Davis is proud of its record on energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability, and justifiably so, but there are other communities that think they are the leader in pioneering efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I visited two of these recently — Seattle and Portland — to take their measure and compare our city to theirs.
Seattle first. A few things stand out. Most dramatically, they seem to be taking mixed use, compact development and increased density seriously, at least in their downtown. Changes in land-use policies in the suburbs aren’t easily observable.
Seattle is building vertically in the downtown core, including many new 25-story and higher mixed-use structures. It’s undeniable that they are committed to creating and nurturing an environment in which people can live, work, shop, learn and play all in the same area. Seattle also has that marvelous ferry going for it: No matter what else it does, the romance of commuting on a ferry (and lots of people do) is a big plus for me.
I honestly don’t know if it’s energy-efficient but it reminds me of how Europeans use the trains. We have a friend who walks from home to the ferry, rides it from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, and walks to work, reversing the course on the way home. I’m jealous.
Seattle also has the world-famous Pike Place Market which, unless I misunderstood people, was advertised as a great Farmers Market. It is a great fish market, and a place for tourists to go in Seattle, but there are very few fruit and vegetables vendors. In short, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Davis Farmers Market in terms of local produce.
Also impressive about Seattle is how many people ride bikes, even in nasty weather, and without the network of bike lanes and other infrastructure that we take for granted in Davis that makes biking a safe transportation option. On the plus side, they seem to be taking “reverse diagonal parking” seriously; it’s all over the place and, besides being a sensible parking alternative that Davis has not yet managed to adopt, it reduces car/bike conflicts, particularly in the parking-intensive downtown (though you find this parking strategy all over town).
Perhaps the easiest negative to notice is the pretty much complete dominance given to freeways. They bisect and are supported by a car-centric transportation system. One of the freeways travels along the city’s interface with the Puget Sound, a la the old before-it fell-down-in-the-earthquake Embarcadero Freeway that once completely occupied much of the San Francisco waterfront. Without the freeway, SF was able to construct an amenity that makes downtown living more attractive — the kind of amenity that makes density work.
On to Portland. Again, as with Seattle, it is easier to observe sustainable planning in the downtown than in the suburbs. Portland is flat-out an eco city of the first order. The primary driver for this seems to be its transportation system. A friend living in Portland advised a trip on the “4 T” trail as an introduction to the city, consisting of a loop of many miles on a train (light rail), a trail (hiking is just minutes from downtown), an aerial tram (connecting the Oregon Health and Science University campus near the waterfront with its sister campus in the hills), and a trolley (the Portland Streetcar system that connects the neighborhoods to the downtown).
Biking, walking and using transit are easier and faster than getting around in a car.
There are solar photovoltaics everywhere in Portland, which can be kind of funny considering how gray the skies can be. The light rail extends to the airport, there are more than 300 miles of bike lanes, Zipcars are easily available, a blocklong “Electric Avenue” charges electric vehicle batteries, and the city has an urban growth boundary that prevents sprawl and encourages mixed use and density (and planners actually respect the boundary).
The city is close to local farms and produce, there are LEED-certified buildings all over the place, and, like San Francisco, but without the earthquake, Portland tore down a riverfront freeway and built an attractive riverfront as an amenity for downtown residents and visitors. Portland State University, much like our own UC Davis, is a leader and innovator in sustainability, including an Institute for Sustainable Solutions, a campus sustainability office and a Sustainability Leadership Center for students.
Perhaps most interesting to me is that the vision/mission statement of PSU includes the motto “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” The city and university are joined at the hip in pursuing sustainability, one example of which is that the university is located in one of five neighborhoods designated as city “eco districts” and part of a pilot program to “capture, manage and reuse a majority of energy, water and waste on site; provide a range of transportation options; ensure a rich diversity of habitat and open space; and enhance community engagement and well-being.”
And, similar to how some mock Davis as the “people’s republic,” Portland has hit the big time with the TV show “Portlandia” making fun of its bike-riding, backpack-toting, local food-favoring dedication to sustainability.
— John Mott-Smith is a proud resident of Davis. His column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org