The Green Loop, one of the the city’s “Big Ideas” in the Central City 2035 plan, has been singled out by a coalition of activists who say it’s yet another sign east Portland is being left behind.
In a letter (PDF) sent to Mayor Ted Wheeler and city council members on September 6th as testimony on the Central City plan, the Climate Justice Collaborative (CJC) said they are, “disappointed in the City’s numerous efforts to elevate the Green Loop concept while failing to elevate similar efforts in areas outside the city core.”
The CJC is made up of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, the Native American Youth & Family Center, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, the Portland African American Leadership Forum, and Verde. The letter was also signed by “ally organizations” including the
Community Cycling Center, Green Lents, Oregon Walks, Rose CDC and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. They describe CJC as, “a cross-cultural organizing and advocacy coalition that works to prioritize equitable processes and outcomes in Portland’s built environment, centering frontline communities, i.e. those most impacted by climate change (namely, communities of color and low-income people).”
The Green Loop is a project launched in 2014 by the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability as a way to link the central city via a linear park that would include paths for biking and walking. The project has gained serious steam in the past few years culiminating with its starring role at Design Week Portland last April and now as one of the six “Big Ideas” in the Central City 2035 plan which is slated for adoption in early 2018.
With so much support and focus on the Green Loop, it’s not surprising at all that east Portland activists are grumbling. Especially when there’s an east Portland analog known as the Green Ring that lacks the Green Loop’s glitz, profile and political prominence.
The debate around the lack of equity in transportation investments has been swirling around Portland activist and political circles for many years. The first high-profile example I’m aware of was in 2008 when mayoral candidate Sho Dozono questioned his challenger’s support of a carfree bridge over I-405 in downtown Portland. “How do you explain to these [East] Portlanders they should spend millions of taxpayer dollars to add a special bicycle bridge to cross I-405 to the Pearl District when so many streets and sidewalks throughout the city are unpaved and unsafe,” Dozone said during a debate at City Club.
That sounds a lot like the CJC’s letter: “The Green Loop fails to meet even the simplest understanding of equity… All the while, numerous areas outside of the City core lack even the most basic pedestrian and bike safety infrastructure… vision at the expense of critical and much needed investments outside of the City core serve only the elite.”
The CJC and their allies want the City to cease all spending and staff resources currently being used on the Green Loop and instead work to advance projects, “in areas of greatest need.” Here’s a list of their requests:
• Halt investments, including city staff time and resources, in planning the Green Loop until basic investments in safe infrastructure are met in frontline/vulnerable communities across the city;
• Invest in the Lents Green Ring;
• Develop green space and safe routes in the JADE District;
• Improve pedestrian safety in the Cully neighborhood; and
• Engage and invest in residents in East Portland to develop their own visions for neighborhood connectivity and safety—their own versions of the Green Loop.
”We should not see support for the Central City Green Loop as coming at the cost of investments in neighborhoods at the frontline neighborhoods where residents face displacement risks and other needs.
.. Portland’s Green Rings can and should move forward together
— Ted Wheeler, Portland Mayor
The letter has caused considerable consternation in transportation reform circles reminiscent of similar equity arguments that bubbled-up when bike share was funded in 2011. So much so that sources in the community didn’t want the letter published here at all. Their fear is that infighting among active transportation advocates makes it harder to achieve larger goals.
The letter was the subject of a wide-ranging discussion at a meeting of transportation-related advocacy groups last week. People who attended the meeting told me most of the talks centered around the need to unify and create stronger coalitions to avoid disagreements over projects like this in the future. And to some planning and advocacy insiders, the Green Loop is so revered that it’s difficult to hear anything negative about it at all.
The letter has also left a mark at City Hall. I reached out to Mayor Wheeler and the offices of all four other commissioners to get their responses. All but Commissioner Chloe Eudaly provided one.
Commissioner Nick Fish said he saw a presentation about the Green Loop during Design Week and called it “an incredible vision”. As for the CJC’s letter, he said he understands the equity concerns and that, “My initial instinct is to also look for ways to boost investments in East Portland to ensure that all Portlanders have access to beautiful, visionary green spaces.”
Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s Chief of Staff Tim Crail said his boss, “Recognizes that equity in City services and amenities remains a primary concern that must be addressed.” “She wants the City to develop an East Portland Quadrant Plan, equivalent to the Central City Plan, which should include pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure needs and potential zoning changes in East Portland,” he continued. “She supports the Green Loop as one of many needed bicycle and pedestrian upgrades across the City.” Crail said that Fritz will confirm that adoption of the Central City Plan, “Does not put the Green Loop first in line for dollars, and instead will allow it to work through the budgeting process along with all other transportation projects.”
Here’s the response from PBOT Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s Senior Policy Director Matt Grumm:
“He has read the letter. He feels that the vision of the Green Loop is complementary to many projects in East Portland as they are all focused on providing alternative transportation opportunities beyond driving a car. Examples includes the completed SE Bush Greenway as well as the planned and funded 106th Ave. Greenway, 130’s Greenway and 157th Ave. Greenway. We are a big city that has the capacity to move forward on multiple fronts as it relates to creating a more walkable and bikeable community. Dan looks forward to working with any neighborhood that has this vision and groups like Green Lents with ideas like the Lents Green Ring are really exciting and encouraged. It doesn’t need to be “us vs. them”. We’re all in this together.”
Mayor Wheeler oversees the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, so he’s quite well-versed on this project. On September 7th he posted a “Letter of support” for the Green Loop on his website (which his chief of staff says had no relation to the CJC letter):
“It’s deliberate where the Green Loop is located; the Central City has the region’s largest concentration of housing, jobs and cultural attractions, as well as social services for those in need. By placing this community asset squarely in the heart of the city, we ensure that the greatest number of residents, workers, students and visitors will be able to enjoy it. And our most vulnerable community members will have a safe way to get home, access healthcare or go to a new job.
But this is not an either/or proposition. We can – and should – make similar investments in other parts of Portland, particularly East Portland, where so many community members, particularly communities of color, have suffered from lack of public dollars and civic attention.
The Lents Green Ring is what I would call a sister project to the Green Loop in the Lents neighborhood. The City has partnered with community organizers and supports the planning efforts for this new community asset in East Portland, which will connect to the Green Loop via a network of greenways and help us meet health, resiliency and prosperity objectives.”
Reached yesterday for a more direct response to the CJC’s letter, Mayor Wheeler expanded on his thoughts about equity (emphases mine):
“The Climate Justice Collaboration makes a good and necessary point – there are clear needs outside the Central City. The City must be diligent in addressing these needs. We have and continue to need to make this a priority.
However, we need to not give into a false “either/or” thinking. We believe where there is sufficient public benefit we need to see the choice as “both/and”. The Green Loops are a great idea that can benefit all of us – in outer neighborhoods and the Central City — for a long time.
The BPS initiated the study by PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions that the CJC quotes in their letter reaches a similar conclusion. ‘Equity Is Not a Trade-Off: While investments in the central city are important for a variety of reasons, there does not need to be an “either/or” approach to planning for the broader metro area; as investments and plans are made to develop cycling and pedestrian infrastructure downtown, simultaneous efforts can and should be made in other parts of the city. We suggest building upon current discussions around walkability, cycling, and public safety to generate plans and investments outside the city’s core. For both planners and residents alike, broader messages about larger, comprehensive plans and efforts to enhance safety and recreational facilities are vital to assuaging feelings of distrust amongst local residents. When local residents can see that their concerns and interests are taken seriously, and when requests for additional investments are realized, perceived inequities in investment may lessen.’
We should not see support for the Central City Green Loop as coming at the cost of investments in neighborhoods at the frontline neighborhoods where residents face displacement risks and other needs. The Green Loop and Lents Green Ring are long term visions that will be implemented incrementally and depends on leveraging other public and private projects. Portland’s Green Rings can and should move forward together. I appreciate the Coalition for their advocacy and hear their message loud and clear.”
Note how he now refers to the projects as “Portland’s Green Rings” that should “move forward together.” That’s encouraging to hear. The next step will be to codify this language and consider updating Green Loop visuals and copy to reflect this integration with the Green Ring.
CORRECTION, 3:45 pm: This story originally posted the CJC letter with five ally organizations. We have since learned that two of those organizations — the Community Cycling Center and Rose CDC — did not sign the most updated version. We’ve uploaded the latest version of the letter and regret any confusion. Note: CCC spokesperson says they simply didn’t have time to put the letter through their internal deliberation process.
Also please note that according to the organizer of the advocacy meeting referenced in the story, the CJC letter was not discussed among all attendees at the meeting. I regret mischaracterizing that.
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