Sustainability is the definitive ethic of our time. Its measure of humanity cuts across the shibboleths of identity politics and corporate citizenship by forcing a moral response to an existential demand. Sustainability, as put forth in the Brutland Commission’s landmark report, Our Common Future (1987), imposes “limits to growth” to ensure development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Given that over 50 percent of the world’s population live in cities (3.9 billion), a figure expected to grow 60 percent by 2050, sustainability is grounded in planning green pedestrian scaled cities where ecological relations match consumer desires. “We need…to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late,” Pope Francis declared in, Our Common Home (2015). “We know how unsustainable is the behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity.”
The first full-fledged agenda to build cities premised on sustainability appeared in Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities (1938). The nonpareil work secured the author a choice consulting commission with the Northwest Regional Council and his report, Regional Planning in the Pacific Northwest (1939), was a blueprint to make Portland a green, sustainable city. After foundering for a generation, Portland became, critic James Kunstler writes, “the one American city where Lewis Mumford’s dream came true.”
For a Lewis Mumford scholar and a trained city planner, Portland is a place of pilgrimage. Blessed by vision and luck, citizens transformed this remote industrial metropolis into a top tier sustainable city. Most important, at a time when government planning is decried, Portland is a prototype for melding environmental protection and a thriving high tech economy. In 2013, I served on the Orlando Sustainability Task Force. At the first meeting, Mayor Buddy Dyer announced, “Our goal is to make Orlando the Portland of the Southeast.” The Task Force crafted a Greenworks Plan and “livability,” a concept Portland pioneered, was one of its six cornerstones. Livability is also the antidote to the autocentric development pattern that has burdened metropolitan Orlando with the nation’s highest per capita pedestrian death rate and the nation’s lowest ranking for economic equity. It requires, the Greenworks Plan states, “establishing a compact, dense, development pattern that efficiently uses land while providing opportunities for residents to live near schools, employment centers and public transit links.” After the City Council approved the plan in 2014, Jonathan Ippel, the sustainability director, took his staff to Portland to examine an innovative milieu where walkable urbanism—as opposed to drivable suburbanism—centers public policy. A year later, I did the same.
|Philip Langdon's new book documents the sustainable lines of the Pearl District|
A decade before, I had invested in a long held dream to live without a car in Portland. I purchased a pre-construction condo next to Jamison Square, a popular park, and near a streetcar stop in the Pearl District, an acclaimed urban redevelopment project. Sited on a former rail yard, the building was in a mostly vacant area with a raw unkempt look. Nevertheless, I expected to be priced out in the near future. The pedestrian scaled Pearl District prioritized transit and mixed-use development (residential, commercial, office) and, with its intricate open space system, I was convinced the neighborhood would become an exemplar of good urbanism. Marking my time, I rented the condo until I secured a grant to fund a year sabbatical to take up “the less acquisitive” and “machine driven” lifestyle Lewis Mumford advocated, and, other than not having a second child, this was the single most effective individual decision I could make to mitigate climate change.
|evening light illuminates the wildflowers in a model urban landscape|