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Adventures in Portlandia

| Sydney Flottum

Portland, Oregon is nationally known as one of the greenest cities in America. Why? Because of its emphasis on local economy, energy-efficient transportation, and renewable energies. Last spring semester, Dr. Ruth Cronje, Dr. David Soll, and a group of eight undergraduate students from Dr. Soll’s Sustainable Cities class made a nine-day voyage west to better understand how Portland is able to produce such a thriving, sustainable economy.

The trip provided a domestic, intercultural immersion experience to help students better understand diversity and inclusivity outside of the university. During their time in Portland, the students took a course at Portland State University, volunteered to feed the hungry, went on bike tours around the city, and visited several sites of green initiatives. Through these experiences, they were able observe the ways in which Portland encourages and facilitates the development of economically, socially, and environmentally viable programs and structures. The big question the class was to answer was: do these programs and structures benefit all of Portland’s citizens, or just the affluent?

For a time, the students on the trip were able to become citizens of Portland; they used modes of transportation readily available, such as bikes and trains; they were able to experience the vast amount of “pulsing” greenery abundant in the city; and they were able to explore how elements of sustainability fit in relation to one another. “It was almost surreal to see the various public transit networks and important city boundaries in person after talking about them in class” says student Jenna Vande Zande.

In the mornings, the group took classes at the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University, while the afternoons were spent studying the city and partaking in several field trips.

One of these trips was a bike tour with David Oates, a writer, teacher, and poet concerned with environmental matters. Oates took them around Portland’s limits to examine the urban growth boundary, a very obvious yet “imaginary” line that the city is attempting not to develop beyond. This tour was meant to help cultivate an appreciation for the ways in which the city creates harmony with the environment. Nathan Schaffer, another UW-Eau Claire student, says, “It was a truly unique way to take in Portland, and have it impact the way I interact with my own community.”

The group’s classes at the National Policy Consensus Center explored ways of environmental conflict resolution. “Oftentimes,” says Dr. Cronje, “what happens is environmental issues are surrounded by conflict, with one side concerned about resource preservation and the other concerned about economic gains.” The NPCC has developed a curriculum that teaches students to facilitate the process of negotiation based on value-sharing and come to a consensus so that each side gains something out of the exchange. “Essentially, what this course taught us was how to help people get along. It’s that simple.”

One product of this kind of conflict resolution is Portland’s Gateway Green, a 38-acre swatch of land between two major highways. This area became a source of study for the UW-Eau Claire group in their study of environmental conflict resolution. Owned by the Department of Transportation, this land had initially been ignored and deserted after the construction of the highways. There are several neighborhoods that surround this area, many of them low-income and in need of more recreational opportunities; these diverse neighborhoods used to be very divided, and recreational bikers living in these areas were getting reprimanded for biking in Forest Park, an area not designated for that form of use. Additionally, the government of Oregon wanted to develop this land into something that would be more profitable.

Out of all these shared values arose Gateway Green. The park not only boosted tourism and property values, but it also united the neighborhoods and nearby refugee center, helping to create a sense of a larger community. Additionally, it helped conserve some of the city’s green space and provided place for recreational bikers to ride without fear of admonishment. All of this is due to the combined efforts of governmental officials and citizens working together. In fact, citizen participation played a huge mediation role in the project; it allowed the space to be developed in a way that was usable for the entire community, and it saved time and money that would have otherwise be wasted if the job had been left solely in the government’s hands. “It was interesting to see the role that low-income people played in this compromise,” says Dr. Cronje.

A stark contrast to Gateway Green is Portland’s Forest Park, a green space conservatory. Dr. Cronje, Dr. Soll, and students took a tour with Chet Orloff—a historian, writer and professor in Portland—where they explored the park, resembles a miniature national park; its lush greenery and winding trails attract many tourists. Whereas Gateway Green is accessible to people of all social and economic backgrounds, Forest Park is nestled within a group of affluent neighborhoods. The businesses surrounding this park feature organic foods and locally-made goods—all, of course, at relatively high prices.

The group also took part in Potluck at the Park, a weekly meal distribution program that feeds hundreds of people every week. “Many of the food banks and soup kitchens close on Sundays,” says Dr. Cronje. “This program helps fill in the gap for those in need.” The class actively assisted in distributing food to over 670 low-income people that day.

Overall, the class observed that, while many green efforts took place in impoverished areas, they seemed to be concentrated mainly in Portland’s center and more economically developed areas. At one point, the group met with a graduate student from PSU, who confirmed that the “green” in Portland is superficial, and that it tends to benefit only the wealthy. Despite this unhappy realization, the trip proved to be a success; the group was able to experience several ways in which green efforts are implemented, and both the students and faculty members got to know each other on a level virtually impossible in the classroom. “At times, there was no hierarchy,” said Dr. Soll. “Everyone was very respectful and inclusive. It was a huge pleasure to bond with the students.”

The students, too, were heavily impacted by both social interactions with their professors and the interdisciplinary experiences the trip exposed them to. “I was so excited about the opportunity to examine Portland from the perspective of sustainability and social justice, that I asked Dr. Soll if I could go on the trip even though I had taken his class a year earlier,” says Schaffer. “Being around innovative ideas and people helped fuel my imagination for what could be done in my own community.”

“I would say the biggest impact for me was that the trip inspired me to travel more,” says Vande Zande. “Even after only staying a week about a thousand miles from home in my own country, I sheepishly realized how diverse the world truly is, and how little I know about it.”

Student Erik Amundson was also blown away. “I entered Portland thinking I had escaped reality for a short vacation. I left Portland realizing there are many opportunities for young adults in the business world relating to sustainability. I know I will be back.”

The trip to Portland was such a varied and inclusive affair that every student, no matter what background they came from or what major they studies, gained something from it. It helped cultivate an understanding of ecological and social issues that students may not have gained solely in the classroom. “It’s one thing to learn about these efforts in a class and another to see it in person,” says Dr. Soll. “This trip provided a very hands-on, organic way of learning.”