Gareth Huw Davies


Portland the sensible sustainable city of the future

Green clean destination in the American North West

Lonely Planet and  New York Times chose Portland as the place to go in 2017. And direct London-Portland flights begin in May 2017.

People who have never been to the USA, and only know it through movies and TV shows, may be surprised at its cultural and political diversity. A nation that can elect Donald Trump still has space for some of the most environmentally progressive cities in the world, not just North America.

Usually the way a particular destination handles its immediate environment, and its impact on sustainability and the wider global ecological picture doesn’t appear as a selling point in travel brochures.

But I think that is beginning to change. Lonely Planet choose Portland, Oregon, as one of its top 10 cities to visit in 2017, and one of the prime reasons is its impressive environmental record.

Lonely Planet says this: “By not trying to impress anyone, it impresses everyone. It’s America’s city of the future: a friendly, sustainable, ethical place that values good living and leisure over acquisitiveness and ambition.”

And now the New York Times has chosen the city for its list of the 52 places in the world to visit in 2017.

Introducing the city, writer Dave Seminara believes the city “keeps getting better.” He points to further enhancement of he city’s “already incredible food scene”, with a recently opened food hall, the Pine Street Market, and the first U.S. branch of the Japanese ramen chain Afuri.

There are new hotels, he says, “transform [ing[ historic structures into stylish places to stay. There a new bike-share programs BIKETOWN (launched in 2016), with 1,000 bikes at 100 stations and the (2015) MAX Orange Line over the new Tilikum Crossing and on into neighborhoods such as Sellwood-Moreland.

Go green

Portland, bisected by the Willamette river and with a glorious mountain backdrop, went green long before the environment was fashionable. I went there recently. I also found the world’s biggest bookshop, beavers on the riverbank, free trams,  the first bridge in the US dedicated solely to pedestrians, bicycles and public transport. and some of the best streetfood outside Asia.

(Read more).

Eco warriors

The original settlers battled through many perils to reach Oregon from the eastern USA. The Oregon History Museum tells their story. It’s across from the Art Museum, full of NW landscape paintings to make your heart soar. Since the 1970s, Portlanders have applied this pioneering spirit to the environment. Symbolically reversing Joni Mitchell, they tore up a parking lot and put up a Chinese Garden, built by hand to a 200 year old blueprint. (All this calm is catching – in 2009 the city’s courteous citizens were named the least likely to fly into a road rage.)

More than half Portland’s power is from renewable sources. The city uses 20% more renewable energy than the national average. Work is underway on 6552 rooftop solar panels on the convention centre, the largest solar array on a convention centre in the US. It recycles 70% of its domestic waste of its waste, the highest in the US.

All traffic signals are energy efficient LEDs. And. It has the largest number of top rated green buildings in the USA.

Portland is the birthplace of car sharing in the US. The Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People, opened in 2015 across the Willamette River. It is the first major bridge in the U.S. designed to carry mass transit traffic, cyclists and pedestrians but not cars.

The city has good train links, from Seattle and Vancouver in the north, from Chicago on the Empire Builder line in the east, and Los Angeles via the Coastal Starlight line to the south.

My trip began with a glorious run down the NW coastline from Seattle on Amtrak’s Cascades train. Portland’s helpful public transport system – it is on the top 10 list of top US cities for public transport – took over at the handsome Italianate Union Station. I rode the MAX tram 12 blocks to my hotel – trams are free downtown. The Monaco also reimburses guests who ride the MAX from the airport. If you book their “Carless Vacation.” (Includes free bikes for two, and the Historic Downtown tour.) The bus system has a mobile ticketing app allowing riders to buy tickets and passes in advance.

I stayed at the Monaco, in a grand old 1912 building, is all whimsy and luxury, redesigned to the Anglo-Chinois style in a cheerful warm persimmon and periwinkle colour scheme, with deep chocolate furnishings. They entertain guests with a free glass of wine every afternoon at 5 p.m in the lounge, with free coffee in the morning to take up to your room with the paper before breakfast. How civilized.

Spin city

We parked our bikes alongside the wide Willamette River in downtown Portland. “Guys, what are you trying to catch?” my guide Todd Roll asked two fishermen. “Sturgeon” was the unexpected reply. For a city, this is a rich, wild river – Todd, who runs Pedal Bike Tours, taking in the US’s most bike-friendly city’s main attractions, saw a bald eagle the other day. We cycled on. Todd indicated more clues to flourishing nature, a tree stump neatly gnawed by a beaver. We made the obligatory coffee stop at Stumptown Coffee (Todd also runs a Coffee Crawl). But no time for the 8 mile long Forest Park, or the Aerial Tram – take your bike aboard and freewheel 500 feet down from the university.

Portland has the nation’s highest percentage of bicycle commuters, and is one of only four US cities to receive a platinum platinum level bicycle friendly community designation. It has 340 miles of bikeways, some on offstreet paths, lanes and shared bicycle boulevards.

Portland was also named the “best running city in America”.

Book worm

We might start to like banks again if they were all set out in the grand neoclassical style like the First National Bank building (built 1916), with traditional old tellers’ windows, cathedral-high ceiling and acres of space. Security probably won’t let you linger long. But in my other favourite city centre building you could easily browse for a month, in thrall to the power of the good read. Powell’s City of Books, possibly the world’s largest independent new and used bookstore, coverts an entire block. Things turned terribly nostalgic as I found volumes I’d read years ago. But there’s nothing fusty about this place – Powell’s launched on the Internet in 1993, when Amazon was only a river. And 540 solar panels on the roof produce a quarter of the building’s electricity. The store seems to be surviving the now-retreating onslaught of the e-book and is still one of the world’s great bookstores.

Beer cheer.

Portland is thought to have more breweries than any other city in the world. And one magazine named it the new craft brewery capital of the world.

. A progressive Oregon legislature legalized brewpubs in 1983. Since then, small brewing has become big all over Oregon. Four of the country’s largest craft breweries are based in the state, with 65 or more craft breweries operating within Portland’s city limits today.

New breweries to open all the time. Just one among many is Hopworks Urban Brewery. It crafts only organic beers and powers its facilities with 100% renewable energy.

In a nation of big, bland brands, it was a joy to sit in a bar faced with such a daunting choice. Stuck on Black Bear XX Stout, Dusty Trail Pale, Desolation IPA, Precious Pils and Blue Heron, I settled for Hammerhead, the deep brown of best Oregon chestnuts. The city’s brewing abundance stems from the pure glacial water flowing off Mount Hood – it also feeds the USA’s only saké brewery, (The wine is very good too; Pinot Noir is the state’s signature grape.) There are so many good places to drink beer, but I particularly liked the “Brew ‘n View” cinemas. In the Bagdad Theater and Pub I took a glass of Terminator Stout – “Black as the darkest night; rich as the most decadent dessert”, with a slice of pizza to my seat, to watch Cabaret.

Cart cuisine

Portland runs New York City close for the top spot for street food carts. The city lets smart enterprising caterers who can’t afford permanent premises operate from over 400 trailers along entire city blocks (weekdays are best, Try the

carnitas burrito at Chopollos; anything from Ziba’s Bosnian food cart and the hot variations on a cheese sandwich from Grilled Cheese Grill, serving from a yellow school bus.

On my visit the city’s more permanent restaurant scene was bustling. It was recently (2016) named “one of the “best places to eat” in North America.

One of the hottest tables is Departure Restaurant, high above Nines Hotel. Our waitress let us carry on ordering street food-style Chinese and Japanese appetizers on small plates until we were full.

The Beaker and Flask serves good cocktails made with local spirits. I enjoyed the maple braised pork belly, creamed kale, delicata squash and apple relish.

The writer travelled to Portland from Seattle by Amtrak (about 3 hours).

(Picture of Portland by the writer.)