Defining Sustainability: The Portland Way

Posted on March 10, 2014

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This is another installment of an ELGL original content series titled “Defining Sustainability” by Beth Otto.  Beth is sharing her perspective on the varying definitions of sustainability and her experiences in implementing sustainability strategies. In this article, Beth interviews Michelle Kunec-North about the Portland Way with regard to sustainability.

Background Check

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downloadMichelle Kunec-North received her Master of Community and Regional Planning following a dual degree from the University of Virginia in Environmental Science and Urban and Environmental Planning. She has worked to develop Parks Master Plans throughout Oregon. She has spent most of her career influencing sustainable development in the Portland Oregon, first with the Portland Office of Sustainable Development, and then in the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Planning for Sustainability – The Portland Way

Adopted_PDXPLAN_200The City of Portland is nationally regarded as a mecca for both planning and sustainability. So, as you might expect, the City is taking on the hard sustainable planning issues, such as how to turn the tide, after years of institutional racism (a national phenomena), to truly address equity in the planning process. I sat down with Michelle Kunec-North, Program Coordinator for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) to learn about how BPS is implementing holistic sustainability principles. As Michelle points out, there are a lot of challenges to doing this right.

“The concept of the triple bottom line (environment, economy, and equity) has been around for a long time, but it is only recently that the planning field began to strengthen their understanding of these issues in a holistic way. Planning – as a profession – is quite integrative, and has an opportunity and obligation to help our communities become truly sustainable places, where people have an equitable access to opportunity.”

From the Comprehensive Plan, to the Portland Plan, and back again



Michelle highlights:

  • About five years ago we started a Comprehensive (Comp) Plan update, and researched what other cities were doing and what a comp plan could be. The City had recently completed a community visioning process known as visionPDX that established Portland’s values of community connectedness, equity, and sustainability. Jobs and economic prosperity were really important issues too. As we brought in partners, stakeholders, and community members, we began to realize that what people were talking about was bigger than a traditional comp plan – which is mostly about land use and transportation. We also realized that our city needed to address some real challenges that stood in the way of achieving this community vision. We didn’t set out to create the Portland Plan, but to serve the needs of the city we needed something visionary, with a broad scope. That became the Portland Plan.
  • The Portland Plan is focused on a core set of priorities: prosperity, education, human and watershed health, resiliency and equity, with equity as the foundational concept. It is boiled down to a set of strategies which lay the foundation for implementing the vision. Great plans tell a story. This plan told the story of the vision of the community and set a strategic trajectory for us to build future plans upon.
  • Planners, and city government, have quite a bit of control over land use. But other aspects of the Portland Plan are outside the scope of what City government does, such as our goals around education attainment and high school graduation rates. That is why this plan had to be bigger than just the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability or the City of Portland and why partnership building was so crucial.
  • Implementation of the Portland Plan is beginning to take place through the work of community partners, City operations, and in the development of other plans. The Comp Plan, which is currently being updated, is one of the most important tools for implementing the Portland Plan and other City goals because it directs how the city grows and invests.
  • The Comprehensive Plan is one tool that can move the City towards greater sustainability over the coming decades. For example, our Comp Plan’s draft policies and investments support reducing infrastructure disparities, providing opportunities for economic growth, protecting and restoring the City’s green infrastructure, creating complete transportation networks, and supporting diverse, vibrant neighborhoods.

Is Sustainability in the Comprehensive Plan?

imagesThe Portland Plan gave planners more structure and guidance to incorporate sustainability into the Comp Plan, in ways that specifically addressed sustainability’s triple bottom line.

“You don’t see the word sustainability much in our draft Comp Plan. If we had started the update before the Portland Plan, that might have been different. We have realized that to really address the multifaceted nature of sustainability, we had to pull out each concept – equity, prosperity, environment, health, resiliency – and explain it. We had to really give weight to each of the various aspects. When you read the plan, you realize that it is all about sustainability, we are just using more specific wording. We are pulling it apart, speaking to what the pieces mean, and planning for them in a more integrative way.”

It Takes a Community to Make a Plan

Planning for sustainability can’t be done in a bubble. It takes the commitment and expertise of the people who make up the community. Michelle makes the following two points:

  • One of the things we found very helpful was to involve community partners and stakeholders in a meaningful way from the beginning. In a traditional planning process you write the plan internally, take it out for comment, bring it back, and do that again. We formed advisory groups early on which were made up of community members and representatives from public agencies, businesses, and community organizations. These groups contributed directly to the content of the plan. We gained a lot of knowledge from those experts. These volunteer efforts on the part of the community was a big part of what made these plans possible. And, importantly, we built the partnerships that will be necessary for implementation.
  • I would encourage other cities and planning agencies to lean on their local community assets. Community members and organizations, universities, public agencies, and others can provide a range of valuable expertise and information. For example, we have some really great advocacy organizations that did a lot data collection and reporting – like the Coalition of Communities of Color’s Unsettling Profile reports or the Coalition for a Livable Future’s Regional Equity Atlas. They gave us valuable information that we would not have had otherwise.


Should BPS be acting on holistic sustainability principles, or is should they only focus on issues that relate to land use?

Michelle believes, “Planners naturally do a lot more than land use. We coordinate, convene, and facilitate community conversations and government process. In some ways, this is pushing the boundaries of what a planning agency does, which is good. It helps us have more real conversations. What do people need and what role can we play in having a sustainable city? If we want sustainable cities – places that are equitable, that protect and promote human and environmental health, that foster prosperity, support lifelong education, and are resilient over the long term – we need to plan holistically and comprehensively. With this more integrated view, we can better use planning tools to help our communities move towards their visions, now and in the future.”

Supplemental Reading



Fat? Check your Zip Code – Portland Tribune

The Portland Plan – Final

Community Involvement Committee

Citywide Systems Plan (CSP) – City of Portland, Oregon

About the Portland Plan

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