Portland – Meeting with Rob Bennett, POSI

We were very fortunate to be introduced to Rob Bennett by David Ramslie from Vancouver. Luckily he was able to see us for breakfast the morning after we arrived, and he was able to introduce us to many people involved in sustainability in Portland. Rob is the Executive Director of the Portland Sustainability Institute, the aim of which is noted on their website as:

We were founded in 2009 to systematically bring together business, higher education, nonprofit and municipal leaders to drive a set of next-generation initiatives for urban sustainability in the Portland metro region. The goal - big and game changing ideas that weave together community livability, ecological resiliency, and broad-based prosperity.  We believe the results will fuel business and policy innovation, enhance our quality of life, and create cities and neighborhoods that are not just sustainable, but restorative.

What a great initiative and idea for getting projects up and happening. The group of 4 staff has a board of 19 directors from across business, academia, and government. A very interesting model…!

Among a very impressive number of previous roles, Rob used to work at Vancouver Council. While he was there, he led the development of their comprehensive Green Building Strategy and facilitated the green building and infrastructure activities for the Southeast False Creek redevelopment (the 2010 Olympic Village). He has a landscape architecture and urban planning background.

We had a great conversation that ranged over many issues, such as the following.

Vancouver has very high land values, which has resulted in great churn of buildings as they try to maximize their value (sounds like Sydney). Portland does not have this problem and so has much greater and better adaptive reuse of the existing building stock.

The Oregan Reach Code has been adopted in Portland, which aims to give certainty for the future. However, Portland is trying to ratchet up the Code to meet GHG targets that have been set by the City. With a less than robust regulatory environment and a tough economic times, they have had to be creative about how to bring this about. They were looking at incentives to be paid to those looking to exceed Code, funded by those who chose to only meet it or less. This code is very prescriptive about how well the building envelope needs to perform. He said that sadly, this has been dropped for now.

Portland had been a mid level city that was dying from the flight to the suburbs. It had great buildings and trams that had been built during its hey day in the early 1900's, which were able to survive by way of an economic downturn in the 60's, to provide really good bones. Bill Goldsmidt became Mayor in the 70's when he fought bad development and diverted funding from some terrible freeways into light rail. He was able to change the mindset of the population to see the value and importance of transit for the city's future.

Metro Portland is a regional government that regulates landuse and transit for the larger metro area of Portland. This is not normal and is the best in the country. It has helped to give larger oversight to key issues that are critical for a successful city to be able to exist.

Portland has developed a positive feedback loop that shows supports innovative ideas that have positive impacts, which then drives the City. As there has not been a lot of money around, this has been done on the cheap - requiring even more innovation and entrepreneurship ! For example, the bike strategy has relied on simply painting the roads, and/or being combined with solving stormwater problems.

Does Rob think that regulation is required to help deliver sustainable outcomes? Yes. Incentives are also helpful, but regulation is required to help raise the bottom line.

So what is POSI involved with at the moment? 3 big challenges it is dealing with include:

1 EcoDistricts Initiative

A comprehensive strategy to accelerate sustainable neighborhood development.

2  Oregon Sustainability Center

The Oregon Sustainability Center will drive innovation and collaboration as the region's sustainability hub. Built to the strictest green building guidelines, its halls will welcome and nurture collaborative sustainable business practices, sustainability-related university research and education, environmental and energy policy, workforce development initiatives and innovative government programs.

3  Portland Metro Climate Prosperity Project

An invitation-only initiative led by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to reduce emissions while stimulating economic prosperity.  Since then, PoSI has been working with a group of public and private sector leaders to answer the question: how does the Portland region successfully curb emissions, expand business opportunity, and increase savings across jurisdictional boundaries?

This seems like a great way to take the very good foundations for sustainability in Portland forward, especially with such a powerhouse of energy and intelligence as Rob to lead.

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