oil, are often pressed into service for the greater good. "We'll coordinate routes to transport building materials or help someone move," Mark says. "We treat our personal possessions like community resources."