Thomas J. Story
Laura Ford and Josh Devine
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).