The Dream of the 50s is Alive in Havana

Student Ambassador, James Alexander takes a First Stop Portland perspective on Havana’s rapid urban transitions

My first steps out of the José Martí International Airport were greeted by a humid blast of warm air seasoned with smells of heavy car exhaust. The taxi driver placed my luggage in the back of his bright blue Chevrolet Bel Air (1958) -- a deep sigh of relief --  “Where are you from, Sir?” the man asked in very broken English. “Portland, Oregon.” I replied. “Ahhh...Portland!” he said quite excitedly. I knew I was in good hands. 

My housing arrangement had been made back in Cancun by some questionable individuals at the airport, but that soon proved to be quite a worthwhile exchange. The house was owned by a charming old woman who had spent her career working for the Ministerio de Cultura (Cuban Ministry of Culture). Pictures of Fidel and family were seen throughout her home. She gave me a very informative background on the historical context and present state of Cuba’s housing laws, socialized medicine, and education. She asked me questions about the Pacific Northwest, as I was her first resident from the area; specifically, I shared with her our regional successes in smart growth, transportation options, sustainable design, and how Portland differentiated itself from other American cities. “You share cars?!” she said while laughing hysterically.

It was no laughing matter. Despite the relative flatness of Havana’s urban landscape, bikes were hardly present as the taxi industry dominated the roadways. It was not uncommon for residents to work as part time cab drivers (good luck Uber) in addition to their main profession, as low wages force many into the industry. Moreover, the piles of rubble and potholes present on every city block made our own infrastructure debacles seem ludicrous  >insert street fee joke here< . Even as relations continue to be rapidly restored here, the introduction of bikes and bikeways will take decades.
As Cuba begins to open itself up to the world, everyone wants a piece. Practices in urban redevelopment and government-driven investment were fascinating in Havana. According to a recent report by The Guardian, Fidel’s administration established Habaguanex, a state-led tourism venture, which worked very similarly to Tax Increment Financing here in Portland: it fueled urban renewal throughout much of Old Havana back in the 90s, developing hotels, restaurants, and boutique shops. Like TIF, the profits were reallocated back into the districts to revitalize public spaces and improve roads. Its successes were quite evident in the stark contrasts between the beautiful plazas found throughout Old Havana and the buildings on the verge of collapse in neighboring districts. Well done, Castro.

Interestingly enough, despite the amount of development occurring in Havana, there was absolutely zero demolition projects. My cab driver explained to me that there is a shared conventional wisdom among Cubans that old buildings must be preserved. Historic preservation and adaptive reuse ruled the urban landscape. Not far from our house was one of Havana’s most successful adaptive reuse projects: El Cocinero. In what used to be an old oil refinery, El Cocinero is now one of the city’s premier dining experiences. In addition, it houses the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a world-renowned venue for art, theater, film, music, and design. Sorry, but it put our own Gerding Theater to shame. 

Having the opportunity to visit Cuba in its forbiddenness was one element of excitement during my stay. However, in my two years working with First Stop Portland, I have listened and learned from our experts here, as well as from many experts abroad . Having that knowledge and observation to bring with me to this truly fascinating city left me with an experience that I’ll never forget. It will be very exciting to see what will change and what will stay the same in Havana as it begins to open its doors to a rapidly urbanizing world. Who knows, maybe First Stop Portland will host its very first delegation from Cuba?

James Alexander
First Stop Portland 


First Stop Student Ambassador on Sustainability Study Tour in Rosario, Argentina

Greetings from Rosario, Argentina!
Reminders to imagine, learn and care for your health hang from blossoming trees on Rosario's "waterfront park" on the banks of Río Paraná during Art Week 2015.
It’s been two and a half months since I first arrived in this burgeoning municipality where I began to learn so much about city planning, civic engagement and sustainability, South American-style. Studying the political history and culture of Argentina with Portland State University Political Science Professor Melody Valdini has allowed me to capitalize upon the university-to-city connection that First Stop Portland is founded upon and values so deeply. My experience as a student ambassador for FSP prepared me well to meet with city and national officials, helped me access information about municipal programs, and deepened  my research of ways cities (including Portland) use planning policy to strengthen democracy. Coupled with witnessing one of the nation’s most exciting presidential elections to date and you may begin to understand the exponential value of my experience thus far.

Whether on the sides of government trucks, at the site of a street repair or on the vest of a volunteer coordinator, "Rosario in Action" can be seen everywhere, as city programs gain momentum.

I recently attended an all-day tour of city-sponsored sustainability initiatives called“Turista en mi Ciudad” (Tourist in my City), which was sponsored by Hogares Verde, the environmental branch of Rosario’s city government. It offered civil engineers, students, every-day Rosarians the opportunity to see first-hand how the city’s programs are working to keep Rosario sustainable and thriving amidst increased growth. The program began in 2012 and is impressive in both its level of organization and accessibility. Hogares Verde promotes social and environmental values ​​for responsible citizenship through the framework of sustainable development. The tours it provides are offered completely free of charge to the public on a monthly basis. They include transportation on a private bus, lunch and mementos provided by the different projects and spaces visited.

Rosario's composting facility, where inorganic and organic materials are separated and processed.
It was especially interesting to participate in this city-sponsored tour given my experience assisting study tours with First Stop Portland. How does our twin city to the south structure its own study tours? Their program covered municipal waste and composting practices, green spaces, and  programs addressing food deserts and low-income entrepreneurs. It’s affirming to witness another forward-thinking city with the same values for smart growth as we hold back home.

Crash course in Bolivian handicrafts, led by local activist.
Our tour began with a celebration of traditional Bolivian handcrafts in honor of Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity). The installation was housed   at a public library, Biblioteca Estrada, and was part of Semana del Arte 2015, an annual city-wide celebration of art during which hundreds of free installations, performances and lectures can be found throughout the city every day. Think of Portland’s own annual Time Based Art, but with about ten-times the daily events! Local artist and agriculturist, Roberta Valencia, guided us through the significance of her work and the process through which it was made. It was a lovely context in which to begin our tour and provided the historical reference for the cultures and people who shaped South America before its widespread colonization.

After boarding the bus we headed about 30 minutes outside of the city-center to Barrio Bella Vista and the city’s composting center, Planta de Compostaje. There, at the outskirts of town, our guide, Daiana Pellegatti, demonstrated the process by which refuse and recyclable materials are gathered and separated as part of the city’s nascent composting plan. Like many South American metropolis’ (and definitely some within our own country), Rosario faces the challenges of striving towards sustainability within a culture that places little importance on waste reduction.

 In an effort to combat cultural norms and pave the way for citizen involvement, the City of Rosario created the facility to generate compost to be used in city parks and government-sponsored organic gardens and farms. At the same time the program seeks to provide in-home composting units made of recycled materials for Rosarian households, and educational opportunities to “spread” the composting idea, as it were.
Office water jugs are re-purposed as colorful household composting receptacles distributed by Rosario's composting education program.
Tour participants learn about Rosario's plan to bring composting to households across the city.
Organic material undergoes an aerobic process as it turns into compost over time.
The process of dividing organic from inorganic material, staging and cultivation currently produces over 120 tons of compost per month and is seeking to expand in coming years. I felt spoiled coming from Portland, where the cultural tendencies and physical existence of areas to plant food at almost every home definitely bolster the city’s efforts towards wide-scale composting. It will be exciting to see how Rosario creates institutional incentives for citizens to participate in this program in the future

Arriving at the expansive city park and protected wildlife area.
Next we traveled to Bosque de los Constituyentes, a park established in 1981 as a wildlife sanctuary, to protect native species of flora, and to provide large expanses of green space within a rapidly growing urban environment. Our tour guide was an employee of the city’s Parks Division, and has been working with this particular park since the great movement for “urban reforestation” began in 1992. With the 20 hectares of public land, the city aims to offer visitors a place of relaxation and rest and to combat the effects of environmental degradation.

Site director René Marconi explains the park's history and purpose in a verdant setting.
It has become an indispensable tool for urban development within the city’s sustainable vision and, much like the best practices that we explore in Portland through our FSP Study Tours, the planning has relied largely on public-private cooperation to protect areas surrounding the park for future expansion and to create private interest in the benefits of public-space investment.

An artificial lake provides a protected habitat for native birds and turtles.
Our last stop was a small-scale farm run by a group of low-income women and their families with assistance provided by a joint effort from Rosario’s Urban Agriculture program and  the city’s Secretary of Social Promotion. Rosario is home to a thriving network of urban organic huerteritos (little farms), both in public parks and in reclaimed urban spaces.
A guide from Rosario's Urgan Agriculture program explains the origins and purpose of El Huerterito de Newbery while one of its founding members prepares our brick-oven pizza.
El huerterito de Newbery is, for example, on the side of a small freeway connecting neighborhoods in the greater Rosarian area to the city center. As part of its Economía Solidaria (Economic Solidarity) program, the city partners with low-income individuals, families and farmers to help them train in small-scale agribusiness production, to stimulate economic security and awareness of health and sustainability practices.

Key-hole gardens and recycled bottles to be used for container gardening are just a few of the permaculture elements employed by entrepreneur graduates of Rosario's economic solidarity program.

Food made from the farm's produce is distributed from the operations headquarters of the farm.
Having been recognized by the United Nations’ Organization for Food and Agriculture for its work to promote urban agriculture, Portland can look to Rosario for clues of how to create community buy-in, bolster the economy and address issues of food scarcity as our own city expands.

All in all Rosario’s “Tourist in my City” excursion was one of the most diverse and illuminating experiences I’ve had during my time here. Throughout the day I was struck by how much I was learning - and how all of it was free! I thought about how our own city might be able to increase accessibility to all of its pioneering projects and examples of smart-growth design by following the examples of Rosario and First Stop Portland: engaging potential innovators through education.


Tsukuba Dives Deep into City-University Partnerships

Kaori Yamashita (right) is First Stop's newest Student Ambassador. She lives in Tokyo and is studying at Portland State University this year via Waseda University.

Last week, we welcomed Japanese delegation of Tsukuba University. This day was my first experience of study tour. We met up at First Stop Portland’s office and discussed for a while with Ankita Guchait, Marketing & Outreach Coordinator from student Sustainability Center and Jacob Sherman, Curriculum Coordinator from Institute for Sustainable Solutions. The delegation from Tsukuba University wanted to know, how PSU strategically establishes partnerships with local government and other institutions around the city.

Jacob explained that PSU provides knowledge and human resources to the city. This includes researchers and professors, of course, but also students. Ankita explained Portland State's students get involved to achieve sustainable city through the the many volunteer and internship opportunities the university offers.

Jacob Sherman, Portland State Institute for Sustainable Solutions (left)
Afterwards, we headed to the Pearl district by streetcar, to illustrate Portland’s commitment to walkable, high-density and mixed-use neighborhoods. We spent a little time at rooftop of Ecotrust that used to be an old warehouse. This building is meaningful in terms of getting LEED certification-- a benchmark for green building in the U.S.. Event through redevelopment, the structure retained its historic character, including old types of ceiling and windows.

Lastly, we visited the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Their school building was recently renovated to preserve and reuse an old 1919 Federal building. Sean Woodard, PNCA's Interim Facilities Director, showed us many revolutionary ideas to save energy even though it is old building. The Tsukuba delegation was particularly interested ways PNCA student projects are featured throughout the city. The visitors shared with PNCA ways Tsukuba University student art projects are featured throughout Tsukuba city. That was really cool!

Although the Tsukuba delegation came on study tour to learn Portland’s innovation and efforts to make a green city,  Portland learned a lot about successful projects in Japan as well.

View from the roof of PNCA's newly renovated building in Old Town, Portland








Student Update: Study Abroad in Argentina

Adriane Ackerman is a First Stop Portland Student Assistant studying in Rosario, Argentina this fall. She'll be posting her notes from the field throughout the term.

Since May, 2105, I have had the opportunity to work with First Stop Portland where I have learned from and, at times, presented alongside Portland’s premiere innovators and experts in sustainable city design and development. Participating in professional conversations with public and private sector leaders from around the world has given me a new lens through which to consider policy and planning choices at the municipal level.

University buildings lining Plaza San Martín
This lens has proved invaluable to my studies at Portland State, including my senior Honors thesis, which examines ways cities (including Portland) use planning policy to cultivate democracy. My work at First Stop has helped me understand how to ask the right questions when looking to learn from cities around the world. Now it's helping me here, while I'm studying, researching (and submitting blog posts!) from Rosario, Argentina, this term.


First Stop helps St. Louis tap Portland's bicycling brain trust

Submitted by: Adriane Ackerman
Student Assistant, First Stop Portland

At First Stop Portland, we’re an ambitious group. We facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges about best practices between Portland's experts and leaders the world over. We promote Portland State University as a leader in the global conversation about sustainability. We help cities achieve their goals by sharing lessons from Portland, our successes and our failures.

Since our ultimate goal is successful knowledge exchange, it is particularly rewarding when a group asks us to host a hands-on, working and planning experience for them, in which the Portland model can be influential and the fruits of the exchange are tangible and immediate. This week we were afforded just such an opportunity as we facilitated a design charrette for alternative transportation leaders from St. Louis, MO, heading into the final phases of a major bike route expansion project.


#PDXinRome ~ SPQR is our PDX

First Stop Portland Director Nancy Hales is in Rome for a two-day summit on cities and climate change hosted at the Vatican by Pope Francis and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. She'll be updating us on her experiences and observations as she meets with leaders from around the globe throughout the week.


You can follow her updates in real-time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

SPQR is our PDX. It is stamped everywhere in Rome: on manhole covers, corners of buildings, even bar napkins.  Senatus Populusque Romanus means "the Senate and People of Rome," and is almost as old as the city itself.  How old you ask?  Rome was founded April 17, 753 BC.

One would think that a city founded 27 centuries ago would have little in common with one only begun in 1851. Ha! I found multiple connections for the civitas. Here are my top seven:

1. Claiming two founding fathers and legends: Rome’s founding fathers were Romulus and Remus. They also claim being nursed by a she-wolf. Portland’s fathers, Francis Pettigrove and Asa Lovejoy, don’t have such auspicious beginnings, but did have that famous coin toss.


Prepping for #PDXinRome: Advice, protocol, and a bronze rose

First Stop Portland Director Nancy Hales is in Rome for a two-day summit on cities and climate change hosted at the Vatican by Pope Francis and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. She'll be updating us on her experiences and observations as she meets with leaders from around the globe throughout the week.


You can follow her updates in real-time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


How do you prepare for a meeting with the Pope? What to take, wear, say, and ponder before arriving at the Vatican? Charlie and I spent the last few weeks in a crash course on these and other questions, with the welcome help of many knowledgeable Portlanders.

We’re now on our way, our luggage packed full with briefing materials and extra copies of Pope Francis’ #Encyclical Laudato Si. Also included is a small gift from Portland for the Pope.

I’ve learned a lot about our city in this whirlwind of preparation.  This Pope, a Jesuit who took the name Francis is beloved by many, many Portlanders. Our students at PSU all call him “the cool Pope.” More than once I’ve heard him referred to as “the Portland Pope.” And it comes as no surprise that the Encyclical reads in many places like our own Climate Action Plan and other earnest efforts by our progressive city to be a good steward of the environment, and of people. 

Of the many preparatory meetings we’ve attended, one in particular stands out for me. It was our first, actually, with Portland’s Archbishop Alexander Sample.  What was scheduled as a brief “official meet & greet” became an almost two hour session of serious and thoughtful conversation.  He and Charlie covered everything from homelessness to mountain biking in Forest Park.  “Wow,” I thought quietly, “He gets it.”    

As we were leaving I asked Archbishop Sample the question I would ask everyone, “In your mind, what is the most important thing Charlie should bring to the Vatican?”   

“Bring humility and love,” Archbishop Sample answered. “If you bring your humility and love, you will be open to whatever Portland needs for you to bring back home.”