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Eco City Dreaming

In search of a green urbanism for the not-rich

by David Oates

Published in the May/June 2010 issue of Orion magazine




JANUARY 7, 2008, 8:03 A.M.—thirteen minutes past sunrise but who can tell. Drizzles sketch the winter grayscale, slates to charcoals to umbers: sky, water, island, shore. I’m taking my usual walk along the riverfront path, the river today all drift-silt, rain-mottled skeins of mocha.

But soon my eyes are drawn up to glass and steel. The John Ross turns its thirty-one-story oval elegantly sideways to the view, imperial, convincing. Its neighbor, Atwater Place, is all Bauhaus severity, but two other towers, Meriwethers West and East (where I’m staying), are faced in granite of a soft, almost buttery color. Is this really a “neighborhood,” as the real-estate brochures insist? Four condo towers in varying states of habitation and emptiness, two more half-built, and a medical high-rise linked by its glamorous new aerial tram to Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), up on the crowding hills just behind: South Waterfront we suddenly call it, this wide wedge between Portland’s Willamette River and Interstate 5. It was industrial low-rises and forgotten brownfields until planners and developers noticed the potential for better things so very close to the river, to OHSU, to downtown.

I’m a nature writer come home to the city, dazzled by comfort and the utopian promise of green buildings, sustainability, transit. It’s a vision of urban yet eco-friendly living—in this case a gleaming playground for the rich, yet (in theory) also an answer to calls for environmental justice and social equity. It is the odd beast of metro-centric environmentalism, a new way to live in the postsuburban age.

Truth is, I came to South Waterfront to question this Green Urbanism. I wanted to see not only what was here, but what was missing. To write the green city, and its absence. I am in South Waterfront as one in a series of thirteen monthly guest artists. Most of the invitees have been visual artists—dancers, sculptors, photographers. I’m the writer. But concierges control the entries, residents are behind their doors. So I contrive to meet people in elevators or at six o’clock get-togethers and committees. Friends of the Island. Transportation. Greenway.

And they turn out to be quite friendly. “Come up to see the view,” they say, so of course I do. Twenty-fifth floor, riverside, Mount Hood visible today. Fourteenth floor, cityside, lovely in lights on a clear winter’s night. Thirtieth-floor penthouse, 180-degree view for $2.4 million. Down in the afterthought Guest Unit (second floor) I peer over the parking entrance. But I can still see the twinkling spans of bridges and the silvery gondolas silently ascending the mountain. Utopia, as I said—the sort of thing you’d expect at Disneyland or Epcot. Who wouldn’t like this? 

Some residents do show up at my Wednesday workshops, as well as people from elsewhere in the city. I ask, What language roots us here? We write the rain, the light, the breath, the place, capturing visions one detail at a time. Between the completed high-rises, I discover a one-block New York view: Slice of sky. Verticality. The next blocks are dirt (to the left) and tower-in-the-making (to the right). Into the view leans a crane hoisting potties high into the morning. Above them, an even taller gantry dangles a windowed wall-section, bright yellow between the towers, gray sky through the window in the sky, Magritte moment for hardhats and idlers.

Pieces rise and swing into place. The tower flies together in slow motion like a demolition in reverse.

WHAT’S GREEN ABOUT a cluster of high-rises on urban brownfields? It’s the question I ask the next morning, when I get a tour from engineer and urbanist Dennis Wilde, the project’s “green guy.” A few years grayer than I am, Dennis is an intense and vital advocate for South Waterfront. He points to the five buildings completed so far, each of which has received a silver, gold, or platinum award through the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program of the U.S. Green Building Council. And he makes the case that it’s more than trade-group hype.

South Waterfront is a public/private partnership of the city, OHSU, and two visionary developers—Williams & Dame Development, and Gerding Edlen. Their buildings feature recycled construction wastes, sustainably harvested materials, zero-emissions interiors, and exceptional energy efficiency. Building at this neighborhood scale has allowed the developers to look at how structures relate to one other, to the river, and to the rest of the city—an integrating vision usually lost to single-building ownership and economics. Runoff in rainy Portland, for instance, can be both a pollutant (carrying roadway oils) and a burden on overtaxed sewers. So the builders installed “ecoroofs” to slow runoff, then channeled rainwater together with groundwater from underground parking (the riverside site is right at the water table) and “daylighted” it all into a sequence of bioswales and open creeks curving through the site, before returning it, free of chemicals and temperature-neutral, to the Willamette River.

But the greenest aspect is not in the technicalities. It is simply South Waterfront’s location and density. Walkable urbanism is the mantra of the so-called Smart Growth movement. Over and over, the residents exclaim to me, “We love not getting in the car!” They are retirees who have sold suburban homes, or thirty-something professionals with maybe one kid. And they’re downright gleeful about eliminating one car (at least) and forgetting those long suburban drives to malls and concerts, jobs and schools. Instead they walk, they bike, they step onto the newly extended streetcar that hums past their buildings, carries them downtown, connects them to light rail.

Dennis and I stop for coffee. The condo towers are of course “mixed use,” with shops at sidewalk level, a basic tenet of New (and Green, and Smart) Urbanism. He leans across the table to convey the environmental payoff of well-designed urban density. “The Meriwether East where you’re staying has 242 units, on a footprint of just an acre and a half. That many families on suburban lots would cover, what, at least fifty acres.” He pauses, half smiling: “So here we’ve got forty-eight, forty-nine acres saved.” I think of 242 roofs, garages, driveways. I look out the window at open space, plaza, creek, riverfront walk. It seems a good trade.

The 130 acres of South Waterfront are planned to contain as many as twenty-seven hundred residential units and to generate up to five thousand jobs, in street-level retail and commercial businesses as well as in OHSU classrooms, wellness programs, and biotech research here and on adjoining properties. If those thousands walked to work instead of being scattered twenty miles out in the suburbs — it’s hard to count up the savings in automobile congestion, in greenhouse gases, in time and spirit.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, as of 2008, for the first time in history a majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. So making cities livable, green, and compact is both a human and an ecological imperative, saving countryside from sprawl and promoting resource efficiency. It’s an environmentalism for the next century.

IT’S A GOOD VISION BUT, so far, the Green Urbanism I’ve seen glides on a silent lubrication of money. A lot of it. And on an enabling American silence about class. Both these silent premises have been deeply challenged in the economic catastrophes that followed my residency in South Waterfront.

None of the waiters or bank clerks employed in this neighborhood—or poodle-clippers, baristas, or construction guys working the next tower over—can live here. They do not walk to work. A two-bedroom in the John Ross cost $700,000 or more at the time of my stay in South Waterfront. For comparison the median two-bedroom house (on the West Coast) was $309,000, and the average worker couldn’t afford that either. Prices in both categories have dropped in the economic free fall, but the problem remains. Several new towers have since risen in South Waterfront, some offering apartments instead of condos. Still nothing for ordinary working folks, though. That two-bedroom? Bring your cash: up to $5,000 a month. 

The problem of housing makes the economic drift of the last thirty years glaringly visible, the rich getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle rapidly hollowing out. Housing is the expensive necessity that the poor cannot solve by themselves, and it is, of course, exacerbated in cities. A congressional commission summed up the problem:

There is simply not enough affordable housing. The inadequacy of supply increases dramatically as one moves down the ladder of family earnings. The challenge is most acute for rental housing in high-cost areas, and the most egregious problem is for the very poor.

Very-low-income renters (those making 30 percent of area median income) faced a 4.5-million-unit shortage in 2003. Nor is it only a renter’s problem. The Urban Institute says that “the United States’ current system of low-income housing assistance is biased against homeownership.” Programs are available to assist the needy in rent—but (as the recent economic crisis has illustrated), turning renters into owners is far, far more difficult.

Considering the immense amount of city and regional resources pumped into this beautiful project—streetcar, tram, new road and utility infrastructure, planning, outright Development Commission investment—you have to wonder about priorities. Do the wealthy really need so much of our help? Yes, of course, the increased tax base will pay it all back eventually . . . but still. There’s a question of civic energy, attention paid. There’s a question of values.

“Social justice” makes it onto nearly every environmental organization’s mission statement, but usually it feels like an afterthought. Historically it was an afterthought. And it remains the hardest to get any real-world traction for.

Environmental-justice advocates in Portland’s leftish city government negotiated a requirement that South Waterfront include precisely 788 affordable housing units. It’s a start. Municipalities around the U.S. have increasingly been using this “inclusionary zoning” (IZ) approach. To win permits, larger developments must include a percentage of affordable units—usually between 5 and 15 percent. Density bonuses or other incentives are often awarded in return. Since 1974 when the method was pioneered in Montgomery County, Maryland, IZ has generated many thousands of affordable units—in California alone, some thirty-four thousand, according to The Policy Institute.

Yet somehow, this laudable first step in democratizing the economics of South Waterfront keeps getting postponed. As I wrote out my month’s residency, ground was about to be broken on the first affordable units after long delay . . . except that two months later, the first signs of economic downturn suddenly dried up condo sales and stopped everything. And then in September the economy fell, as Warren Buffett put it, “off a cliff”—pulling social justice with it.

On the books, in the agreements, in beautifully drawn plans rolled up under architects’ arms and stashed beneath builders’ desks, South Waterfront boasts two mighty fine affordable-housing projects. The Tamarack would be a low-rise three blocks from the John Ross accommodating the most economically needy (including some making just 30 percent of median income) and specifically targeting veterans. It’s a veritable dream of doing the right thing. Similarly, OHSU once planned to erect high-rise affordable units over a parking structure. But two years down the road they’re both stopped dead, the financing having vanished along with customers for the remaining condos.

The not-rich will live somewhere else. At least until bounteous profits reappear in South Waterfront.

I ASKED WHAT WAS MISSING and this is it. How can green cities offer an environmentalism for the coming century, if they depend on crumbs from business-as-usual real-estatery?

Your workers, your children and old people—your people in need—are your indicator species. How you treat the most vulnerable reveals how successful your city is. I jot those words, a pell-mell paraphrase, as economic justice superstar Gil Peñalosa speaks to a Green Urbanist conference at metropolitan Portland State University. To get there I had hopped that streetcar, a bright-enamel Czech electric that runs between one enclave of new-urban wealth (the famous Pearl District) and the next (South Waterfront). Yes, these condos and their occupants have revitalized American cities. From New York to Pittsburgh, from Seattle and Portland to Minneapolis and a dozen other cities, downtown neighborhoods are transforming brick warehouses and neglected buildings into shops and homes, bringing the sidewalks alive as residents rediscover the urbane pleasures. It is a remarkably underreported story — an urban renaissance literally unthinkable just a decade or two earlier, when flight and blight and decay were the words used to talk about inner cities.

But Peñalosa seeks a deeper revitalization. He is talking about his urban successes in Bogotá, Colombia, where from 1995 to 2001 he and his brother Enrique reorganized their city around the immediate human needs of working people: housing, transit, access, open space, employment. Gil was commissioner of parks; Enrique, a short while later, mayor. Without delay or elaborate engineering, they created bus transit on a massive scale to serve poor workers without cars (even inventing a buslike trailer pulled by easily available semitractors to get the transit started). They closed several downtown streets to automobiles and watched open-air mercados appear, storefronts fill with small shops, derelict buildings become inexpensive housing. Libraries and widespread daycare were arranged. “Nothing expensive!” Enrique quips in an interview—just a reordering of priorities.

The Peñalosas offered smart, aggressive leadership. But something invisible, a kind of human capital, accomplished the actual regeneration of those streets—nothing mystical but simply people in proximity, on foot, responding to needs and desires in (literally) a million individual transactions. Unleashed, it seems, by smart, democratized planning. Gil pointed out that overreliance on the automobile is the true city-killer: some 70 percent of Los Angeles’s surface area, for instance, is used for cars and car-related infrastructure, while Paris, by comparison, uses just 20 percent. Which city better serves the human spirit? Peñalosa: “The more we meet outside our cars, the kinder and gentler we become.”

Transit, humanely structured density, public space: planning for people. The urban needs of the not-rich—the needs of workers and families and ordinary city folk—do not have to be left to trickle-down Green Urbanism. They do not have to be postponed until the penthouses are all filled.

TO GET SOME PERSPECTIVE, I take a midwinter trip (mere months before the economic catastrophe) to the Mother of Sprawl herself. Even in car-dominated LA, I find that new-urbanist condos and apartments with sidewalk-oriented, mixed-use planning have been transforming Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Pasadena. In some places, you can actually walk from this to that. Mass transit has appeared. Downtown gives evidence of existing.

In fact, from the middle windows of the Fuller Lofts on a sunny winter’s day I can see the office towers of downtown. Over one shoulder, I glimpse the light-rail Gold Line coming down the Arroyo from Pasadena. I’m perched in a rough giant, a poured-concrete classic from the 1920s getting rehabbed for affordable housing in this close-in corner of town called Hacienda Heights. Luis the real-estate representative has just guided me through the six-story interior atrium, and I’m ogling upward, tripping on tarps and admiring the art-deco detailing. From the fourth floor Luis points out those nearby skyscrapers. I can see the green smudge of the LA River too, object of scorn for so many years but an eco-story of its own now—its concrete channeling torn out in two long sections already, and habitat repair going on everywhere. It’s a hopeful sight.

Good thing too. Immediately below me, concertina wire plays a razor tune along one whole block. Up and down the hot streets, on peeling warehouses, spray-painted letters in crimson/blue/black/orange seem to pop off the walls, boogie, salsa. This is barrio. You wouldn’t walk here at night.

Fuller Lofts aims to attract working families with the promise of ownership. Flats, lofts, and family-sized units will go to first-time buyers making below-average incomes. Luis says the two-bedroom we’re standing in, with 1,027 square feet and the cool downtown view, would go for the subsidized, low-down-payment, low-interest price of $281,000. Not cheap. But for a working family in this town, the alternative might be a two- or three-hour commute to very distant, cheaper housing. And since both parents are likely to be working, housing near jobs can be literally invaluable.

What’s the value of time a parent not stuck on the freeway devotes to a child, or contributes to supporting that child’s classroom and teacher? How do we put a price on the web of community that spreads outward from neighborhood schools and their connected families? And how exactly do you price the green value of upgrading an old building to create 102 dwellings on an acre and a half? These payoffs remain largely what economists term “externalities”: values invisible to economics, though the lack of them weakens families, breaks communities, adds to pollution, and eventually creates those slummy streets. In effect, affordable housing advocates have had to create an alternative financial logic that daylights these human and ecological values, dollarizes them, and organizes financing to support them.

Fuller Lofts was a project of Livable Places, one of many nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) working on affordable housing around the country. I looked at a half-dozen CDC-run housing projects in different parts of LA. Most depend on a tangle of funding mechanisms: federal tax abatements, state programs, private nonprofits that channel grants and low-interest loan money. Fuller Lofts’ funding came from thirteen public and private sources, including the biggest national nonprofit, LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), established in 1979 by the Ford Foundation. In 2006 alone, LISC directed a billion dollars to affordable housing, generating almost twenty thousand housing units.

Maybe it’s socialism: gov’ment getting its fingers into the market, wasting money on the poor. Or maybe it’s capitalism—creating buy-in for those previously excluded, turning the barrios bourgeois. I’m persuaded that it’s both, because practical problem-solving like this has a way of undercutting ideological abstractions. It’s putting people into houses, not into debating points for talk-show wrangling. People who, in all their quirkiness, will live there, conserving their wealth and family values and liberating their possibilities. Real solutions have a way of transcending politics.

But they have a hard time transcending economics. The alternative projects I saw were tiny islands in a sea of business as usual. In Los Angeles, as of 2006, nine of ten homes built were “affordable” only to people earning more than $135,000 a year. They are the people the existing market system sees. The rest are invisible.

And will probably remain so. At the first nudge of the general economic free fall, Livable Places disbanded, sorrowfully blaming the “credit crisis,” changes in buyer qualifications, and the shifting market. Fuller Lofts is neatly boarded up for now, a colorful, empty, almost-finished testament to the difficulty of matching money, good intentions, and the needs of ordinary city dwellers. Exactly the same number of affordable housing units are available there as in South Waterfront: zero.

SOME CDCS, HOWEVER, are pioneering approaches that successfully combine the financial, ecological, and social elements. Doug Carson lives in a Portland-area CDC project with his daughter Beth (I have changed their names to protect their privacy). The day I visit, Beth sits on the couch beside her pajama-bottomed boyfriend, wrapped in a quilt with a wrinkly one-week-old on her lap. Doug will be raising the granddaughter while Beth and the boyfriend find their way. The TV is on. It’s noon.

Doug leads me quickly through my apartment tour. The unit isn’t huge but feels solid, homey. Bedrooms are upstairs and stepped-out from the main trunk of the building—eliminating that oppressive apartment-feel of neighbors too close overhead or too audible through bedroom walls. Of course design choices like this cost money. More people could be stacked in here, more cheaply, in rectangular-box flats. But the whole development shows thoughtful design, an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Doug is the on-site manager for thirty-two family-sized units in two-story buildings of peaked wooden roofs, small entry patios, and split-rail fences arranged around a splendid little wetland. Two mallards paddle a wide patch of alder-shaded creek as it drifts downslope through the complex. Big Wheels and plastic pools crowd the patios just a few feet away from the inviting but strikingly untrampled greenspace.

Doug was a Marine Corps staff sergeant who found himself a single parent, he tells me. So after ten years, including service in the first Gulf War, he left the military, finished college in Florida, and went through a few jobs that “didn’t quite work out” (picture the ex-Marine teaching middle-school math to somewhat undisciplined kids). He came to Oregon to tend an ailing parent and landed this position, glad for the break in rent. But he laughs off my drill-sergeant joke about who keeps order here—he says the families themselves look out for the natural spaces. To prove the point he takes me behind the apartments where a remnant forest sways, tall long-needled pines that give the affordable housing development its name: Oleson Woods. A well-used path curves through on duffy soil, but the woods are clean, quiet, and trash-free. It seems there’s a kind of buy-in that comes with being in a good space. Or to use an old-fashioned word: a kind of citizenship.

“It’s what I love best about this place,” he says. “Like we were out in the country. But you walk over there and it’s Tigard.” Suburban Tigard is a good twelve miles from downtown Portland, with the worst jobs-to-housing ratio in the region. So Community Partners for Affordable Housing (CPAH) has been creating projects—five so far—for tenants making 40 to 50 percent of area-average income; three are reserved for 30 percent. Many of the residents work at huge Washington Square mall, just walking distance away, or at nearby restaurants. Suburbia seems to be accumulating density here, urbanizing into clusters of apartments, shops, and bus routes.

Doug says he is proudest of how well Oleson Woods is working in human terms. In just two and a half years, three families have gone from public assistance (and in one case addiction problems) to buying their own homes. Two other families have “tripled their incomes,” Doug says, and (he counts it up in his mind) some twenty-six of the families have been here since opening, a significant improvement in stability for most. There’s a son in college—the first in his family—and kids attending daily Homework Club in the Commons Building, where various twelve-step groups also gather, and where social service providers might meet clients.

It is clear that Doug measures success on scales other than the obvious economic ones. I talk it over with CPAH director Sheila Greenlaw-Fink, one of those practical visionaries who make this kind of thing work. She makes a firm correlation between the high-quality design, the supportive social network, the attractive natural environment, and these family achievements. “We have seen what happens when you try to warehouse the poor,” she says. Sheila admits the CPAH approach takes more money up front and a lot of ongoing staff time in selecting tenants, coordinating various agencies, and offering direct social support. But person by person, family by family, Oleson Woods works in a way those massive old “projects” never did. It seems people struggling with poverty respond to decent space, respect, and the silent nurturing of green peace as much as anybody. Maybe more.

Perhaps the moves that matter are intimate, local, and painstaking. In environmental politics, we’ve seen disappointment too often from relying on the macro-scale. The greenest president in the world won’t ensure that your own local river or woods will be well treated. Only you can do that. Because it takes an intelligence attuned to immediate textures and histories, able to balance needs and desires that are invisible to high-altitude policymakers.

And yet isn’t it a fallacy to offer only individual solutions to community-scaled problems—as if there were no “us,” no commune or polity which must also play its role? Problems rooted in the behaviors of millions must (also) be addressed on the scale of millions. Political quietism is a romantic dodge. Sheila readily admits that projects like hers at CPAH need to be ramped up and taken to scale: ten times, then a hundred times. Then a thousand. And the means for doing so has to be structural, political, and community-wide.

So the role of an Oleson Woods, or even of a glorious semi-failure like Fuller Lofts, has to be to point the way. No public policy can gain acceptance without a vision, the more concrete the better. Something we can point to, saying, This is what we want!

Even during our weird economic free fall—perhaps because of it—some surprisingly hopeful large-scale changes have been emerging. Sheila writes me: “Obama has made strategic picks for leadership at HUD—folks who have actually built communities (not just housing) and know what it takes.” She means, for instance, Carol Galante, now deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing programs. For the past thirteen years Galante headed the nonprofit Bridge Housing Corporation of San Francisco, which has overseen the creation of some thirteen thousand affordable housing units—and the communities needed to support them. Here in Oregon, Democrats who suddenly control both legislative chambers moved swiftly to pass a bill Sheila and others have advocated (in seeming futility) for years, a measure to raise millions of new dollars for affordable housing through a tiny increase in real-estate and title recording fees. You’d think it was not such a big deal, to add just fifteen dollars to transactions normally counted in the hundreds of thousands. Yet it took housing advocates years of organizing to get it done, years of steady, determined passion.

It is a strange and awesome responsibility, to be a member of a community. A biological community. A human one. To care for the health of our local place and people we have to create an irresistible vision: green, urban, humane.

ON MY LAST DAY at South Waterfront, from a penthouse balcony, I look back across the river at my own neighborhood, a patchwork of street trees, apartments, green space. On the horizon our snowcapped volcanoes pop up: Mount Hood, Mount Adams, the stump of Mount St. Helens. In the middle ground, a mix-up of pastoral and suburb stretches out—arcadia and penny-arcade, streets and sacrifice zones and green possibilities. And at my feet the river, beautiful in that light as in all lights.

Ecologist Richard Foreman says that what we call “nature” is always this mosaic—microclimates and edges, patches and corridors. What works is the mix-up, the wacky mesh, long-term ménage and coyote chance. It’s not a single system but many, working in wild synergy. And this flexible vision feels applicable to our human landscapes, too. I can imagine even big-money New Urbanism fitting into it—and also Fuller Lofts, and Oleson Woods, and maybe even a few miles of suburb, if broken up occasionally, greener here, denser there. And, out on some kind of hard-to-imagine American horizon, perhaps someday the scene will also include the sharper challenge of more direct economic democracy, led by Peñalosas of our own. Our Sheilas, our Carol Galantes, unsung visioners of a more perfect union, greener and more just.

Our patchy world will need many solutions—to human problems like housing and equity, and to human-caused problems like brownfields and dying rivers and polluted air. No one vision can fix these many wounds, lift these many burdens. Justice, says our late poet William Stafford, will take us millions of intricate moves. So we make a start. A word, a step, a gesture.

We imagine a good, green city. Then we build it.

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David Oates lives and works in Portland, Oregon. His recent book of essays is titled What We Love Will Save Us. His writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Earth Island Journal, and High Country News.

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