When we moved the Post Carbon Cities office to downtown Portland I was thrilled to get a bird's-eye view of the downtown streetcar, the first new streetcar line built in the US since World War II. This morning I got a new history-making treat out my window: four wind turbines mounted yesterday on a new high-rise, among the first such urban wind projects in the country.
Developer Gerding Edlen and designers (and primary office tenant) Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects are well aware that the turbines will generate only a a tiny amount of electricity for the building, known as Twelve|West. They're looking father ahead: they see the potential in urban wind and they want to find out how far they can take it.
It's that willingness to experiment that excites me about this project. Urban wind power has been roundly critized for years as impractical: the wind flow would be too weak and turbulent, the turbines' vibrations would create structural problems, the noise would bother people living and working nearby, etc. That's all largely true for older-model wind turbines, but it may well be changing as technology advances and - just as important - as planning, design and development lessons are learned. There's only one way to know.
Gerding Edlen owes much of its success to taking risks. One of the firm's best-known projects, Portland's Brewery Blocks (just a few blocks away from Twelve|West) started off in 1999 as a grungy little area at the gateway to a dilapidated industrial neighborhood. Plans were underway for the streetcar and a new mixed-use neighborhood (now the upscale Pearl District), but little to nothing had actually been built yet.
Uncertainties abounded in both the local and national economies, but Gerding Edlen went ahead anyway - and it paid off. As managing principal Mark Edlen is quoted in the article about the Twelve|West turbines:
"We've completed six platinum and 26 gold LEED certifications and a couple dozen silver... We have a very strong belief that you have to innovate. The only way we've gotten where we are with platinum is to take some risks."
The Brewery Blocks were a risk, as was the Portland Streetcar itself. At the start of that project, in the late 1990s, nobody had built a new streetcar line anywhere in the country in over 50 years, and almost all real estate growth was out in the suburbs. Local leaders (public and private) were taking a significant risk in planning an exotic transit service to a neighborhood that didn't even exist yet.
Bold ideas are essential. Not only did the Streetcar and Pearl District (and by extension the Brewery Blocks) need each other to happen - a marraige of "transit-oriented development" and "development-oriented transit" - these bold ideas have spawned countless new successes. The Pearl District is home to a number of highly-regarded projects like the Ecotrust Building, the Portland Armory, and the unexpectedly kid-popular Jamison Square. A struggling neighborhood at one end of the streetcar line is bouncing back into one of Portland's most desirable, and a recent extension has spurred yet another big mixed-use neighborhood development to the south.
That's all good news for developers, but it's also good news for cultivating urban sustainability and community resilience. Tens of thousands of people in these central-city neighborhoods are now living with much less energy and many fewer resources than if they had followed the norm and moved to sprawling, car-dependent suburbs. The increased density has brought more economic activity to the urban core, including the bursting-at-the-seams downtown farmers markets - which in turn helps support local farmers and protect our regional foodshed... and on and on and on.
Which brings me to a second point: Bold ideas are successful when they happen in context and with collaboration. The farmers markets needed density; the density needed transit; the transit needed pre-existing density cultivated from years of earlier decisions to renew the urban core. It all absolutely needed private sector decision-makers thinking creatively and taking risks. And perhaps most importantly, it all needed public sector decision-makers who knew when to create incentives and when to streamline regulations, when to boost initiatives and when to get out of the way.
America's modern urban history is filled with examples of private and/or public sector decisions to build things that shouldn't have been built, and restrict things that shouldn't have been restricted. The Portland region has also made its share of mistakes, but it has been held up for years now as a national model of urban development and sustainability - and rightfully so. After living here for eleven years, I've come to feel that a large part of what makes Portland different may be a cultural bent towards thinking outside the box*, combined with an institutional bent towards collaboration and thinking about the big picture**. Portland is bold, but in a careful, responsible way.
So those new urban wind turbines now spinning outside my office window are much more than a single effort to produce a few extra kilowatt-hours. They are built on years of effort by state and local agencies to encourage and enable local renewable energy sources. They represent a conspicuous financial investment by two well-respected firms and a public agency in an emerging and potentially important technology (not to mention an investment of these groups' professional reputations). They might even mark the future of a whole new field of decentralized urban energy production.
But most significantly-for now, at least-they make a very public statement that if we're going to deal with the energy and climate realities of the 21st century, we're going to have to make some bold decisions.
*Oregonians are among the country's most politically independent citizens. They're also among the least religious.
**While my colleagues in government here may disagree, compared to many other major metropolitan areas in the US I do think this is true -- and not only because of the relative success of Metro, the powerful MPO for the region and the only elected regional government in the US.