Planning Magazine

In Two Portlands, Climate Plans Lead to Climate Action

In Oregon and Maine, these same-name cities have cut emissions by 19 percent and 34 percent, respectively. And they're not stopping.

Article Hero Image

The work of planners in Portland, Oregon (left) and Portland, Maine (right), is resulting in climate outcomes far above the national average. Photos by (from left): Amy Sparwasser and Joshua Rainey Photography/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus.

Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine, are two municipal climate action plan (CAP) veterans. The Oregon city adopted the nation's first CAP in 1993, with an aim to decrease carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (compared to 1990s levels), while the Maine municipality created its first in 2008, with the same emissions target and timeline, plus a goal of transitioning to 100 percent clean energy for municipal operations by 2040.

Both have seen several iterations since then, and in October 2020, Portland, Maine was joined by neighboring South Portland (pop. 25,532), with the two cities adopting a single climate action plan known as One Climate Future.

Although Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine, have separate climate action histories, implementation of the strategies laid out in their climate action plans are yielding results.

As of 2018, Portland, Oregon, had reduced local carbon emissions by 19 percent, compared to 1990s levels, and per person emissions by 42 percent, despite its population having grown by 39 percent. To put it into perspective, total U.S. emissions increased by nearly 2 percent since 1990, according to the EPA. Areas where Portland, Oregon, has made the most progress include amending local government operations to be more energy efficient and planning for and encouraging healthier, less gasoline-dependent modes of transportation.

Likewise, Portland, Maine, saw an overall 34 percent decrease in emissions between 2005 and 2016, largely credited to the conversion from heating oil to natural gas on many city properties. And prior to joining its neighbor just across the Fore River in adopting One Climate Future, South Portland had reduced its overall emissions reductions by 23 percent between 2007 and 2014 by implementing of several of the 25 strategies in its own municipal climate action plan.

Further action is absolutely essential, experts say. A recent progress report from Portland, Oregon, in fact, mentions concern that there is evidence of a plateau in reductions. Recent climate actions from both cities aim to boost that momentum.

Attacking vehicle emissions

Carbon dioxide accounts for 76 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the Center for Climate and Energy solutions, so reducing carbon emissions is a key element in both Portlands' CAPs. One major source of GHG emissions: gas-powered vehicles.

With that in mind, both cities have been focused on electric vehicle (EV) charging station infrastructure and requirements for their availability in parking lots. In Portland, Maine, the city has installed seven network EV chargers in the last year, with four more in the works. It is also working on creating partnership to build a network of EV charging stations throughout the city to serve the 50 percent of residents who live in an apartment or condo and don't have a driveway or garage to put an EV charger in, says Troy Moon, the city's sustainability director.

The planning department also recently updated its technical design manual for parking, Moon says. Now, any parking lot with 10 or more spots needs to have faster-charging level 2 EV chargers at 25 percent of the parking spots. "The rest of the spots have to be EV ready, with pre-run conduit and an electrical panel that can be sized up to incorporate additional chargers in the future," Moon says.

In a sign that EV charging has become more than a novelty, the city announced in July that drivers will pay for the electricity when using the city's EV chargers. The rate, 15 cents per kilowatt per hour, is lower than the 16.5 cents per kilowatt hour cost for residential electricity, Moon says. "The fee is designed to be cost neutral," Moon says. In the past, the city absorbed the cost of the electricity used by vehicle owners at charging stations. With this new policy, the city will break even on EV charging stations.

Laurence Kelly finishes a transaction at the EV charging station in front of Portland, Maine's city hall. By charging a fee for electricity, the city will now break even on its charging stations. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images.

Laurence Kelly finishes a transaction at the EV charging station in front of Portland, Maine's city hall. By charging a fee for electricity, the city will now break even on its charging stations. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images.

Portland, Oregon, has similar plans in the works, but had another step to take, says Tom Armstrong, a supervising planner with the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. In Oregon, the state building code preempts most municipal building codes, he explains. "The city worked with the state legislature to pass a bill that requires the state to amend state building code to require provisions for electrical service to specified percentage of parking spaces," he says. The law, which takes effect January 1, 2022, allows local jurisdictions to adopt a rule with a higher percentage of parking spaces with EV requirements than the state building code requires.

Providing alternatives to driving

Another strategy the Portlands are taking to reduce GHG emissions is providing ways to reduce the need to drive, as well as encouraging the use of transit or active modes of transportation like biking and walking.

Both cities have recently taken steps to increase housing density, which can cut carbon dioxide emissions by reducing the number and length of car trips required to get people where they need to be. In Portland, Oregon, that means fourplexes are allowed on single family lots throughout most of the city, says Armstrong. Residential buildings with as many as six units are allowed if the housing is affordable, he says.

Armstrong says that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is also planning for the expansion of the regional light rail system's Southwest Corridor. "There are huge climate benefits from the transit extension," he says. "We just want to make sure those benefits are shared throughout the community and lower income families are not priced out of the market."

Rail train cars in downtown Portland, Oregon. The city plans on expanding the system’s Southwest Corridor. Photo by Ryan J Lane/E+/Getty Images.

In Portland, Oregon, the city expects huge climate benefits in its plan to expand the light rail system's Southwest Corridor. Photo by Ryan J Lane/E+/Getty Images.

In Portland, Maine, the city council passed an amendment in November 2020 that allows up to two accessory dwelling units on residential parcels. "This is an effort to add density outside of the downtown center, increasing housing opportunities, and helping to create complete, walkable neighborhoods," sustainability director Moon says.

Both Portlands have also reduced the requirements for off-street parking for multi-unit housing developments, which helps disincentivize driving.

In Maine's largest city, this change illustrates how the climate action plan works in partnership with its comprehensive plan, Portland's Plan 2030, and, particularly, its revision of the city's land use code, known as ReCode, says Moon.

"The City Council adopted an ordinance that doesn't require parking lots for new developments that are within a quarter mile of fixed route transit," he says. The program does require developers to present a travel demand managementplan or a strategy for people to access their buildings without parking in vehicles, he adds.

Boosting renewable energy

Another big focus of climate action plans nationwide is reducing dependence on fossil fuels. The two Portlands are no exception. Both cities welcomed recent statewide action plans adopted by their respective state governments. Oregon's climate action plan was signed into law in March 2020, and Maine's was announced in December 2020. Moon says Maine's statewide plan Maine Won't Wait is helpful to the city's efforts because the two jurisdictions' goals are compatible. "There's been a good dialog back and forth," he says.

For example, he says, the Main's statewide plan plan includes a renewable energy portfolio standard that directs that 80 percent of Maine's electricity needs come from clean energy sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. "That's a huge component of our climate action plan, too," Moon says, and something the city couldn't accomplish on its own.

Another focus of both cities: increasing the use of solar energy. In July, Portland, Maine, announced a program to help homeowners and small businesses put solar panels on their homes or to sign up with community solar. Part of the program encourages residents to install heat pumps and heat pump water heaters to increase the proportion of clean energy delivered as electricity.

Portland, Maine, is helping homeowners and small businesses install solar panels. Photo by Cindy Shebley/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Portland, Maine, is helping homeowners and small businesses install solar panels. Photo by Cindy Shebley/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In Portland, Oregon, a revision of the Historic Resources Code Project scheduled for fall 2021 will allow more solar use for historic buildings. "Right now, solar panels are only allowed on historic buildings if they are not visible from the street, which left only rear-facing rooflines," says Armstrong. "We're flipping that around. We're saying no panels on the front-facing rooflines, but the side rooflines now can have panels on them."

That city also adopted a zoning ordinance in 2016 that prohibits the construction of new fossil fuel terminals with a capacity exceeding two million gallons and caps the expansion of existing terminals. The main goal is public safety, since these terminals are a hazard in an earthquake zone, but there is a climate change component. "The fossil fuel terminal zoning restrictions help advance Portland's climate goals by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable fuels as well as reducing the public health and community risks posed by fossil fuel terminals," Armstrong says.

In 2019, the state Land Use Board of Appeals ruled against the ordinance, but a higher court, the Oregon Court of Appeals, backed the ordinance's validity while upholding some of the lower court's objections. Armstrong says that the city planning department addressed those initial technical issues, resubmitted the ordinance, and was given further issues to resolve by the Land Use Board of Appeals. Armstrong expects the planning department will be ready to resubmit the ordinance this fall.

Pursuing climate justice

Both Portlands put a strong emphasis on climate justice. In Portland, Maine, it's part of the climate action plan, which focuses on equitable solutions to climate problems. The city's actions on EV infrastructure, solar power and energy-efficient rental housing are also intended to increase climate justice.

In Portland, Oregon, this emphasis is formalized in the Climate Emergency Declaration that the city council made in June 2020. In this document, the city acknowledges that climate impacts are not experienced equitably and promises that the city's climate actions will center on the voices and priorities of the people disproportionately affected by climate change, including Black and indigenous people and other people of color.

A one-year status report on the declaration's goals reports that the city's actions on EV infrastructure, solar power, and transit initiatives are helping to make progress on climate justice goals. In particular, they launched a Climate Justice Initiative to create innovative solutions, held a youth climate summit, adopted an internal cost of carbon/climate test for city operations, and helped develop a decarbonization pathways tool that will be made publicly available in the coming year.

The resources the city invests in to improve sustainability have benefits to the community that go beyond reducing emissions, Armstrong says. That's why paying attention to climate justice is important when climate plans become actions. "We want to make sure those benefits are shared throughout the community," he says.

Madeline Bodin is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about land use and land conservation.