Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Portland blazes new trails for the Peak Oil world

The Republic - East Vancouver
Dan Crawford

There is one city that has consistently grabbed headlines in relation to Peak Oil awareness. Using Google's latest “Trends” service instantly reveals the answer—Portland, Oregon. This city has become the world's peak oil capital, at least in terms of online searches. For the sake of comparison, Vancouver, BC rolls in at number eight.

I decided to go and visit Portland to experience the city first-hand and try to understand the whys and hows behind it's number one ranking. I arrived on the evening of June 14th landing at the city's airport, and within minutes, I stumbled across my first clue. Just steps away from the baggage carousel was a conveniently located information rack. Scanning it, my eyes quickly fell on a map that is non-existent for most cities: a bike map.

This handy brochure was prominently titled “Portland by Bicycle” and it was not only informative, but free as well. I pocketed a copy and continued walking, and steps from the rack was clue number two, a light-rail ticket kiosk. I was able to purchase a train ticket to downtown for only US$1.90.

Within minutes I was on the train headed for the city center of Portland. While on the train ride I witnessed clue number three, bike hangers. The trains are designed to easily accommodate bicycles by providing hangers so that a bike can be transported in a vertical position by its front tire. This reduces the area required for bikes and at the same time addresses any safety concerns. What was most impressive about these hangers was the fact that people were making use of them, for their intended purpose.

A short twenty minutes later I hopped off downtown where I was easily able to catch a bus, using the same ticket, that proceeded to drop me off steps from the Hawthorne Hostel, a cozy well thought-out travelers spot that would be home for the duration of my visit.

Walking into the hostel, I spotted clue number four: green roofs. Right at the entrance of the building was an educational placard documenting how the hostel's green roof came to be, and the benefits of incorporating such roofs. After checking in and dropping off my bags I quickly headed out, on foot, to attend my first-ever Peak Oil group meeting. Within blocks clue number five jumped out from a parked car—a simple, hand-made sign reading “IMPEACH” haphazardly displayed in the rear window.

Just steps later, I nearly walked into clue number six: a Portland Tribune newspaper box. The two headings on the front page of the latest edition read: “King Cob”—a story about natural building, and “Sustainable Life”—a recently-added section addressing the issue of sustainability. I grabbed a copy to read later.

As I continued on my stroll it became increasingly apparent how popular the bicycle culture is in this city, as numerous cyclists whizzed past, along with passing buses sporting loaded bike racks. This was when clue number seven stopped me dead in my tracks. I didn't know exactly what it was at first but I knew that the building and property I was walking past offered something different from the other places—it was inviting, offering a special place to stop, take in and just be. I made note of its location and continued on, not fully realizing the importance of what I had just experienced.

The church generously donates this large room to the group every Wednesday night. On this night a modest group of 20 people attended, an assortment of young and old, newbies and regulars. We started with informal introductions and then collectively decided on which topics to use for the break-out discussions. The group decided on a speaker bureau's discussion regarding out-reach, and a co-housing discussion to try and determine a specific project to work on.

I joined the speaker's bureau. We sat around a table and each person was given equal opportunity to bring forward ideas. We covered many different aspects of outreach, from holding screenings and hosting speakers to using google adwords and piggy-backing on people's interest generated by high gasoline prices. In a sense it was therapeutic to be in a space where intelligent and interesting perspectives could be brought forward and discussed, instead of being ridiculed. At the end of the meeting I left feeling both welcomed and motivated.

I also heard about the various non-associated groups in the city and the projects they work on. The group informed me about the cyclist event currently on in town, “Pedal Pulooza,” and the work of a group called “City Repair” that does natural building projects around town to create inviting spaces for the community. After the meeting, one of the members, Jonathan, lead me to the latest City Repair creation—to my pleasant surprise, it was the spot where, just hours before, I had been stopped in my tracks. This time I was able to take in the giant-mural, numerous tile-mosaics, the rock-work, and the beautifully dragon-sculptured cob bench.

The next morning, I had a chance to read through the free paper “Portland Tribune.” The cover story turned out to be about the guy behind “City Repair” and their latest project, which by this point I knew about quite intimately.

I then rented a bicycle from the hostel (for $10/day) and toured the city. I was thoroughly impressed by the quantity and quality of bike lanes and paths. I spent the entire day crossing Portland's many bridges and meandering along the riverside paths. In the early evening I decided to do some walking, and within minutes spotted clue number five again—this time it was a guy standing at the end of the Hawthorne bridge holding up signs sporting anti-Bush slogans for all of the passing cars to take in. I told him “Good job” as I walked past; at that moment, as if in agreement, a car honked enthusiastically.

Later on during my stroll clue number eight came into view—taking up an entire city block was a bookstore. It wasn't a Chapters or a Borders. It was Powells, North America's largest independent bookstore. Within its maze of stairs and aisles are thousands upon thousands of stacked books from new and used to obscure and out-of-print. Anything you could ever possibly want to read. The sections on alternative living offer the widest assortment I have ever seen.

Walking around some more I ran into clue nine—Portland General Electric. A guy who had a small table set up on the sidewalk was handing out papers regarding how to support renewable energy projects in Portland by signing up to pay for electricity from renewable sources. Oregon is first in the US when it comes to renewable energy sales to customers, having more than 43,000 signed up.

When it was time for me to leave Portland, I felt like I had only scratched the surface of a trail-blazing city that has so much to offer, not just to its residents, but to society in general. Now I can truly understand why this city is number one for Peak Oil awareness.

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