Last November, the Portland City Council passed a resolution stating: “The City of Portland hereby declares that a climate emergency threatens our city, our region, our state, our nation, humanity, and the natural world and reaffirms its commitment to local climate action.” The resolution pledged the city “to work aggressively to achieve these greenhouse-gas emissions and carbon neutrality goals by 2030.” In 2017, the council had passed a resolution to achieve 100 percent clean energy for Portland by 2040, and in 2018, the council had resolved to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions citywide by 80 percent by 2050.

That these were empty promises was made clear recently when, apparently without any consideration of the proposed development’s carbon footprint, the city’s planning staff advised the Planning Board that they were satisfied with the Portland Foreside Development Co.’s application for 442,500 square feet of mixed-used development at 58 Fore St. – a plan that includes a parking garage with more than 700 spaces and that was unanimously endorsed by the Planning Board. The same omission occurred when the city sold municipal land to Wex without imposing any conditions regarding green building and/or alternative energy and then shepherded through the approval of the large glass Wex headquarters building and companion parking lot.

Carbon footprint has simply not been a factor in the city’s development or building review process, notwithstanding that the new comprehensive plan identifies sustainability as one of the plan’s core values, and states that the city must “ensure that all municipal decisions take into account the necessity of essentially eliminating CO2 emissions within 30 years.” In the city’s vision statement, the comprehensive plan calls on Portland to “recognize our responsibility as a global citizen and that climate change will have significant impacts on our city by prioritizing a transition to a low-carbon economy.” I have attended countless workshops and hearings where city staff present their reviews of proposed condominium projects and hotels to the Planning Board. Not once have I heard the words “carbon footprint” or even the word “sustainable.” The topic simply does not come up.

This sad disconnect between what the city says and what the city does regarding transitioning to a low-carbon economy reflects City Hall’s 20th-century mentality. These new buildings should be carbon neutral. They should be capped with solar arrays. Huge parking lots should not dominate our priceless waterfront: They reinforce the car’s starring role in Portland’s transportation system and take away incentives for creating alternative modes of transportation.

The city’s waterfront is a perfect vantage point to show Portland off to the world as a 21st-century city. The city, by facilitating all this 20th-century-style development, has squandered an opportunity to demonstrate a vision for our future that is aligned with the City Council’s resolutions.

When the council passes a resolution, it should mean something. It should merit more than a shrug or a photo opportunity. For the city to say one thing and do another undermines the public trust.

We are faced with “a climate emergency (that) threatens our city, our region, our state, our nation, humanity and the natural world” – and that keeps a lot of us up at night. If the city takes this emergency seriously, it should do what it says it’s going to do, even if that means cutting into developers’ short-term profits.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.