Having returned to Portland in August 2007 after eight years in Washington, D.C. where I was helping aging parents and infusing some of Portland’s “green” zeal into DC politics, I was both disturbed and delighted. I was disturbed to see the new auto-oriented “lifestyle centers” that had sprung up on the outskirts of Portland. I was even further disturbed to see young leaders in the Urban Land Institute hang on the words of the developer of those lifestyle centers when he told them that Oregon was under-retailed and they would have ample opportunity to follow his example.
I was delighted to recruit one of those emerging developers to take an active role in the formation of the Cascadia Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism. She and I were delighted to see so many higher density projects springing up in Portland, not only in the city center, but also along its corridors where we recognized opportunity for emerging New Urbanist developers.
In an effort to enhance its reputation as a top “green” city, Portland was trying to formulate a new green building bill in order to surpass Washington, D.C. and Boston which had recently passed aggressive bills mandating that the private sector achieve a green building-rating. I jumped on the Portland bandwagon too. I wanted Portland to address climate change as rigorously as possible and continue to serve as a North American model.
As the initiator and initial author of the Washington, D.C. green building legislation, I had gotten caught up in the momentum of that movement. However, as a planner, I’ve been skeptical of the way sustainability advocates have made U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (USGBC-LEED) certification the standard for sustainability within the built environment. I never saw my LEED-accredited colleagues at the rezoning debates along the transit corridors where some neighbors were resisting any change in density. And I never saw them at Oregon Metro’s discussions on urban growth boundary expansion. That prompted me to do a little research.
According to City-Data.com, Boston was about four times more dense than Portland. Even low-rise Washington, DC was about two and a half times more dense. Research by some of my Portland colleagues for their “pdXPLORE: Designing Portland’s Form” exhibition revealed similar data for San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. (This data is only for the cities themselves, not their regions. Portland is the only one of these cities to have had a regional urban growth boundary since 1979, so results may be different if I compared each region.) Yet, as my new urbanist colleague Michael Mehaffy points out in his Planetizen article The Urban Dimensions of Climate Change, “Little attention has gone to one of the largest drivers of climate-changing emissions: the urban structure of our cities, towns and suburbs.”
Mehaffy reports that research suggests that a change in the way we build cities can cut total emissions by one-third or more. What’s more, unless we change the way we build our cities and suburbs in the United States, emissions will likely continue to increase–possibly dramatically–if large countries like China, India and Brazil follow that model.
Density is not the only factor in getting back to an urban form that is truly sustainable. That’s why members of the Congress for the New Urbanism focus not only on addressing urban form, but on the urban design of walkable, complete neighborhoods. We have found that higher densities—say at the level of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C. or the Nob Hill neighborhood in San Francisco— make it possible to walk to meet most of one’s daily needs because there are more people to support the shops and services. Great urban design makes it enjoyable to walk to those shops and services.
Density can even help us to better preserve natural areas and hence preserve or restore more ecosystem services such as wastewater management. The more we achieve compact growth, the more we can leave or restore existing areas of vegetative cover, wetland and permeable ground and the more we can leave intact ecosystems that perform otherwise potentially costly services to clean our water, air and soil.
John Jacob and Ricardo Lopez, in their Journal of the American Water Resources Association article abstract to “Is Denser Greener? An Evaluation of Higher Density Development as an Urban Stormwater-Quality Best Management Practice,” conclude that it is.“… Higher densities such as those associated with transit-oriented development could outperform almost all traditional stormwater best management practices (BMPs), in terms of reduced loadings per a constant population.”
(I’m still arguing with John Jacob that we should do both—higher densities and ecosystem-based stormwater management. And Portland is proving that we can under many conditions.)
Some of the best green design and technological approaches are very dependent on mid- to high-density developments. I developed an alliance with a fellow student in the smart grid class I took last year because he realized that New-Urbanist inspired, walkable communities would be the best markets for his company’s electric vehicles. Density around sources that give off waste heat—such as hospitals, stadiums and transit tunnels—creates opportunities for cogeneration. Since a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to heating/cooling systems, communities should pursue any opportunity to establish district heating systems. Density and mixed uses make district heating more profitable and hence more viable.
Yet, I continue to hear my fellow neighborhood activists come to meetings on the Portland Plan (currently in development partly in response to a state-mandated revision of the comprehensive plan) to object to further density in their neighborhoods. I continue to read stories like the one about the new mayor in Vancouver, Wash., Tim Leavitt, who currently resides in downtown Vancouver close to City Hall. He is hoping to build a ranch-style house amongst his power base in the sprawled suburbs of East Vancouver, “with every sustainable feature imaginable.” As long as we continue to see sustainability as tied up in technology (what New Urbanists call “Gizmo Green”), we may fail to see the contradiction here. I suspect that Leavitt would do far more good for the planet by staying where he is.
As Brent Toderian and Mark Holland posit in their Urban Land Green article, The Case for Density, “Density is one of the most powerful tools any municipality has to achieve sustainability in all its dimensions. The 21st century will be the century of densification…”
Mary Vogel, a Congress for the New Urbanism accredited professional, is principal of PlanGreen a Woman Business Enterprise in the State of Oregon that seeks to bring ecosystem services to excellent urban design. She was active in developing LEED ND, the Sustainable Sites Initiative and Light Imprint New Urbanism. She is a founding member of the Cascadia Chapter of CNU and active in CNU’s national Water Initiative as well as Project for Transportation Reform.
This article first appeared on Mary Vogel’s Sustainable Industries Plan Green blog at bit.ly/PlanGreenSIblog.
 US DOE maintains that “As much as half of the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling”. http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=heat_cool.pr_hvac