Portland Shrinks Carbon Footprint with Revitalization, Walkability

Portland, Oregon has become such a recognized model of progressive planning and development that people like me are actually discouraged from talking about the region in professional circles. “Everybody already knows about Portland,” the line goes. I don’t think that everybody already knows about Portland’s successes, at least outside of the planning profession, so I’m going to keep talking.

Some of the measures that have been instituted in the last two or three decades include a strong policy favoring infill development and revitalization of downtown neighborhoods, such as the wildly successful Pearl District; an excellent light rail system, supported by transit-oriented development around its stops; an emphasis on walkability; and protection of forests and farms outside the developed area with an urban growth boundary.

These are all paying off in, among other important measures, reduced global warming emissions. An article in the September New Urban News reports that 2007 CO2 emissions in Portland and Multnomah County were actually slightly lower than they were in 1990, despite an 18 percent population growth during that time span. Single-person auto trips have declined in each of five target areas just since 2004, according to the city’s department of transportation.

Perhaps most impressively, in 2005, according to the Brookings Institution, the average resident of metro Portland emitted 1.446 tons of carbon dioxide per year though combined road transportation and residential energy use. This is a remarkable 35 percent less than the average resident of America’s 100 largest metro areas, which generated 2.24 tons per person per year during the same period.

The accompanying image shows how Portland’s carbon footprint for transportation is distributed geographically. The dark areas generate the most CO2 emissions per capita, the light areas the least.

The downtown district and those neighborhoods closest to it have by far the lowest per-capita carbon footprints. That’s because residents there don’t need to drive as often, and can frequently drive shorter distances when they do. In other words, the graph shows that smart growth policies favoring downtown and infill development work for reducing CO2.

You can see more nifty graphs and details on my NRDC blog.

Kaid Benfield is director for sustainable communities and smart growth at The Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC. He has his own blog on land development and community issues and enjoys contributing here, too, since there is so much common ground.


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