Adelaide, Australia, let me introduce you to Tsukuba, Japan

Last week, First Stop Portland got a call from the mayor’s office. A parliament member from Adelaide, South Australia, would be in Portland for a day and was interested in taking one of our study tours. Lucky for us, we had already designed a study tour for a delegation visiting from the Social and Environmental Systems division of the National Institute for Environmental Studies, Tsukuba, Japan. With a little finagling, we were able to roll the two groups into one very interesting, very international, opportunity for dialogue about urban transportation and sustainable development.

Researchers from Tsukuba, Japan explore suburban transportation options

The two delegations spent the morning with Michele Crim and Steve Iwata of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability learning about the role of transportation in Portland’s Climate Action and Central City 2035 plans. This was followed by a lively discussion about electric vehicles with George Beard of Portland State’s Executive Leadership Institute, during which Dr. Hideki Kato of the Japanese delegation commented that the U.S. approach to electric vehicles as a substitute for gas-powered models might be misguided; Japan, they noted, has been taking a different approach, promoting the electric vehicle an alternative transportation mode more akin to the bicycle, rather than a replacement for gas-powered motor vehicles. Like most of our visitors from abroad, the Japanese delegation also noted the immense size of American vehicles and wondered how we’d ever generate enough electricity to support such a substantial electric fleet!

During lunch, neighborhood activist and former Southeast Uplift board chair Linda Nettekoven explained the ins and outs of Portland’s participatory governance model and discussed the the benefits and challenges of engaging citizens from across the city. It’s really about creating city-wide equity, according to Linda, by changing the nature of the citizen-to-government relationships from one of child-to-parent permission-seeking to one of peer-to-peer collaboration. Portland’s decision to promote community engagement is a conscious one that undoubtedly empowers people while “adding value to what the city is trying to do for its citizens.” Business owner Junki Yoshida supported her statements, laughing, “Yes, I know first hand, these neighbors really are Portland’s most powerful people!”   

Huddled under umbrellas, the groups braved the kind of cold, windy and rainy day our chamber of commerce never seems to picture on its brochures, for a walking tour of the Pearl District. Adelaide is currently adding an extension to their hugely popular streetcar (tram) line, so South Australian Parliament Member Tom Kenyon was particularly interested in experiencing some of the nuances of Portland’s streetcar development [PDF, City of Portland report, 2008; PDF, Draft Portland Streetcar System Concept Plan, 2009] from innovative financing strategies like TIFs and LIDs, to site-specific platform design, to bi-street alignments, he assured me he would be taking his observations home with him as his city embarks on an ambitious extension project that will add to an already hugely popular streetcar alignment that was only recently completed. He observed that Portland’s streetcar “meandered” through the streets, both in terms of design and speed, rather than Adelaide’s model, in which the streetcar is destination-centric, really adds to a feeling of safety--both with regard to pedestrian accessibility as well as in sharing the thoroughfare with autos. Added to by the scale and style of the architecture, he noted the Pearl District really does have a very warm neighborhood feeling, much like what we would see in the older neighborhoods of Sydney.

While it seems like there might not be much overlap between the development needs of Australia’s vast, dry expanses and Japan’s ocean-wrapped islands, the commonalities exist less in what these projects look and feel like than how these leaders approach them. Beyond matters of scope and scale, form and function, is a shared commitment to innovation based not simply on application of best practices but on an understanding of context and a commitment to exploring and applying only those ideas that best serve the goals of sustainability by meeting the specific needs of the people in their respective places.  

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