In honor of our Fast Cities Breakfast coming up on June 22, we spoke with Portland mayor Sam Adams, who, in his first State of City address last February, vowed to make Portland “the most sustainable city in the world.”
And this wasn’t some populist politician’s empty promise. In his first year in office, Adams implemented the Climate Action Plan, a roadmap to cutting Carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050; he’s merged the Office of Sustainable Development with the Bureau of Planning to infuse all city plans with sustainability; he’s worked toward allocating $20 million for new “bicycle boulevards“; and he’s started a pilot program for clean energy retrofitting.
Adams has proven that even in slow economic times, he’s still moving Portland forward as a Fast City.
Fast Company: In your first year in office, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment in Portland?
Mayor Sam Adams: I would say Clean Energy Works, which is the nation’s only consortium that offers on-bill financing for clean energy upgrades and retrofits. It addresses the hidden roadblock for sustainability, which is the lack of financing for clean technology upgrades for residential, commercial, and industrial buildings and facilities. This kind of financial tool is now needed more than ever. We’ve also embarked upon a 25-year strategic plan for the city. Called the Portland Plan, it better aligns the $9.7 billion in government spending that happens in Portland, and over time, make it more accountable to the public. I’m the mayor, but I’m only one of about 45 public decision makers on issues within the city.
FC: As just one decision maker, you must deal with many city officials, as well as the public. How do you keep Portland innovative in a system that tends to grind slowly?
SA: By being strategic, having a pull on the community, and taking risks. I’m always willing to put an idea out there, and in a friendly way, challenge others to come up with something better. I have a point of view, and I want to challenge others in an energetic and open way to come up with better ideas–and they often do.
FC: Especially in this tough economic climate though, how as mayor can you keep putting out bold ideas for Portland?
SA: With the federal stimulus, for example, we took our $2.4 million from HUD and the Department of Energy, and used it as venture capital to get Clean Energy Works going. We could have doled it out to individual facilities and buildings, which would have been more direct and politically expedient. But instead, we wanted to create a return on investments in a new industry. In this era of very tight revenues and budget cuts, it’s a lot about rethinking: About better aligning what you do have, and about paying attention to the quality and the effectiveness of what you’re doing.
FC: What Portland initiatives would you suggest for other big cities?
SA: Our open source and open data initiatives. We have CivicApps, where we’re turning over our information to the public and making government services more accountable.
We’re also working to make every section of Portland a complete 20-minute neighborhood to strengthen our local economy. Two-thirds of all trips in Portland and in most American cities are not about getting to and from work. So if I can offer quality, affordable goods and services, eliminate food deserts, have neighborhoods with schools and parks and amenities–if I can create these 20-minute complete neighborhoods all over Portland–it strengthens our local economy. We drive 20% less than cities of comparable size, and because we don’t manufacture cars, produce oil, or have car insurance companies, every dollar that we don’t spend elsewhere, will stay in Portland’s economy. There’s about $850 million that stays in Portlanders’s pockets because we drive less. With a 20-minute neighborhood, also reduce congestion and meet our climate action plan goals.
FC: You’ve promised to make Portland the most sustainable city in the world. Do you think it’s a necessity today to view Portland with a global mindset?
SA: Yes. You have to be a city of the world. I spend a lot more time traveling than the previous mayor because part of my job is to sell the Portland brand. Otherwise, companies in China or Japan might say, Why would I hire an architecture or engineering firm from Portland, Oregon? Portland what? Part of my job is being a salesman. We have a natural strength in Portland around sustainability and clean technology, and it’s my job to help commercialize our local laboratory and export it around the world.
As for sustainability, there’s still vestiges of the old days when people thought of sustainably as an economic caricature. Here in Portland, we’ve shown that it isn’t a stark choice between prosperity or sustainability. We’re a city that tries to live our values: the triple-bottom line of social, economic, environmental justice.
FC: If you could only accomplish one more thing before leaving office, what would that be?
SA: It would be to grow Portland’s economy into the most sustainable and equitable in the world. I think we have it in our capacity, but we have a long way to go. We were just named the most sustainable city in the United States. We are often ranked top 10 most sustainable cities in the rarefied air of Copenhagen and Stockholm. But as I like to tell people, that should inspire us to do more because it really is high-praise for Portland, on a relatively low standard for the United States.