Green Infrastructure and Climate Resilience: Jump-starting Portland’s Environmental Agenda

One of Bird Alliance of Oregon’s long-standing priorities has been to ensure that the Portland metro area is one of the greenest metropolitan regions in North America. On a rapidly urbanizing and warming planet, it is more essential than ever that we build our cities in ways that protect and preserve nature. Integrating natural systems into our built landscape retains biodiversity, improves air and water quality, improves climate resilience, builds wildlife habitat and habitat connectivity, and provides access to nature for community members.

Downtown Portland during the day with waterways showing
Photo by Mike Houck.

These natural systems, often referred to as green infrastructure, provide additional benefits including improved health outcomes for its residents, greater livability and economic viability for neighboring communities, and mitigation of negative impacts of climate change such as flooding and heat waves. Green infrastructure is also critical to achieving the city’s equity goals. Data clearly shows that lower income communities, communities of color, and people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by lack of green infrastructure.

Bird Alliance of Oregon has worked for decades to integrate green infrastructure into the DNA of our region’s landscape through its policies and codes. Portland has long been perceived as a national leader in this arena, but that leadership is at significant risk. The City has taken a step back, shying away from innovating in the environmental arena, reducing funding and the scope of its environmental work, and generally lacking leadership in crafting a cohesive big vision for making our landscape more resilient to climate change and increased urbanization. This is in part due to the elevation of challenges such as the housing crisis, COVID-19 response, and extreme weather events. However, these crises point toward, not away from, the need for healthy, resilient urban landscapes. The fact is that the current City Council is the least environmentally focused council in more than four decades, further exacerbated by a huge turnover of natural resource staff within the City bureaus. Where Portland once boasted some of the most innovative and aggressive environmental programs in the country, that edge has largely evaporated. As large amounts of infrastructure money flows into Portland, the City is simply not prepared to enact the sort of bold environmental initiatives it excelled at in the past.

The big vision will take time to reinvigorate, but there are many opportunities in the coming 12-18 months to advance substantial environmental initiatives. Many of these have been stalled or delayed for years. We offer the following as priorities to jump-start the City’s commitment to a healthy, green, climate-resilient landscape:

  • Environmental Zone Map Updates: Portland depends on environmental zones (ezones) to protect its streams, wetlands, steep slopes, and forests. Ezones are the foundation for natural resource protections in our city, but its natural resource maps are decades old and based on outdated technology. Over the past three years, the City has been updating the maps using modern technology and conducting over 800 site visits. The new mapping is now in front of City Council for adoption. Council should quickly adopt these maps to ensure that our natural resources are accurately and adequately protected.
  • Floodplain Resilience Plan: As the direct result of a Bird Alliance of Oregon lawsuit, the City is advancing a Floodplain Resilience Plan that provides significant new protection and mitigation standards for flood-prone areas. The plan is now in front of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and from there will head to Council for a vote. Adoption of this plan represents a critical step toward creating a flood-resistant landscape and protecting salmon that migrate through our city.
Photo by Bob Sallinger.
  • Economic Opportunities Analysis (EOA): Many people have never heard of the EOA, but this analysis, updated every five years or so, determines whether the City has enough industrial land to meet statewide requirements. For too long this process has been dominated by development interests, and the EOA has been used as a barrier to updating environmental protections along the industrialized portions of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. The City was set to conduct a more inclusive EOA update process in 2021 but has now delayed that process. It is critical that the City fund and advance an EOA process that is inclusive and integrates important community objectives such as environmental protection and climate resilience with river industrial development.
  • Tree Code: Portland tree protections are woefully insufficient. The tree code needs to be updated to provide stronger protections for big trees, increased opportunities to plant large-form trees in the right of way, especially in urban heat island areas, and to shift maintenance of trees in the right of way from property owners to the City.
  • Dark Skies Initiative: Light pollution is a growing problem, impacting human and wildlife health and wasting energy. The City worked with Bird Alliance of Oregon during 2019 to develop a plan to address light pollution but suspended work on new lighting codes recommended in the plan at the start of COVID. At that time the City committed to revisiting funding in fall 2021.
  • Willamette River Habitat Mitigation Banks: For more than 15 years, the City has recognized the need to establish mitigation banks on the Willamette River in order to offset the impacts of river development. These are restoration sites that developers fund when environmental impacts of development cannot be avoided. Several mitigation bank concepts have been considered over the years but have failed to advance.
  • Portland Harbor Superfund Program: The City should advance inclusive final cleanup plans (remedial design plans) for all Superfund sites within Portland Harbor for which it has significant liability. As it stands, Cathedral Park is the only site with identified responsible parties within Portland Harbor that has not entered into an agreement with the EPA to develop final cleanup plans.
  • Collaborative Community Restoration Partnerships: The City works with local communities and partners to develop neighborhood-scale greening projects, especially in areas most vulnerable to poor environmental conditions (see article in this issue on the Wilkes Greening Project)

We view this as a modest and realistic list of priorities that can be achieved in the next 12-18 months by the City of Portland. At the same time there is a need to reinvigorate discussion around developing a much bigger vision of what a green climate-resilient city should look like. Making good on this list will significantly advance natural resource protection, climate resilience, and climate justice in the short term.