How green is the 'other' Portland?

Portland, Maine, may play second fiddle to Oregon's Portland when it comes to large-scale sustainability initiatives, but last week, its city council approved an $11 million bond for energy efficiency projects in dozens of municipal buildings. At last, the largest city in the state using the most heating oil will turn to natural gas.

When I talk to people about sustainable cities, Portland, Ore., is often mentioned as the gold standard. But what’s going on in the other Portland--as in Portland, Maine?

Yesterday I caught up by phone with Dave Marshall, a Portland city councilor and chair of the Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee. Marshall, who is also a fine artist, is going on year 12 in Portland without a car and says Portland, Ore., is certainly a model for sustainability, but in his mind, “there’s only one Portland.”

I have to ask: When you’re talking about sustainability and cities, do people confuse you with the other Portland?

Almost all my conversations happen with people locally, so it’s not really an issue. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one Portland.

Have you been to the Portland in Oregon?

I was there in February, and they’re doing a lot of great things. They’re certainly a model. Their bike network is unparalleled in the country. It’s an amazing infrastructure. You can see their commitment to getting people to where they need to go without the automobile. They’re doing really well. They’ve also incorporated sustainability into every aspect of people's lives, down to chickens and beehives in people's backyards.

What’s the population of your Portland?

The region is 500,000, and the city of Portland is about 65,000.

What would you say the city already has going for it, in terms of sustainability?

Just last week the city council approved an $11 million investment package to make our 50-some odd municipal buildings energy efficient. Then when that is complete, the municipality will reduce greenhouse gas by about 30 percent with an annual savings of $880,000 before the financing is paid off, and $1.5 million a year after it's repaid.

I understand you have a lot of support for “buy local.”

There’s a very strong buy local movement [Portland Buy Local]. The organization is very well led. There’s over 100 different businesses, including Constellation Gallery, which is the business I run. It’s an artists collective, and we share the responsibly and run the gallery together.

What kind of artist are you?

I’m a fine art painter. I paint lot of landscapes and use bold colors.

What food is grown locally there?

When people think of Maine, they think of blueberries and lobster, which are our signature foods, but there’s really a wide variety of foods that are grown in the region here. You get everything from kale and melon to eggs and dairy. We just have a short growing season. We have farmers markets that are now open year round.

Can shoppers use food stamps at the farmers market?

Yep.

Speaking of lobster, how’s your water quality?

We happen to have some of the cleanest drinking water in the country. One of the things the city is doing is CSO [combined sewer overflow] separation. We have a sewer system that was installed just after the Civil War and needs massive updates. The old system puts the sewage and storm water in the same pipes, and when it overflows it eventually ends up in the bay. So we’re creating two separate systems. The process is going to have dramatic results in cleaning up the water in Casco Bay.

As an elected official, what do you hear from constituents about what they want in terms of a sustainable city?

People can be really active. We’ve seen the strongest movements around transportation. The Portland region--Cumberland County—has one of the highest rates of single-occupancy vehicle use. So there’s a movement to get the region to grow its public transit network.

In 2008 there was part of a study the Department of Transportation did to widen 295 through the peninsula, which borders on downtown. There was a lot of protest against that. Eventually that activism led to a conversation that turned into the expansion of the [Downeaster] Amtrak service from Portland to Brunswick. We got some stimulus funds to upgrade the rail. The activism we saw from the public was critical in that movement.

We have one of the best-rated Amtrak systems in country. It’s one of the only Amtrak services where you can get WiFi and lobster rolls. The numbers this has grown by have exceeded expectations.

Did 295 ever expand?

No, 295 still hasn’t been widened. Since then, the conversations have been on which alternatives we’re doing to expand on—express bus service or commuter rail.

What else is happening in Portland?

We’re going to be looking to expand our green building codes. Right now we require that any new city building or renovation comply with our green building code. They also have to meet the Architecture 2030 challenge. The goal is to be building everything more efficiently by the time we reach 2030, so every five years the energy performance will have to increase by 10 percent.

Do you have a bike share program, or bike lanes?

We’ve been expanding our network with bike lanes. We have a new trail that was a rail line. Portland Trails was one of the lead groups. The Bayside trail goes through what was once an industrial neighborhood, where we’re developing a mixed use district. We already have a pretty important trail network that people use here. One is the Baxter Boulevard trail, which is the most used trail in the state.

We haven’t really gotten all that much into bike share. We have some private companies that rent out bicycles. We have a car share program through U Car Share.

Do people bike year-round, in the snow?

Yep, I’m one of them. I’ve been car-free for most of the time I’ve been in Portland the last 12 years. I haul everything around in a trailer behind my bike.

What are your personal green goals?

I’ve been fixing up an 1840s house for the last 10 years, and my goal is to make this house as energy efficient as possible. One of the goals I had was to get the house off heating fuel (it was an old cast iron steam system with an oil burner, and it was really inefficient) and get it on high efficiency natural gas heating system before George Bush got out of office. And I was able to meet that goal. So now it’s that constant process of trying rid my life of petroleum. And getting a good understating of my own carbon footprint.

The state of Maine is more dependent on home heating fuel than any other state. More than 85 percent of homes are heated with oil. So part of our struggle is to get ourselves off fuel, and that’s part of the $11 million bond: All the buildings will be converted to natural gas, so that’ll really help reduce the greenhouse gas load. Most municipal buildings are running on oil. Natural gas is not only cleaner but it’s cheaper. You can see the parallels between what I’m doing in my own life and what’s going on the city.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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