Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Growing Up Green - From Portland to Boston

While chatting with Bridgete recently she suggested that since she was raised in Portland, Oregon it might be nice to do a feature on how she grew up in such an eco-conscious state and what her comparative impressions are of Boston, Massachusetts now that she is living here. One might think it would be difficult for a city such as Boston to achieve the distinctive title of Greenest City but in truth it would not be all that tough, it would just require a firm dedication to create a better environment by all the residents. After reading her interview everyone will want to start making strides to green up their own cities and snatch that title away from Portland!

Where did you reside prior to moving to Boston?

Portland, OR, aka the Number 1 greenest city in the US.

What is it about Oregon's environmental efforts that most inspire you?

Honestly, it's that everyone recycles. It's such a simple thing with such a huge impact. And everywhere you go, it's clear that the whole state has figured that out. You don't have to harass your school or your employer to have recycle bins - they're just already there. And the same goes for getting recycling pick-up in your area - it just comes with the trash pick-up, no questions asked. It's so great to see an entire community step up and at least do that one thing for the environment, even if some individuals don't do anything else.

Do you remember taking part in environmental practices when you were a kid? How old were you in your furthest back memories?

Earth Day was this huge thing at my elementary school. I don't even remember what we did, but we had a whole day of environmental activities. I think one year we planted trees...in first grade, maybe. Also while I was in elementary school, I remember sorting through the recycling with my mom every week -- this was in the early days when you had to separate everything -- cans, plastic, paper, glass -- and put all the different types into separate paper bags and put the bags in the yellow bins for the curb. And we had to take off the labels from soup cans and stuff, as well as the bottoms, and smash them flat before those could go out. To make the sorting easier we ended up getting separate bins for inside the house where we'd put the cans, already unlabeled and smashed, and then a bin for plastic. Glass we'd just set aside since we didn't usually have much glass, and the newspapers went in a pile and then were easily slid into the bag when the time came. I think all this started when I was about six or seven. I'm leaning towards six...

Tell me a little about what it was like to grow up in such a progressively green environment.

It's not even something I really thought about, it was all second nature. Words like greenhouse gases and biodegradable are part of everyday language there. And there are so many things that I didn't even realize were great until I left. For one, the city has a fabulous public transportation system -- when you take into account the entire system, buses and trains and all of it, it's apparently the best in the country -- and people use it. I didn't even learn to drive until I was 19 and that was only because I was a bit outside the city for school and wanted to be able to go home more often. I have several friends who didn't have their licenses until their early 20s because they stayed in the city. When you consider the fact that Portland is a Western city where everything is more spread out, that really says something about how functional the transportation system is there.

There's also the recycling I talked about before. It's also kind of a status symbol to own a hybrid, and even if you don't, you get bragging rights for getting great gas mileage or rarely using your car so you only fill it every few weeks. Oh, about cars, there's a really rigorous emissions test you have to put your car through every two years to see how much nasty stuff it's putting into the air. If it doesn't pass, you can't update your registration until you fix whatever is making your car put out even more nastiness than it should.

Other things...about a month ago I learned that apparently in some cities people go grocery shopping more than once a week, but in Portland, just about everyone has their weekly shopping day. Some even have it down to every two weeks. Then there's the common practice of planning your errands so that you make a loop -- stopping at some places on your way to the farthest place, then going a different way home to stop at the other places on your way back. And finally, one of the busiest places downtown is Saturday Market, which is kind of like an ongoing fair -- it's an outdoor market that runs every Saturday and Sunday from April to December (yeah, okay, so it's not nearly as cold in Portland as it is in Boston) and people set up stands with all sorts of organic soaps and candles and such, then you have the up-cycled clothes or the stuff that's made from all-natural fabrics and organic dyes, and people who make their own jewelry by melting random bits of glass. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

What are some eco-activities you enjoy most in your new city?

I do like that the T gets you where you want to go, even if it is a bit irregular and has a lot of random delays. But what I really love is walking. Downtown Portland is actually a pretty great walking area, but it rains so much that you don't usually want to. And then in the rest of the city everything is too spread out from that Western urban sprawl so you can't really get anywhere by just walking, even when it's actually not raining. So I really love that everything is so compact here so if I'm pretty close I don't even have to deal with the T. Unless it's mid-December and I'll freeze to death if I have to walk another block. =)

How could Massachusetts and the rest of the world take a cue from Oregon to green themselves?

Well, first for Boston: if you're going downtown, why on EARTH would you ever bring your car? Have you SEEN the traffic? Seriously. I know if you're actually driving in downtown you probably have lived here forever so you can handle it, but why would you want to when the T is so convenient? And so much better for the environment, I might add. Also, put out recycling bins for the general public, next to the trash cans on the sidewalks. And as for the rest of the world, I'd say the first step is to recycle. That's where we started, and now Portland is the greenest city in the US. We started by caring just that little bit, and then we realized how good it felt to be good to the environment, so we wanted to do more. So we did. So really. Recycle. You can invent eco-friendly cars and put up wind turbines and solar panels and everything all you want, but if you can't get your community to all pull together and do that one little thing then that good feeling isn't going to spread. People won't buy the hybrid cars if they don't care, and they won't notice that their electricity is now more green if they aren't the ones generating it, so they won't start caring. I guess that goes back to "think globally, act locally." Get your community, even just your workplace or school, to start doing just that one little thing and watch the greenness grow.

How do you take initiative to spread the word about being green?

Well, I'm working on figuring out how to get recycling pick-up for my apartment complex right now. That's kind of my priority at the moment. Right now Vanessa and I, two rather clean people, have a couple bags of recycling waiting until we have the time to go find where to drop it off. It's rather irritating to have it lying around, but I can't just throw that stuff away. It goes against my nature. I guess other than that, it's just talking to people. Telling them to shut off lights (or doing it myself, including in other people's homes). Sometimes what helps is to explain how much money you save with certain green acts, like using passive solar energy from your windows to warm up your house, and not turning the heat way up just to get it warm faster, it will do its job just fine if you set it to the temperature you want the house to be. Or in the summer, check whether you actually need to run the air-conditioning or if it's cool enough outside to just have the windows open for the night. Around here, Boston has really beautiful summer evenings, so spend the evening outside while your house cools off from the windows you opened. Especially in this economy, people like saving money, so they like to hear that being just a little more green will actually help them do that.

What is the one eco-act you do everyday that readers could also do to lessen their impact on the environment?

Okay, I'll say something besides recycling because I think you all got the point there. I make efforts to stop wasting electricity. I turn off lights when I leave the room. Same goes for the TV. And everything is off when I leave the house. Also, in the summer, I don't run the AC when I'm not home, and I try to avoid using it as much as possible even when I am home. As for heat, I at least turn it down when I leave. In the early fall/late spring I'll turn it off completely, but the general character of winter in Boston prevents me from turning that into a year-round practice. Oh, I turn down the heat when I sleep too. You actually sleep better in a slightly cold room with a nice, big, warm blanket.


High Desert Diva said...

I was raised in Milwaukie, about 10 miles south of Portland. We do take all the recycling for granted now. Way back in the early 70's when I was a kid, there wasn't curbside pickup. My mom had large cardboard bins that we filled with flattened tin cans, glass and paper (separately) and she then drove it to the recycling center. She was very committed.

I'm always a bit shocked when there aren't recycle bins to be found. Same goes for pop cans. Oregon had one of the first (if not the first) deposit on cans. Makes a huge impact.

Happy to be an Oregonian!

Bridgete said...

Yay, it's me!

You found some lovely shots of the city to complement the article.

kim* said...

great article its nice tohear about going green and being green