Monday, December 05, 2005

The Portland Lie

The following article is appearing in the August issue of The Seattle Sinner. For more information, please see below.

By Jeremy M. Barker

So, you might be asking why the first installment of my new column on Seattle issues is about pollution and development in Portland, Ore. The answer? Portland serves as an important example for Seattle. In two years as a Seattle journalist, I’ve heard Portland cited as an example for why the monorail will work, for why the streetcar is a good idea, for why high-density development is the key to sustainable growth. A couple months ago I even wrote a piece on how both The Stranger and Seattle Weekly use Portland to justify their wildly divergent views on how Seattle should be developed. But as a native Portlander, I’ve often questioned these assertions for two reasons: one, Portland tends to look better by innately skewing data, and two, because Portland’s many successes tend to obscure its failures.

So, consider this claim, from Nicholas Kristof’s July 3rd New York Times column: “Newly released data show that Portland, America’s environmental laboratory, has achieved stunning reductions in carbon emissions. It has reduced emissions below the levels of 1990, the benchmark for the Kyoto accord, while booming economically.”

That’s an impressive claim, so I decided to investigate the report it was based on, from the Portland Office of Sustainable Development, called “Progress Report on Local Action Plan on Global Warming,” which does in fact show that carbon emissions had fallen to 0.1% below 1990 levels. And, as I suspected, things were a little too good to be true. Here’s what I found:

Problem 1: The above Nicholas Kristof quote conflates two things: the city of Portland and the Portland Metro area. As the OSD report makes clear, the data refers to Multnomah Co., which contains the city of Portland. But the Portland Metro area is defined by its much-lauded Urban Growth Boundary, which limits high-density development. The UGB led to the renewal of most of downtown and is credited with much of Portland’s sustainable growth successes. However, the Metro area runs through three counties: Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington. Lest anyone think I’m nitpicking this point, keep in mind that the reason Portland is supposed to be a good model is that it managed to control pollution while enjoying steady population and economic growth. But much of that growth occurred in Washington and Clackamas Cos. Between 1990 and 2004, the same years the OSD report covers, according to US Census data, Multnomah Co. population grew by 15.12%. During the same period, Clackamas Co. grew by 30.28% and Washington Co. by a whopping 56.72%. All of which means that if you want to use Portland as a model for how to control emissions while enjoying steady growth, you need to look at all three counties’ emissions data, which leads to...

Problem 2: That data doesn’t seem to exist. Three weeks of research, including inquiries to the OSD, county and state agencies, three Portland State University professors specializing in environmental issues, and a thorough examination of publicly available emissions data from the EPA failed to turn up comparable emissions data for Washington and Clackamas Counties between 1990 and 2004. The counties don’t actually monitor emissions; the state Department of Environmental Quality does, which turns the data over to the EPA, who, it turns out, does not make the data available to either the public, the press or academia. What I was able to find was limited EPA data for the years 1985-1999. However, that data did show one thing...

Problem 3: The OSD report ignored economic impacts. The emissions data therein is divided into five categories: residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and waste. Although the overall emissions declined, only two of the five sources saw significant decline, the others remaining roughly equal to their 1990 levels: waste decreased by 55.06%, showing the undeniable impact of recycling programs, and industrial fell by 15.06%, reflecting a loss of industrial jobs in Portland. The EPA data for 1985-1999 showed emissions declines during the late 80s, early 90s recession, and the OSD report similarly showed declines occurring after 2000, a period during which, contrary to Kristof’s cheery assessment, Portland was suffering with higher than national average unemployment rates as the economy sputtered. Which leads us to...

Problem 4: Vancouver, Wash. This is Portland’s dirty little secret: although direct data is hard to come by, it’s common knowledge that many people work in Portland but can’t afford to live there. The UGB, while controlling sprawl, pushes up housing costs, forcing out low-wage workers and families. Between 1990 and 2004, Clark Co., where Vancouver is located, population grew faster than the three Metro counties, increasing by 64.84%. With Vancouver a 20-minute drive away from the city, it’s an affordable alternative, and the data backs that up. By 2003, according to Census data, of the four counties, Clark had the lowest median home values, second lowest median rents and the highest percentage of its population under age 25, all of which suggests that families recognize that it’s more affordable to live in Vancouver than Portland.

The point here isn’t to dump on my hometown of Portland but to make it clear that as Seattle grapples with its own development issues, it needs to be as aware of Portland’s failures as its successes. Environmentally sustainable development can easily come at the expense of affordable housing and therefore the poor and working classes. We have to thoroughly question environmental data because it’s become enough of an issue that it will be skewed for political gain (did I mention the head of the OSD is none other than Portland’s mayor?). And finally, we need to balance the economy with environmental issues: simply letting blue collar jobs evaporate and polluters move to another location isn’t solving the problem, it’s obscuring the issue.

Katarzyna E. Patora contributed significant research to this article.


The above article is shorter than it should have been due to constraints of space in The Seattle Sinner. As such, I wanted to use this space to offer a few notes expannding upon issues I addressed in the article.

The first thing I want to make absolutely clear is that when I accuse someone of conflating the city of Portland with the Metro area, I am referring specifically to Nicholas Kristof and not the Office of Sustainable Development. Kristof knows better; he was raised in Yamhill, a small rural community outside the city. However, the city government hasn't exactly been standing up and trying to make the nuances of geographic area clear, despite the fact that this report has made international headlines.

Second, I wanted to briefly address the issue of the data. Shortly before I sat down to write this piece, at the last minute as we'd been trying to find Washington and Clackamas Counties' emissions data, Kasia--who did much of the research trying to track down this data--commented in exasperation, "You know, maybe [George W.] Bush isn't full of crap when he says we need to do more research on pollution. Maybe he actually sat down and tried to find information about emissions and discovered it doesn't exist."

She was being facetious, of course, but only in part. If a journalist and economics grad student can't find simple emissions data on two urban counties for the last 15 years, there is some sort of significant information gap which needs to be addressed. More troubling is the difficulty I, as a writer, had trying to address all those problems of the data and how it's analyzed; that suggests to me at least that we need to be very critical of what journalists write on this subject. There is no one primary source for emissions data as there is, say, for employment data or other economic information. Because of that fact, any use of statistics requires an analysis of how that data was derived in order to determine if it's accurate and how it relates to other data.

In the above piece, I mention EPA data for the period 1985-1999. The data I refer to came from the EPA AirData program, listing carbon monoxide emissions by source by year for the three Metro counties. It contained strange inconsistencies which cause me to doubt its overall applicability, including an unexplained app. 400% increase in carbon monoxide industrial emissions for Multnomah Co. in 1990. The more complete EPA data program, the Air Quality System does not have data going back to 1990 for all the counties. In short, we could not find any data we felt comfortable trying to directly compare to the OSD data; if anyone has data we can use, I would be more than happy to eat my own words and know what it says.

Secondary to the issue of similar data to Multnomah County's is the issue of what data, exactly, the OSD used. According to the report, the data was calculated using the ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) "Clean Air & Climate Protection software version 1.0." The ICLEI is an inter-city government organization that makes its software available to cities to use to create pollution control measures. How it works is another question. The ICLEI only makes the software available to government agencies, but a fact sheet released by the creators states:

"CACPS [Clean Air and Climate Protection Software] contains thousands of emission coefficients for all of the major air pollutants and GHGs [green house gases] for a range of technologies, regional electricity mixes and fuel types. So, for example, if a state or locality planned measures that would reduce residential electricity consumption by 10 percent, the software would calculate the reduction in electricity demand (gigawatt hours, for example, or whichever unit the state or locality chooses) using a “before” and “after” scenario. Then, based on which regional electricity grid the state or locality is in, the software would apply the appropriate emission coefficients to calculate emission reductions."

In short, before you could fairly compare stats on emissions from the two counties, you'd have to determine how CACPS estimates its data. I don't dispute its accuracy, but until the method is determined, it's like comparing apples and oranges.

The long and the short of it is, analyzing emissions data is remarkably difficult. Good, clear emissions data is not widely available and it's unknown what data and estimating methods the OSD used, making comparisons impossible as of now. So what do I think Washington and Clackamas Counties' data looked like? Actually, I think it was probably pretty good. But below 1990 levels? Doubtful. Not with Washington Co. growing almost four times the rate of Multnomah. But the real issue I want to highlight is the greater issues of urban development, how the UGB and mass transit and "green" development have effected Portland. So, in closing, I'll leave you with these few further notes:

1. My claim that the UGB inflates housing costs is debatable. The Fannie Mae Foundation, for instance, published a study in 2002 largely refuting that claim. However, the study is problematic in that it compared Portland, with its UGB, to other urban areas that don't have one, and found that the UGB did not result in any statistically notable inflation. To be more accurate, though, it likely should have compared housing prices within the UGB to similarly accessible prices outside of it over a period of time. As I have already noted briefly, housing prices across the Columbia River are lower than in the Portland Metro area. Of course, a UGB is only one thing that effects housing prices; Clark Co.'s prices may well have been lower had it not had such intense demand. With over 60% population growth in the last 15 years, housing prices likely faced consistent upward pressure. The second point I would bring up with regard to the UGB is that a non-economic factor has been left out: politics. During the 1990s, the Metro Council, which adjusts the UGB every decade, was taken over largely by developers or their allies. Just because data may show the UGB forcing up prices over the last 15 years doesn't necessarily mean the idea doesn't work. Rather, it may reflect a failure to try to offset upward pressure on housing prices by encouraging the construction of more high-density and low-income housing.

2. The OSD report attributed part of the city's/county's emissions control success to the Max lighrail. An interesting point and one that should be of some interest to Seattle. According to Census data (admittedly a weak source due to self-reporting problems), Washington Co. was the only one of the three Metro counties that saw increasing commute times between 2000 and 2003. This was after the the $968 million west side Max line opened in 1998. Of course, one light rail line would have largely failed to accomodate such rapid population growth, but TriMet (the transit agency that operates Max and city buses) opened the line in a very strange place. The west side line runs from downtown Portland along the oft-congested Sunset Highway (Highway 26) through the West Hills, and then veers off through the suburban city of Beaverton and into Hillsboro. This was an odd choice: huge housing tracts were being built significantly north of the line along Sunset Highway, development not well served by the line (full disclosure: my family lives a quarter-mile off 26 on 185th St. Since the buses were rerouted to connect to the Max line rather than head straight downtown, the time it takes to get from my childhood home to downtown Portland has increased by more than 50%). Meanwhile, downtown Beaverton and Hillsboro are both relatively poor neighborhoods; I don't mean to suggest that the poor don't need good public transit too, but to point out that, out of necessity, poorer people tend to live closer to where they work, while commuter trains like the light rail serve longer-distance commuters. So why did they build the light rail through poorer suburban cities? Likely because the Max was designed to carry people from their homes in the city to work in Washington Co. The Max is very accessible if you live in downtown and work at Nike (whose world headquarters is in Beaverton) or Intel (which has three large campuses between Beaverton and Hillsboro; my sister as it happens commutes to work at one via the Max).

This is probably the most crucial part of the argument I'm trying to formulate (and the one I've touched on least): Seattle and Portland right now are enjoying a strange uban renaissance due to sociology. As much as our mayors would like to take credit for urban renewal in Northwest Portland or Belltown, the reality is that these cities are home to rapidly changing new industries which attract educated young professionals. These twenty-somethings are marrying--or at least having children later--and choosing an urban lifestyle over a suburban one. This has led to massive amounts of urban renewal, but unless these cities do more to create urban centers that are attractive to families and people of all incomes, if and when the tide of popular taste changes and professionals start flocking out of cities for the green suburban pastures, we might find that our cities are once again where they were back in the mid-1980s, when Hawthorne, now one of Portland's hippest neighborhoods, was a drug and crime infested hellhole.

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Blogger answer-man said...

ps I'm having a little trouble sending comments so if I do it twice please excuse me and I apologize.

12:39 PM  

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