Portland residents are highly informed on issues concerning the environment, and the issue of sustainability was top of mind when the planning group formed. Portland’s awards and accolades from the media exemplify this: “#1 Greenest City in America” – Popular Science (February 2008), “No. 1 Environmental Awareness” – CNN/Travel+Leisure (October 2007), “#1 Portland: A Role Model for the Nation” – SustainLane.com’s 2006 list of America’s most sustainable big cities (Travel Portland, n.d.).

Although sustainability can, and has, been used simply as a buzzword to excite the public and ensure them that “all is well”, the circumstances surrounding the update of the Mt. Tabor Master Plan provided an excellent opportunity to weave important sustainability principles throughout the process and across the city.

Partially established at the global level by the United Nations at the 1983 World Commission on Environment and Development and subsequent assemblies and reports, sustainability was defined and highlighted as a summation of a way for society to live within its means while saving resources for future generations.  The United Nation’s 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, created the framework to base decisions on the interaction of three fundamental criteria: environment, economy, and equity (Edwards, 2005).

Known as the “three E’s” of sustainability, as well as the “triple-bottom-line”, I joined the Sustainability Committee eager to lay the foundation for the group to base their planning decisions on these principles.  Each of the criteria had, in part, played vital roles in bringing the community and the City together in this joint effort, and were important priorities for all parties.  Conceptually, the three E’s could encapsulate the goals of the group to meet the needs of the Earth while promoting goals of economic and social justice.


Each member of the planning group has expressed that their relationship with the environment, specifically Mt Tabor in most cases, is what first drew them to this process. Even employees, as committee member John Laursen articulated, “don’t come to work for Parks just so they can dismantle a park” (personal communication, February 25, 2008).  All are invested in the health and vitality of the land and most were vaguely familiar with green building terms, but the reality of designing a city maintenance yard that is progressive in its relationship to the environment runs into several roadblocks.

The first issue is budgetary.  Though Portlanders are vocal in their support of parkland, budgets for PPR are stretched.  It is for this reason that the central maintenance facility has been neglected for so long. The second issue deals with the nature of the work done at the central maintenance facilities.  Though members have highlighted horticultural services and community gardens as assets in engaging sustainable principles, most of the work done at the maintenance facilities is done with heavy machinery and the use of toxic materials.  City vehicles, including its fleet of lawnmowers, are serviced at the yard.  Paint, used for various projects in all of the city parks, is stored there, as are pesticides and weed control agents.  Much of considering what is best for the land when introducing sustainable building practices into the update of the maintenance facilities is figuring out how to simply contain the toxins that are used there.

Though the City, the community, and employees have pledged their support for creating sustainable facilities, making an investment in design that pushes the envelope on green building standards – such as creating a carbon-neutral building that uses an equal amount of energy than it creates – at an increased dollar amount, is unlikely.  However, steps in the right direction were more possible than were originally anticipated.

Criteria for meeting the needs of the Environment and how the MTCY&NPG effort ranks at meeting those needs.  Though progress is being made to take a long-term approach to the health of the land, attitudes of “man over nature” prevails.

Figure 8.1: Criteria for meeting the needs of the Environment and how the MTCY&NPG effort ranks at meeting those needs. Though progress is being made to take a long-term approach to the health of the land, attitudes of “man over nature” prevails.

Portland’s Green Building Policy

In January 2001, the City of Portland City Council adopted a “Green Building Policy” to require resource and energy efficient design and construction practices for City-owned facilities and publicly funded private sector development.  The Policy was established as a strategic plan to expand market demand and make green building practices easier to implement in Portland.

In April 2005, City Council adopted a resolution updating the existing Green Building Policy to create stronger standards, create new strategies to remove existing gaps, form new links to development review and permitting, and other refinements to reflect the changing landscape of green building (City of Portland, 2005, April).

Led largely by Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development (OSD), the Policy raised new construction standards to incorporate internationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) requirements for buildings.  Created in 1998, LEED set out to define a green building standard of measurement, promote whole-building design practices, recognize environmental leadership in the building industry, and to transform the building market, and has become a benchmark for green building (Wikipedia, n.d.).

Different LEED levels, “Certified”, “Silver”, “Gold”, and “Platinum”, are obtained using a varied scoring system with required prerequisites and credits that are attainable in six major categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design (Wikipedia, n.d.).

Portland, being a leader on issues of sustainability, updated the 2001 Policy to increase LEED thresholds from “Certified” to “Gold”, and require that at least:

  • 75% of all construction and demolition waste be recycled;
  • 30% of storm water goes beyond the City of Portland’s Stormwater Management Manual baseline code;
  • 30% water savings that goes beyond the Energy Policy Act of 1992 baseline code requirements;
  • 30% energy savings that goes beyond Chapter 13 of the Oregon Structural Specialty Code baseline requirements;
  • Building commissioning required by the State Office of Energy to be eligible for the Sustainable Building Business Energy Tax Credit.
  • Include an ecoroof with at least 70% coverage AND high reflectance, Energy Star rated roof material on any remaining non-ecoroof surface area (City of Portland, 2005, April).

Though already largely established and allowing little wiggle room, the Policy would provide direction for the group on how to lessen the facilities’ footprint on the land.  Members took the Policy into consideration, and rather than re-write guidelines, highlighted key areas of focus.  Specifically, the Sustainability Committee looked at the six categories LEED highlights as important design criteria to build upon.  In order to have the most impact, however, the service plans and the uses of the land had to first be thoroughly understood.  To do so, the second “E”, economy, had to be agreed upon.


Though many efforts built around the environmental movement struggle to find common ground when it comes to jobs – such as environmentalists encouraging the preservation of old growth forest while the logging industry lobbies for increased access to timber – incorporating sustainable economic practices into the maintenance yard makes sense for two reasons.

The first reason deals with recognizing the importance of the work done by employees of the maintenance yard, and providing them with an adequate work environment.   For decades, staff at the yard has had to make due with crumbling infrastructure and limited budgets for repairs and safety.  Many of the buildings are over 100 years old and have seen no rehabilitation.  Most of the facilities are not up to code, and investing in a safe work area for employees is a top priority for city officials.

The second reason economic sustainability makes sense for this project is that the city has downgraded the importance of their horticultural and nursery services that are housed at the maintenance yard.  Rather than being an agency that grows and provides botanical services to all area parks like they had in the past, Horticultural Services now mainly offers a brokering service for plants.  Instead of growing the plants requested, Horticultural Services contacts nurseries that carry specific plants and then negotiates a better price.  Though a discounted price and reduced staffing needs offers bottom line savings, the availability and quality of the product is diminished.  Finding a third-party nursery often entails dealing with businesses that specialize in certain plants – meaning they’re monocropped – and the health of the vegetation is usually subject to where it has been grown rather than where it ends up.

Criteria for meeting the needs of the Economy and how the MTCY&NPG effort ranks at meeting those needs.  Providing safe and functioning work environments at the yard, as well as stable employment, are key goals for both the group and PPR.  Breaking away from how things have always been to progressively, and creatively, move the functions of the yard forward, however, has proven difficult.

Figure 8.2: Criteria for meeting the needs of the Economy and how the MTCY&NPG effort ranks at meeting those needs. Providing safe and functioning work environments at the yard, as well as stable employment, are key goals for both the group and PPR. Breaking away from how things have always been to progressively, and creatively, move the functions of the yard forward, however, has proven difficult.

Re-establishing horticultural services as a premier in-house agency recognizes the value of quality and local expertise, and its expansion could offer more employment opportunities.  Additionally, expansion of Horticultural Services could include social aspects that had previously been unavailable. Community Gardens, one of the most publicly engaged services of PPR, also works out of the maintenance facilities, but is separate from horticultural services and the nursery.  Opportunities to weave the services together are endless, and will continue to expand well into the future.  First, however, drawing attention to the in-house growth opportunity that PPR and the City has is vital to incorporating economic sustainability into plans for the yard.

Instituting service plans that champion these strengths would prove difficult, however.  Every organization must find a balance between its revenues and expenditures, and being a public institution, the City of Portland is required to adhere to taxpayer’s wishes that budgets be balanced.  Market conditions steer an organizations’ budget, and trending had shown that demands were shifting away from horticultural needs and more toward structural demands.

Responsible for 10,000 acres of parkland at more than 250 locations, PPR was seeing an increase in its service needs at developed sites that include: playgrounds/ play structures, basketball courts, public restrooms, 45 miles of paved in-park trails, pools, art centers, tennis courts, and 12 Community Centers.  The 2006-2007 work order totals for “Structures” outnumbered the work order totals for “Horticulture Services” nearly 17 to 1; “Equipment” had eight times as many orders.  Built structures were increasingly requiring more attention than natural areas.

Cutting horticultural staff and modifying its business practices has been a way that PPR has met these demands, and it is becoming increasingly likely that future service plans will emphasize maintenance needs over botanical needs.  City Nature managers have expressed the need to “right-size” the nursery, arguing that decreasing space for horticulture services makes it more efficient for market demands and allows maintenance the growth it needs to provide a quality, functioning product.  Besides the fact that community members have taken “rightsizing” to mean “downsizing,” they are worried that parks will become more dependent than ever on built infrastructure, furthering the disconnect from the land.

Members have been frustrated in their attempts at opening up a dialogue that explores shifting policy to “recapture past horticultural functions, develop an urban horticultural center, or initiate educational gardens” (Jacobsen, personal communication, May 16, 2008).  Community members had been offered the opportunity to provide input on policy setting for the maintenance yard and nursery, but market realities, documented and well known by PPR, have controlled the direction of the conversation, allowing little room for ingenuity.  To remedy this type of thinking, members will need to become increasingly creative in finding ways to rightsize demand for horticultural services.  One powerful way they have of doing this is to voice their ideas collectively as an equal partner in this process.


The third “E” of sustainability, equity, stands out as the principle embraced by the Mt. Tabor Planning Group, as the process grew from a platform of equality.  When the sale of public land to Warner Pacific was announced, citizens called attention to local officials that the values of the neighbors and the employees weren’t being met.  Neighborhood associations and labor unions banded together to stand against the sale and ask for an equal voice in the decision making process.  All members of the group recognize the importance of diversity in establishing common ground and finding a solution favorable for all.  Edwards (2005) observes that social cohesion is “more likely to thrive in an environment where all members of the community feel that their contribution to the whole is appreciated and where an equitable distribution of resources is recognized as essential for the long-term viability of the society” (p. 23).

Much of the progress that has been made in this process has come from giving greater power to more groups.  Though I’ve made mention that service plans for the yard have come from PPR management, one breakthrough obtained is that working groups have been established for maintenance employees to meet together to establish and refine priorities.  Recognizing that their frontline employees were intimately aware of the diverse needs of parks, PPR reached out to their staff in order to develop a complete picture of what was required to update facilities and practices.  This was all the more remarkable because a single yard employee, who was in a position to make the recommendation, initiated the idea.

Criteria for creating Equity and how the MTCY&NPG effort ranks at meeting those needs.  The group was formed on a platform of equity and fares above average on the benchmarks, but has the potential to expand their reach to the greater Portland community for increased participation.

Figure 8.3: Criteria for creating Equity and how the MTCY&NPG effort ranks at meeting those needs. The group was formed on a platform of equity and fares above average on the benchmarks, but has the potential to expand their reach to the greater Portland community for increased participation.

Karen Trappen, a carpenter at Mt. Tabor Yard, willingly and patiently endured mediation between the community and PPR because she saw the need to have employee voices heard.  Her persistence and involvement brought key insight into the process, and encouraged other employees to volunteer their time as well.  Her efforts won her the Public Employee of the Year award for the Northwest Region of Labor International Union of North America (LIUNA) in 2007, and more importantly, reminded management of the rich source of information they have within their organization.

This was a major shift in approach for PPR, and a model that is being embraced by businesses worldwide.  Tapscott & Williams (2006) describe how companies are realizing the limitations of “closed and hierarchical workplaces with rigid employment relationships” and are gaining competitive advantages by moving toward collaborative working environments (p. 240).  Though continual improvement is needed to ensure that everyone has an equal voice, the City’s willingness to change their communication strategy with employees offers hope that the community can be fully heard.

Barriers to Overcome

Though not easy, the shift to incorporate employee insight into PPR policy making is manageable because they are employed by the organization.  Management has potentially unlimited access to its employees, or at least has the potential to juggle schedules to make participation easier.  Doing the same for community members is much more difficult because of the variety of scheduling needs that need to be met.  Throughout this study I have made mention how time constraints have driven the planning process, and the inability to have more face-to-face meetings is as much the community’s shortcoming as it is the City’s.  People have diverse needs, schedules, and responsibilities stacked on top of responsibilities, and asking them to volunteer more of their hours welcomes low turnout and high burnout.

Speaking from experience, juggling school, work, and children while doing my civic duty has my time stretched to the limit.  Though I realize that more of my energy needs to be spent on the Mt. Tabor Planning Group if I want to see a shift in policy that factors in the difficult issues of climate change, rising energy prices, and the declining dollar, the opportunity for that to happen isn’t there.

I am not alone in this recognition, nor is it limited to community members, as both PPR management and employees have volunteered their time to attend planning group meetings. Our available time and multiple responsibilities limit how engaged we can be in the group.

Even when we attend and fully participate in meetings, engagement is subject to our mood and the mood of others, and as the nearly three-hour group meetings are held on Monday nights, those moods can vary depending how hectic the day was, what the weather was like, and what personal obligations are beckoning. Though I can point all I want at how little time the group has, there is very little in the way of solutions when it comes to increasing the amount that the group engages in face-to-face meetings.

Outside of the meetings, technology – specifically email and the Internet – was used to disseminate information amongst the group and to the greater community, but limitations were prevalent.  The use of technology as a communication tool wasn’t fully integrated into the process and the group didn’t capitalize on technological solutions.  The reluctance of the group to embrace technology limits communication options, but the opportunity to use technology to expand the group’s reach has presented itself, and with some education, could be utilized effectively.