The senselessness of embedding energy-efficient buildings in energy-squandering suburbia was echoed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep in Houston: Texas-Sized Sprawl, No End In Sight. Sweating with humidity and weighing in at 620 square miles – the size of Chicago, Phildelphia, Baltimore and Detroit combined – Houston forces its residents to use more energy than almost any other American metropolis.
In contrast to the energy-loving Texas city that keeps building more roads, Portland, Oregon has a proud history of tearing them down or stopping them in the first place. Sarah Mirk’s The Dead Freeway Society documents this phenomenon, if a bit in the rhapsodic tone typical of so many accounts of Portland urban planning
Mirk notes the intergenerational dynamics which have made contrarianism mixed with public consensus building a fundamental part of the city’s culture: While other American cities have built, built, built, Portland’s freeway history is boom and bust: massive road projects were planned, mapped, and sold as progress by one generation, then killed by another. When current transit planners visit from exotic Houston and DC to admire Portland’s progress, what they are really admiring are the roads not built—freeways erased from the maps decades ago.
Containing sprawl is not without its battles. The Cambridge, Mass-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which specializes in research and training, has teamed up with Boston-based Northern Light Productions to produce Portland: Quest for a Livable City. A special screening of the documentary is planned for October 14, 2009 at 7 pm Portland State University.
A recent review and trailer shows the wrangling behind the rhapsody. Energy conservation and the reduction of carbon emissions ultimately depend on complex measures to rein in car-dependent sprawl, maintain farmland, and promote density. Public policy reform in these areas is arduous because it forces a reevaluation of long-held individual and community values. But it’s safe to say Portland has made progress along the road (“bike path” ?) that Houston has not even started to build.