Tag Archives: Oregon

Spongy Parking Lots and Sustainability


Oregon Drought

It takes a drought sometimes for a fresh approach to catch on.

An NPR Morning Edition program (January 2015) was about the urban planners in Los Angeles seeing npr citiesthe need to view the city as a sponge, absorbing water, rather than corralling, then whisking it away down the drain and into our waterways.  “Engineering water into submission” is how they talked about it on NPR and it dates back to the Romans and aqueducts.  It also is how I got to the idea of retrofitting existing surface parking lots to be spongy ones as part of my neighborhood work as a sustainability advocate.

I live in the Old Town Chinatown (OTCT) neighborhood of Portland, Oregon.  One rarely hears the word, sustainability pass anyone’s lips at land use meetings despite the City’s reputation for sustainability, awards for its healthy, connected neighborhoods and a significant number of LEED certified buildings.  Similar to skid row landscapes in other medium and large-sized cities, OTCT is peppered with surface parking lots, many waiting for infill or development especially those owned by the redevelopment agency, with centrally located ones returning money in the manner of a cash machine to its owners and managers.

After listening to the broadcast, it wasn’t hard to extend this fresh idea of spongy to the problem we face here in Old Town Chinatown. Not only are the surface parking lots signals of a blighted landscape, but planet-wise they waste precious water; pollute as water run-off contains toxins e.g. gasoline, heavy metals, and nasty Polycyclicheat islands Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) with heavy rain days being particularly worrisome as they may result in combined sewage overflow* (CSO); and they contribute to the overheating of our urban areas as heat islands, “pushing air temperatures up to 10°F (5.6°C) warmer than surrounding areas with open land and vegetation.” Portland State University’s Vivek Shandas has lead an effort to map heat islands and make the tool available on-line.

Surface parking lots, impervious surfaces, are a sustainability nightmare.

The advantages to local businesses of  “parking” as a requirement by cities to attract employers and shoppers is hardly offset by the damage to our environment, the health of our residents, the local economy (they are not taxed at the same rate as nearby buildings) and to those elements of sustainability often referenced to as “externalities.” Economic factors, money, often reigns supreme in much of local decision making.  Of course the costs to mitigate the damage done to our planet and people is born, eventually, by the taxpayer, those living in blighted areas and our children and grandchildren.

“An awful lot of urban planning particularly in poor areas has doubly impoverished

the poor by the ugliness which surrounds them and its understandable that it so difficult to

reach and sustain gentleness there..” John O’Donohue

cover for spongyThe good news lies in retrofitting many of these surface parking lots.  Locally we put together a cross collaboration team of architects, engineers, designers, and our resident expert on low impact development also known as green infrastructure, Maria Cahill.  Retrofit tools and methods are readily available for conserving water, then returning it to the ground or filtering it for re-use in nearby parks and gardens; decreasing pollution of nearby rivers and streams especially in times of heavy rain days – projected to increase here in Portland in this age of climate change; reducing the heat by increasing the tree canopy; and using rain gardens, living walls, and swales to significantly reduce the harm done by surface parking lots.

City documents, plans, or RFPs don’t often call out retrofitting surface parking lots. It must happen in some cities because Toronto, for example, published a Guide for Greening Surface Parking Lots which covers mainly new lots and in Portland’s Climate Action Plan decreasing Urban Heat Islands are called out “… especially in areas with populations most vulnerable to heat, through strategies such as revegetation, tree preservation planting and maintenance, de-paving and porous pavement, green infrastructure like bioswales and eco-roofs and site development performance standards.”  The Climate Action Plan also addresses sequestering carbon “through increased green infrastructure (trees, plants, soil) and natural areas. Reduce effective impervious areas by 600 acres. Expand the urban forest canopy to cover at least one-third of the city with a miclimate action plannimum canopy cover of 25 percent of each residential neighborhood and 15 percent of the central city, commercial and industrial areas.”

Retrofitting doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in parking spots if that turns out to be a gating factor in getting local support for a demonstration or pilot project, as we are doing.  The effort to retrofit Spongy Parking Lots is an opportunity to take a closer look at mobility options (where “by car” and “more parking” is not the default option for solving issues raised by employers in our central city and by retail merchants and the entertainment/hospitality industry.

The OTCT Community Association, made up of primarily business owners and some non-profit organizations serving the homeless and providing addiction treatment, recently formed a new committee, Transportation and Mobility of which “Mobility & Parking” is on the agenda.  Too soon to tell how it will function as a gateway to fresh ideas and innovation, but our team is ready with the recommendation for our redevelopment agency in collaboration with our Bureaus of Environmental Services and Planning and Sustainability  invest in demonstration project for spongy parking lots here in OTCT given their number and the harm they produce, and, in terms of the neighborhood’s role in the emerging mobility movement to get people out of their cars in this age of climate change.  Be it a private or public surface parking lot Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 11.37.15 AMdoesn’t matter as long as the owner, along with a majority of Oregonians, “values the state’s natural beauty, outdoor recreation opportunities, and relatively clean air and water. They also value a good economy, but they want an approach to economic development that recognizes the importance of the state’s natural environment to its quality of life.”

We have been identifying our spongy champions working in the many agencies that would be involved in bringing a demonstration project forward and raising awareness through social media, especially videos on our PDXdowntowner YouTube channel.  There is our webpage at www.spongyparkinglots.com where we have included an overview of spongy parking lots, relevant links to videos, articles and whitepapers,  and an overview of our team members.

Like our Facebook page to indicate you support thinking spongy when it comes to surface parking lots.

Ruth Ann Barrett, Portland, Oregon, August 31, 2016


*CSO has been a big issue in two cities I have lived in – Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California.  Portland’s CSO Control Program (December 2011) reduced CSOs to the Columbia Slough by more than 99% and to the Willamette River by 94%.




Sustainability with Resiliency

Sustainability with resiliency is how I think about these two important concepts working together.  Which is why I started to pay more attention to those talking about resiliency and  then created a new Resiliency and Communities collection on EarthSayers.tv, voices of sustainability.  At first, I recognized that there is quite a bit out there on personal resiliency. Three years ago I interviewed Raz Mason, who is trained as a chaplain, on the topic of sustainability and resiliency. Although I didn’t agree with her that the term sustainability suggests a steady state, I was impressed how she talks about resiliency as it relates to the individual and family.

bookHowever, in terms of community resiliency, I was moved to action by the voice of Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, author of The Resilience Dividend, and one of the world’s leading public thinkers. She was the first voice added to the Resiliency and Communities special collection on EarthSayers.tv.  I discovered that resiliency at the community level incorporates what we traditionally call emergency management yet moves us towards being better able to plan for and then recover from not only the weather, but social and economic shocks.
And exactly how do we do resiliency planning and investment, to prepare, when crisis seems to be the new normal?  How do we revitalize, not just build back our communities?
Well, I recommend you give a listen to Dr. Rodin’s hour long discussion brought to us by The RSA, a London based, British organization committed to finding practical solutions to today’s social challenges. And circulate* an excerpted version (six minutes) of her talk (bit.ly/adaptandgrow) to friends and colleagues who you know are looking for fresh ideas. I let our local emergency management director, Carmen Merlo, know that I had heard Dr. Rodin and was very supportive of Ms. Merlo being Portland’s first Chief Resiliency Officer, a CRO being a recommendation from Dr. Rodin’s experience with the Rockefeller project, 100 Resilient Cities.
Our worldview influences the actions we take and so it’s possible that with crisis being the new normal we all are hearing the call to action to bring resiliency planning to our cities and towns, making it part of every sustainability plan, program, bureau and initiative. We just need help doing it and the courage.

Ruth Ann Barrett, Sustainability Advocate, March 30, 2015, Portland, Oregon.

* Suggested tweets: Our communities and #resiliency benefits of planning explained by Dr. Judith Rodin (video), http://bit.ly/adaptandgrow and/or Advice we need to hear: How to Build Better, More #Resilient Cities with Judith Rodin (video), http://bit.ly/adaptandgrow

Portland: the Most Sustainability Conscious U.S. City

Portland is #1

Portland is #1

Since 2004 the growth of the search term on sustainability has been slow and bumpy, but UP.  And the state with the highest volume of search? Oregon with Vermont close behind and in 2009 close to closing the gap.  And while Eugene outpaces Portland if you look at the period 2004 to the present, Portland outpaces all U.S. cities in 2009. Denver is close behind. It would be a good thing for the cities lagging behind to benefit from the expertise here in Portland from the leaders among all economic sectors.  SUSTAINABILITYStarting from the bottom of the top ten, cities such as Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Diego, Minneapolis & St. Paul, Seattle-Tacoma, Raleigh-Durham, Boston, and Phoenix would benefit from a transfer of skills and expertise. This is part of the reason EarthSayers.tv has started the Portland Sustainability Leadership Channel (PSLC).  We collect already available videos from around YouTube that feature Portland’s leaders.  Aggregating the content increases the likelihood of finding Portland’s leader from among the YouTube sea. Its search function is extremely limited. The PSLC is then linked to EarthSayers.tv giving them national and international exposure. We twitter and tweet as well. Both YouTube (#4 on search volume) and twitter (no. 1 on fastest rising by 1250%) are heavily searched terms on Google and, as such, are busy places to reach an audience. While EarthSayers is new and growing, over the last two months there have been over 6,000 visits, with 2,000 of them being unique as visitors return 3x. We also create original content (thanks to filmmaker Barry Heidt) by interviewing leaders. The folks we have interviewed so far include Rob Bennett of the Portland Sustainability Institute, Marcelo Bonta of the Center for Diversity and the Environment, Dennis Wilde of Gerding Edlen Development Company, Mary Vogel, urban designer, of PlanGreen, Willem and Evan of Where Are Your Keys, Peter Bauer of Urban Scout Rewilidng, Lindsey Newkirk of Elysium Events, Kristy Alberty of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, Carl Grimm of  Metro, and Kate Miller, consultant, sustainable Lighting.


Sustainability, Climate Change, and Global Warming Trends

What other steps could be taken to promote Portland’s planning and urban design professionals, green building experts, and business owners who have worked hard at the business and civic levels and contributed to Portland’s sustainability reputation?  They have helped Portland “turnaround” from the un-development following World War II that Michael Mehaffy has written left Portland “a hollow shell bisected by freeways, invaded by trendy but lifeless buildings and deserted by families heading for the suburbs.”  Transformation was in order. Portland attracts people and jobs in a large part because of its sustainability reputation or brand.  Now would be a good time to help the many consultants and professionals here in Portland export their skills and expertise to help other communities and in the process rebuild their own businesses clobbered by an economic collapse. We will continue to grow the Portland Sustainability Leadership Channel and seek support from the business community to fund our efforts (Chelsea Peil is the curator of the Channel and is extending invitations to companies with high integrity and a sustainability track record to be channel sponsors at a very modest rate for the branding- chelsea@earthsayers.com), but this is not enough.  Let’s put our heads together and come up with more ideas for marketing the talent and brains of sustainability from right here in Portland.