We’re not Blown Away, Portland: You’ve Got Some Work to Do

Or such was the sentiment expressed by a recent delegation of civic leaders from Finland who visited Portland to exchange ideas about sustainable community development. They observed that when it comes to scale, Portland (and the U.S. in general) doesn’t seem to appreciate that to achieve significant energy efficiency, scaling up from the building to the district level is essential.

Folks over at Portland Sustainability Institute understand this, and are working hard to accelerate deployment of neighborhood-scale sustainability efforts via the The EcoDistricts Initiative.

While Finland and Oregon share many bioregional similarities and ecological interests, there are several key differences that make a direct exchange of ideas between the two countries challenging. Portland is blessed by a mild climate and situated in a country built on the back of cheap, plentiful energy; as a place,  it’s sustainability efforts are driven less by the threat of immediate scarcity than by the values of a concerned citizenry with a shared commitment to long-term ecological health. Finland, on the other hand, experiences the climatic extremes and darkness that life above the 60th parallel entails; with no domestic fossil fuel reserves and little capacity for biomass production apart from some birch tree plantations, it’s no wonder that strategies for conservation and renewable energy sources are high on the national agenda and robustly subsidized (at least they were subsidized through the 1990s) by government policy.

Given these dissimilarities, what are the lessons for Portland from Finland, and other Scandinavian role models, for that matter, like Iceland, Switzerland, and Sweden hanging out at the top of Yale’s environmental performance index?

At First Stop Portland, we repeat the mantra “Place Matters.” Implicit in this philosophy is an understanding that there are no cookie cutter solutions to making cities more greener or more livable. What works in Helsinki, where they are experimenting with innovative ways of turning waste water into energy  and retrofitting for carbon-neutral suburbs won't necessary work in Las Vegas, Atlanta, or Cleveland.

Seems, then, that what's working for Finland is working with what they’ve got to get to what they want. In their coal-to-diamonds, asset-based model of sustainable development, place is as important a variable in sustainable innovation as more commonly accepted factors like population shifts and economic conditions. This goes beyond material realities: Finland’s sustainable development strategy recognizes that places are comprised of people, positing human capacity for innovation and a desire for social justice at the forefront of its activities (at least rhetorically speaking). The efforts of the Finnish National Commission on Sustainable Development  "is based on institutional learning and broad participation wherein various societal actors take part in the definition and implementation of sustainable development." Finland's national strategy for sustainable development "Towards sustainable choices. A nationally and globally sustainable Finland," adopted June 2006 by the Finnish National Commission on Sustainable Development, emphasizes the following:
“The innovation and change management capacity of citizens and the society are particularly emphasized in the strategy. The objective is that renewable natural resources are used for economic activity and increasing human well-being so that they are not depleted but are renewed from one generation to another. Non-renewable natural resources will be utilised as eco-efficiently as possible. When operating in such a manner, the present generation will not endanger the possibilities of future generations to live a good life in a sustainable society.”

1 comment:

  1. Reading this the same week that the number 3 domestic producer of solar power closed-up their U.S. shop to move overseas strikes an upsetting chord.

    The U.S. needs a sustainable national energy policy, and we need it now!