Urban Design Next: A Conceptual Framework for the Open City

Timothy Smith, AIA, AICP & Wilfred Pinfold, PhD

Abstract: Technology is remaking urbanism and enabling citizens, business, government and institutions to have access to a wide range of services, relationships and tools. Smart applications help develop a sharing economy and create more efficient design practices and new ways to live, work and play. This article explores whether or not these outcomes are aligned with citizens’ present needs and future interests. The authors outline an urban design process that synthesizes their work with smart city technology and a participatory urban design framework known as Civic Ecology. As an outcome, the authors propose an open city framework for enabling more effective and democratic ways of placemaking.

Keywords: urban; design; open; city

Introduction and Overview

Imagine a city where…

Citizens access their needs within an easy walk of where they live or work; where safe, clean and affordable transportation options integrate to take people where they need to go; where neighbours share childcare, tools, food and space; where information options enable residents to track local events, emergency alerts, and education opportunities.

Imagine that local entrepreneurs have access to workspace, support services, mentorship and customers; citizens can buy local to enhance their community’s shared wealth; a local stock exchange enables community members to invest in local buildings, their neighbourhood commons or local food system; health and wellness options are accessible via a seamless platform. Utility use, carbon footprint monitoring and more are possible through technology that enables safe, accessible and secure transactions using data platforms built for and owned by the community.

This is the open city.

Technology is remaking urbanism and enabling citizens, business, government and institutions to have access to a wide range of services, relationships and tools. Smart applications seed a sharing economy and create more efficient design practices and new ways to live, work and play. Currently, tools exist to simulate future environments and, through digital modelling, evaluate likely impacts of traffic, land costs and behaviour choices on climate, community form and the local economy. But are such outcomes aligned with citizens’ present needs and future interests, or are they merely empowering those who control data, information flows and ultimately decision making?

Citizens in the open city of the future will use technology as a tool to help them envision, create — indeed celebrate — urban living. Rather than a pathway to centralized data control in the service of laudable goals — cleaner, safer and more sustainable environments — what if technology enabled a participatory urban design process by which citizens, experts, developers and city governments co-created an open city?

This article outlines such an urban design process, one that synthesizes the authors’ work with smart city technology and a participatory urban design framework known as Civic Ecology. As an outcome, the authors propose an open city framework for enabling more effective and democratic ways of placemaking.

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Figure 1: The Circular Economy. Image courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.


Cities drive state, national and global economies. Technology-driven transportation and e-commerce impact mobility, retail and services, while the Internet of Things facilitates smarter, more efficient living and work. Climate change, economic disparity and desires for greater equity have spawned discussions about localism, developing greater grassroots empowerment opportunities through sharing, circular and trust economies.

The complexity of urban issues discourages many governments from involving citizens in local design and planning. As many cities control more and more of the development process, citizens want their voices heard and their issues addressed.

What is an Open City?

An open city is one in which organic small-scaled growth and change is encouraged through a process of co-creation among city government, citizens, business interests, the non-profit sector and development professionals. The open city rests on the foundation of an open society — one in which all people are free to participate in civic, cultural, economic and ecological life though a free and independent media, an accessible political system and access to public spaces. Democratic placemaking is baked into open city culture, a mindset with local knowledge, a history of transactions with the community’s civic ecosystem, creativity and social capital.

In Building and Dwelling, Richard Sennett describes two types of urban change: rupture and accretion (Sennett 2018, 278). Rupture, what Jane Jacobs (1961, 293) described as cataclysmic change, results from top-down approaches to information exchange, design and implementation. Accretion is the slow, organic growth that evolves through experimentation and learning (Jacobs 1961, 293). Rupture is product driven, accretion is process driven.

In the closed city, citizens may be informed, even consulted, about urban design but are not its co-creators. Information flows and data management are used by experts in power to ensure equilibrium rather than to invite the open-ended, adaptability best effected by citizens of a place.

The open city recognizes cities as “open-ended places of experimentation, shared civic endeavours, creative milieus, and above all, problems of organized complexity” (Seltzer et. Al 2010, 25). In an open city, citizens, experts, local government and other actors are in a co-creation partnership that endures continuous cycles of community change. Community intelligence platforms are open and accessible and drive the process-driven change of accretion.

Sennett describes the outcomes of an open city process as highly flexible and adaptive — places that feature permeable open spaces, highly adaptable buildings, communities made legible by locally-meaningful markers and urban fabric and infrastructure intentionally designed for change. Since the open city views change as a constant, it is porous, intentionally incomplete, rich and adaptable (Sennett 2018, 240).

The open city evolves organically through “superficial civilities”, (Sennett 2018, 141) the civic competence that is key to managing social and ethnic differences. This skill set enables citizens to transcend personal differences and work through the complex, ambiguous and ill-defined problems that typify urban communities. Sennett advocates co-production of plans by experts and publics until the moment when the professionals ‘exit’ and the community take over. The open city is thus a place of both doing and belonging.

Fundamental Principles Underlying This Approach

The goal of an open city urban design framework is to help a community determine what it collectively cares about and then provide the expertise, tools and strategies to guide systemic change. Placemaking must reflect a holistic approach that integrates development “hardware” in response to climate, land use/form, ecology, transportation, open space and built form with community “software,” the existing and emergent resource systems (i.e. energy, water, nutrient, food, economic, cultural and information flows. (See figure 2)

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Figure 2: The axis of holistic, integrated placemaking. Figure courtesy of SERA Architects, Inc.

The Civic Ecology framework provides such a systems-based urban co-design framework.

Civic Ecology is the integrated web of energy, nutrient, resource, financial, information and cultural flows and interactions that are envisioned, created and managed by citizens acting for the common good within a geographically-defined community and its city-region. It is a human ecology of place, intimately integrating both natural and social/cultural systems (Seltzer et. Al 2010, 37).

The open city integrates citizen-led smart, data-rich platforms and operating systems into the Civic Ecology placemaking framework. Three fundamental principles inform this approach: systems thinking, co-design and strong democracy.

Systems Thinking — Resource flow systems — community “software” — constitute the life-blood of a community. Energy, water, food, organic nutrient flows, mobility patterns and local economic exchanges develop from user preferences expressed through transactions. User data generated from this activity records behaviour patterns, constructing a baseline for improving community systems. In an open city, urban co-designers use data to improve resource allocation systems. For example, transportation data recording how people move about and where they go can also be used to test desired future mobility patterns. Thus, citizens bring their opinions and desires as well as their record of transportation use to the co-design of future mobility. The same could be true for energy and water use or food systems and economic exchanges. User-truthed citizen feedback enables continuous systems evolution.

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Figure 3: Community food system. Figure courtesy of SERA Architects, Inc.

Co-design — Fundamental to open city placemaking is a commitment to integrating citizen knowledge with specialized expert resources. This will require technology platforms that engage and value the input of citizens, private interests and public-sector experts. This process could be messy and chaotic unless roles are clarified from the beginning: The community co-creates a shared vision, the private sector builds the vision, experts advise on feasibility and local government creates the policy, processes and funding to enable the vision to be realized. Co-design aims for a process that is much smoother and less confrontational than the current top-down, NIMBY-driven process.

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Figure 4: Civic Ecology Flow Mapping Process. Figure courtesy of SERA Architects, Inc.

Strong democracy — Fundamental to the above principles are two agreements: (1) a social contract between citizens and their community that embraces participatory placemaking and (2) a digital contract ensuring that citizen participation and personal data are secure.

Humans have traditionally viewed community building as an act of co-learning through associational life. In an era of growing complexity, democratic placemakers will need the advantages technology affords. Bringing objective personal data to public design discussions offers the ability to model existing systems, analyse emerging use patterns, discover leverage points and guide systemic change. Objective user data will aid shared decision-making about resource allocation.

Strong democracy requires strong institutions. The open city urban design framework requires a new democratic institution — the Civic Public Private Partnership (CP3) — to represent the interests of all the actors in the continuing process of community change and capacity building. The CP3 will “own” the design and feedback process and measure progress toward resilience, equity and liveability.

Data-driven Urban Design Challenges

Data is the currency of an open city. Since many decisions can now be data driven, control of what data is collected and how it is analysed establishes power. In an open city, control is in the hands of the citizen who is encouraged and enabled to collect data and bring it to discussions about how to improve city services. In a closed city, the city and its agents collect data and make decisions about city services.

There are therefore fundamental conflicts between open and closed cities. The open city enables better decisions as the volume and detail of information collected about its citizens’ experiences increases. Data collection in a closed city undermines the citizen’s feeling of wellbeing and control conjuring images of an Orwellian 1984. This conflict is absent in an open city. Some data may record systems transactions while other data may be more experiential. Both types are valuable for urban design. Enabling citizen-collected data, ensuring privacy and building trust are essential for success.

Collecting Data

An increasing number of citizens carry highly sophisticated sensor packages in their smartwatches, exercise bracelets, smart phones and cars. These devices can monitor every detail of their interactions in the urban environment — delays, exertion levels and expenditures for example. Citizens are comfortable collecting this information because they have a reasonable expectation that it will remain private. There are tools available today to ensure this security and technology is available to strengthen protections where necessary (Montjoye 2014).

In an open city the community doing the planning needs to be assured that (1) the individual bringing the data is a resident of that community and is who they claim to be, and (2) the data the resident brings to the planning process is correct and has not been modified to make a point not supported by the data. The individual can be identified through a digital identity and the veracity of the data can be secured using a blockchain. A blockchain is an immutable sequence of transactions secured both by encryption to make changes hard and then by creating multiple copies that check one another and eliminate any tampering. If an identified entity enters data into a blockchain as it is created, it will remain unchanged when retrieved.

Ensuring Privacy: The digital contract

The blockchain can also be used to eliminate the need for a trusted entity to oversee system integrity. Any transaction of value requires a third party — a lawyer or bank — to keep records of transactions. Immutable records enable the removal of these entities from the system with enormous implications for the digital economy. This enables the creation of (1) Digital Contracts — contracts that self-execute, (2) Self Sovran Identities — Identities that cannot be erased — and (3) Immutable Data Records.

With these three items any individual can come to a transaction, identify themselves, share data that is of the highest integrity and make binding agreements with other similar entities. Further, any individual who chooses not to engage in a transaction can be assured that her identity cannot be forged, her data cannot be used without permission and that no agreements can be falsely entered into in her name.

Finally, we need methods for conducting analysis without violating privacy. The measure of what violates privacy is subjective and needs to be in the control of the citizen. The planner will be able to access more data if she offers strong privacy protections and delivers good incentives. Again, there are tools and processes for anonymizing data, for conducting secure analysis and producing anonymized results (Montjoye 2014). By employing all these techniques, the citizen is encouraged and enabled to fully participate in the urban design process without loss of privacy or security.

An open city would expose its city’s services (utilities, transportation, parks usage) or its commercial services (restaurants, food markets, apparel shops) through common application programming interfaces (APIs) that offer a directory of services and a common transaction platform. At the time of a transaction a digital contract would be executed through the city’s transaction platform that stipulates the terms, time and costs of the use and shares only the data necessary for the transaction. Note that in this operation no sign-up operation is needed. Records of the user and provider are validated in the background and payment is only made once service has been provided.

The above transactions can be completed securely using distributed ledgers, privacy can be maintained through advanced encryption techniques and speed of transaction can be achieved by distributed processing. To discourage hoarding of private data, the service provider’s reputation can be linked to any loss of private data by applying stiff penalties to any such loss as is done by Europe’s GDPR legislation.

The data collected by both the city and the citizen now becomes the basis for future planning. A resident’s profile can be more highly tuned to their service preferences in that city. The resident can use such an open city framework to express needs for services that are not currently available such as day-care, a food market or transit service. Many such requests will highlight service needs to government and private suppliers that, properly monitored, will enable public and private entities to deliver new and improved services.

An Urban Design Process

An open city urban co-design process must consist of six steps: Convening, Investigating, Visioning, Implementing, Charting Progress and Sustaining. The present perfect tense indicates that these activities begin and continue indefinitely. The following hypothetical case study illustrates an application.

A number of major developments are underway in Portland, Oregon as the City addresses growth in its urban core. The City’s “Central City 2035” plan provides a framework with high-level goals related to safety, equity, climate impacts, job creation and congestion relief. There are many who have a stake in the plan outcome including people who live, work and visit in the city for commerce and entertainment as well as those who provide their services to the City. Gathering and correctly interpreting data from these communities and using this data to make appropriate planning decisions is a daunting task.

The authors are part of a team participating in central city development and will advise the City on the impacts of deploying a wide range of emerging technologies for future urban design in these central city communities. The work will address such questions as how do we rethink transportation corridors, intersections, vehicle pick-ups/drop-offs, the interaction with existing and future transit stations, stops and lines, and other aspects of the public environment to ensure equitable pedestrian access and comfort? Longer term, what might be the impact on community form if there is less of a need for parking facilities? How to redevelop surface parking lots and to re-purpose existing structured parking in a sustainable and equitable way? Do these redevelopment opportunities offer possibilities for housing and employment densification, and a more equitable city?

Toward these ends the authors proposed to conduct a series of Civic Ecology workshops in target communities for technology experts, citizens, the City and developers to engage in designing future urban systems. These systems could include such ideas as deployment of air, water and traffic sensor systems in the community, mobility concepts integrating public transit and last-mile shuttles and how to deploy district scaled utilities. The workshops will provide training to citizens in the use of mobile devices, sensor and communication networks. Designers will work with business leaders, residents, office workers and community members to develop an integrated urban systems approach that relies on community-expert co-design and user data as valuable inputs to the process and product. The intention is to set a solid foundation of participatory placemaking that will not only ensure a vibrant community but will establish a continually evolving process that tracks progress and provides opportunities for feedback and improvement.

Convening — The first step will be to bring the community, local government and development interests into a long-term trust relationship through a Civic Public Private Partnership (CP3) chartered for implementing a shared vision for the community. Convening will include:

  1. Citizen-based training on systems thinking;
  2. Socializing the variety of ways to participate in the process of open city design;
  3. Creation of a database of community members; and
  4. Agreeing on roles and time commitments.

Investigating — This step consists of on-going discovery where citizens, local government and development interests co-learn about issues, shared core values, community needs, opportunities, constraints, problems, goals and aspirations. The CP3 will draw upon citizen, city and regional data to get a detailed understanding of community and city context and oversee creation of a community database that will inform the co-design process.

Visioning — The goal of this step will be to create a citizen-driven and shared vision that integrates energy, water, nutrient, material, information, cultural and economic systems and that informs a land use/mobility concept and resulting urban form. Central to this step will be citizen-led mapping to identify the community resource flow systems necessary to realize the vision consistent with the community’s shared core values. The outcome will be vision statements and a community resource flow map which will underpin land use/mobility, open space, habitat, local economic development and urban form to inform detailed framework plan and development policy.

Implementing — In this step co-designers will describe development programs and projects embedded within the systems maps. Implementation activity will focus on identifying barriers to success and community assets, forging commitments, creating implementation platforms (i.e. business plans, pro formas, policies, guidelines) and securing funding.

Charting Progress — This step will identify meaningful progress indicators and the mean for shared expert-citizen data collection. Energy performance, changes in the local economic multiplier, equity, air quality, water quality, food system quality, community health indicators, job creation and a variety of other meaningful indicators will be measured and a process for analysing feedback and implementing course corrections outlined.

Sustaining — In this step a data driven platform will be put in place to support the participatory urban design process and ensure ongoing citizen, local government and development interests are shared and projects continue to be defined, implemented and tracked. In this way we establish the desired accretive process to ensure relentless, but slow, organic growth that evolves through experimentation and learning continually adjusting to the needs and desires of the community.

It is anticipated that the urban co-design process will result in:

  • accessible deployment technologies through training on mobile device and communication networks,
  • small business entrepreneurial opportunities,
  • integration of charging stations into community fabric,
  • integration of bicycle, transit and other existing mobility systems,
  • urban food systems,
  • neighbourhood scaled energy, water and waste systems, and
  • local economy initiatives and may others to be determined.


The open city urban design process requires citizens, local government and other stakeholders to co-design a shared future using smart technology made accessible to all members of the community. The design process must account for participants with varying economic means and degrees of comfort with technology and must ensure that personal data offered to the design process be securely shared. Harnessing technology to benefit such a grassroots approach will be a challenge, but one that can be met through current technology.

The greatest challenge may be changing the attitudes toward participatory placemaking. In moving from confrontation to co-design, citizens must come to trust their local government and the private sector developers, city governments must come to value the input of their citizenry and development interests must realize the advantages to opening the “black box” of development to the voice of community needs. The result of this collaboration will be the places, services, policies, platforms, hubs and infrastructures of the open city — the foundation for the vibrant cities of our imagination


Ermacora, Thomas and Bullivant, Lucy. Recoded City. London and New York, Routledge, 2016.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

Lubarsky, Boris.. Re-Identification of “Anonymized” Data, April 2017.

Montjoye, Yves-Alexandre de, Erez Shmueli, Samuel S. Wang, and Alex Sandy Pentland. “OpenPDS: Protecting the Privacy of Metadata through SafeAnswers.” PLOS ONE 9, no. 7 (July 9, 2014): e98790. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0098790.Sennett, Richard. Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Seltzer, Ethan, Tim Smith, Joe Cortright, Ellen Bassett and Vivek Shandas. Making EcoDistricts: Concepts and Methods for Advancing Sustainability in Neighborhoods. Portland, OR., 2010.

Tapscott, Don and Alex Tapscott. Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World. Portfolio, 2016.

Related Articles

Portland awards itself a participation trophy for climate

Portland is utterly failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, but not to worry, its ticking lots of boxes in its bureaucratic check-list.
The city walks away from its 2015 Climate Action Plan after an increase in greenhouse gases, but promises to do better (and more equitably) in the future.
Portland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 440,000 tons per year, instead of decreasing as called for in its 2015 plan.
Increased driving due to cheap gas has wiped out all the city’s climate progress in other sectors in the past five years.
We’re frequently told that when it comes to dealing with climate change, if our national government doesn’t step up (and it hasn’t under the current administration), not to worry, because the nation’s cities, and the mayors who lead them are as green as can be.
To be sure, mayors have loudly proclaimed their commitments to (future) greenhouse gas reductions, and fealty to the Paris Climate Accords, but rhetoric and pledges are one thing, and lower rates of carbon emissions are another. While plans are nice, we really need to be focusing on the results that the plans are producing.
When it comes to Portland, one of the self-proclaimed leaders of North American climate change cities, the results are disappointing, and the explanations are, at best, disingenuous.
Portland was one of the first cities in the US, to adopt and explicit grenehouse gas reduction goal in 1993.  The city’s website boasts:

Portland is tackling climate change head on. We were the first US city to adopt a carbon reduction strategy in 1993, and our cutting-edge Climate Action Plan put us on a path to reducing emissions by 80% in 2050.

Noble and far sighted, to be sure, but a quarter of a century later, how is the city doing in actually, you know, reducing greenhouse gases?
The answer to that question is supposed to be spelled out in a progress report on the the city’s adopted 2015 Climate Action Plan. The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability last month published “final” report card on the city’s efforts. But rather than being an honest report card, the document amounts to the bureaucratic equivalent of a third-grade participation trophy. The city congratulates itself for its efforts, but the true test of progress, a reduction measured in tons of carbon emissions, shows the plan has been a failure.

The  city’s “Final Progress Report” almost completely glosses over the failure to cut emissions modestly in the past five years, and now the City has quickly moved on to a much more ambitious interim goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels (up from 40 percent), in its new Climate Emergency Declaration.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter:  The key element on the plan is reducing emissions.  Here’s the report’s summary of our progress:

The 2018 data also shows that carbon reductions have started to plateau and that current emissions trends are not sufficient to meet the needed reduction targets that need to be achieved. To achieve the goal of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 as identified by climate science, local emissions must be reduced by an additional 31% in the next 10 years. This is a daunting task.

Actually, the report doesn’t present the actual emissions data; instead, it links to another report (the September 2019 report we wrote about here) that has the  data, and that report includes data only through 2017.
A checklist isn’t a climate strategy
The bulk of the city’s self-congratulatory report card consists of describing a laundry list of 247 actions that were mentioned in the previous climate action plan, and briefly rating each as either complete, on track or “facing obstacles.  The actions include sweeping and important policies that would make a big difference (like Item 1H: carbon pricing, which is “facing obstacles), and administrivia, like planning for actions with minimal benefits (“Item 6B: explore options intelligent transportation system, complete).  Nothing in the report calculates or categorizes the impact of any of these individual actions on the region’s greenhouse gas reduction progress (or lack thereof).
Wow! 77% of 247 Actions are on track: But the one indicator that matters—carbon emissions—is going in the wrong direction. (Portland Climate Action Plan Report, 2020).
Put another way:  If you successfully implemented all or most of your checklist actions, and you’re not making progress on reducing GHG, then something is fundamentally wrong with your plan.
Plans have to be accountable, not just for endless checklists of busy-work tasks, but actually achieving measurable results. Ironically, the plan itself calls for more measurability, but as noted above, it simply failed to report the annual data showing that by the CAP’s own metrics, that its failing.
It’s the equivalent of a grade-school participation trophy:  The City and County laud themselves for implementing about three-quarters of their 250 checklist items, but gloss over the fact that greenhouse gases, particularly from transportation are rising.
In 2013, the base year for statistics used in preparing the 2015 Climate Action Plan, Multnomah County’s total emissions were estimated at 7,260,000 tons.  According to the latest climate inventory (linked to, but not actually quoted in the progress report), the level of emissions in 2017 (the latest year for which data is available), were 7,702,000 tons. (We dig into the detail of these estimates below). Thus, Portland’s  total GHG are higher in 2017 than in 2013 according to the city’s own numbers, i.e. since Portland adopted the 2015 plan we’ve made zero (actually negative) progress.  The report spins this as “plateauing” but we all know that unless we make steady progress in reducing GHG, the task becomes exponentially more difficult in the years ahead.  Nobody would call having your 8th grader still reading at the 3rd grade level five years later as “plateauing.”
Mission unaccomplished
Its clear from the tone of the report card, that the City is simply walking away from its 2015 plan–even though its substantive goals haven’t been accomplished.  The title of the report is “Final Progress Report.”  All of the references to the plan are in the past tense, for example:

The Climate Action Plan was an important roadmap over the last five years to help ensure the City and County continued their progress toward carbon reduction goals. The 2015 Climate Action Plan broke important new ground by including several important elements:
(Report, page 65).

City officials promise accountability, but if they simply walk away from plans after five years, without seriously acknowledging their failure, and analyzing the reasons for that failure, and begin by writing a new plan, de novo, as the city now proposes, there is no accountability. Moreover, the city’s “final report” disappears the few bits of serious number-crunching that were done in the 2015 plan, showing that we’d need to dramatically reduce vehicle miles of car travel in order to achieve our carbon goals.
The 2015 plan was explicit about what would be needed.  It laid out a carbon budget that did the math on what we would have to do to reach our goals. Specifically:

For example, by 2030 emissions from the building energy and transportation sector must be approximately 40 percent below 1990 levels (see Table 1). In 2050, residents must be able to meet all of their needs while using 62 percent less electricity and driving 64 percent fewer miles than they do today (see Table 2). (This also assumes a shift to cleaner electricity sources and more efficient vehicles.)
Climate Action Plan, 2015, page 19

In place of tangible, measurable indicators of progress toward our stated goal, the City’s climate emergency declaration offers  vague exhortations about future process.
As they walk away from the 2015 plan, there’s as yet  no plan to take its place.  There are vague statements about process going forward, descriptions of how the city might do something else, but few if any actual policies.  The City’s Climate Emergency Resolution directs BPS, by the fall of this year to “co-convene a process” to “identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared solution.”

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that no later than Fall 2020, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is directed to work closely with other City bureaus, Multnomah County, frontline communities, and youth-led organizations to establish and co-convene a new and ongoing climate justice initiative that will provide a framework for government and community to work together as equal partners to identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared vision for climate justice and action;

But this new process and the plan it produces, and its specifics are in the future.  For now the city has simply closed the book on the 2015 plan, and awarded itself a participation trophy for having done so.
Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan has been an abject failure
Its important to look in detail at the data on carbon emissions in Portland for the past decade. They show that the city’s climate change efforts, so far, have failed.  In the three years prior to the adoption of the Climate Action Plan (2010 through 2013), the city managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tons per year; In the four years between the plan’s baseline and the latest available data, emissions have increased by 110,000 tons per year. In 2013, Portland GHG’s were 7.26 million tons; in 2017, they were 7.7 million tons, an annual increase of 1.5 percent per year, at a time the Climate Action Plan called for an annual reduction of 1.4 percent per year.
In the most basic sense, more greenhouse gas emissions mean your plan isn’t working. The plan characterizes this whopping failure as a “plateauing.”
It also conceals the failure by constantly referring to a 1990 baseline, rather than looking a recent trends (i.e. the past two, five or ten years).  In essence, the plan takes credit for emission reductions that happened in the two decades years before the 2015 plan was adopted (i.e. 1990 to 2010), and simply ignores the fact that Portland’s GHG are now going in the wrong direction.
Plateauing is a tacit admission of failure for a plan that depends on large and consistent reductions in emissions.  But, to be clear, emissions haven’t plateaued:  Portland’s total greenhouse gas emissions as calculated by the city, have risen by 440,000 tons between the CAP baseline year (2013) and the latest year for which data are available (2017).
It’s telling that the report includes no chart showing the needed path of emission reductions between now and 2030 or 2050.  Such charts are a staple of climate plans, including the 2015 CAP, which laid out this roadmap for GHG reductions:
The path laid out in Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan
If they’d replicated this chart, with data showing actual progress from 2013 to 2017, and showing their new, much more aggressive goal, it would look like this.
The 2015 Climate Action Plan, the 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration, and Reality
On this chart, the blue line shows actual emissions (as reported by the city), the 2015 plan (the orange line) and the 2020 Climate Emergency Goal (green line).  By 2017, in order to be on a path to achieving its 2030 goal, the City needed to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent below their 1990 levels; instead, as we’ve noted greenhouse gases rose, and were at 15 percent below 1990 levels.  The fact that the blue line is above the orange line shows the city isn’t meeting its previous goal.
And its worth noting just how much more ambitious the new goal of cutting emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 (and to zero net emissions by 2050) is.  The much steeper slope of the green line (the new climate emergency goal) implies a vastly bigger lift than the previous (2015) plan, the orange line. Meeting the 2030 goal will require more than twice as much annual reduction (110,000 tons vs 220,000 tons), each year, from now through 2030. The 2015 plan required that the City reduce its emissions by about 1.7 percent per year over 17 years to reach its goal of a 40 percent reduction; its new climate emergency declaration requires a 4.1 percent annual emissions reduction over the next decade to reach its higher 50 percent objective.
The city has raised the bar at exactly the time that its shown that its current efforts simply aren’t working. And unlike the 2015 plan, there’s no detailed calculation of how we’ll achieve this vastly greater level of emissions reductions. Recall that the 2015 plan said we’d need to cut driving in half to achieve a more modest goal over a longer period of time. If the city is serious about achieving this goal, as opposed to just posturing, its essential that they show how the goal can be reached. They haven’t.
What’s needed:  A laser like focus on reducing GHG from driving
The startling omission from the report is the fact that it’s been the increase in driving over the past five years that’s undercut our progress toward our stated climate change goals. The report neatly glosses over the fact that emissions, especially from transportation, are rising.  It presents one chart showing GHG in 2000 and in 2018 (the year of the latest GHG inventory) and omits data for individual years.

The City’s report  card makes it look as if very little has happened—the transportation emissions have gone up, and just a little  Leaving out the annual data conceals a much bleaker reality:  In the past five years, Portland has recorded huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions.  Here are the annual data from the independent, nationally-normed estimates prepared as part of the DARTE GHG inventory, showing the  Portland area’s greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. (These data are for the entire metropolitan area).

As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, the Portland made good progress until 2013, when increased driving due to cheaper fuel costs produced a surge in vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions. Portland’s carbon emissions increased by 1,000 pounds per person annually between 2013 and 2018, more than wiping out all the other progress made in reducing greenhouse gases in other sectors.
Portland’s won’t make progress in reducing greenhouse gases until it finds a way to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  And it will need to reduce them substantially. As noted above, when it wrote the 2015 plan, the city did the math to figure out how big a reduction in driving would be needed.  Then, when transportation emissions were lower (and the city’s climate goals less aggressive) the city’s calculations showed we’d need a 62 percent decline in VMT. Our backsliding combined with a tougher goal means we’ll need to reduce driving even more to achieve the objective laid out in the Climate Emergency Declaration.
Dealing with climate change is a serious existential threat to humanity. Its good that the city is willing to acknowledge this, and that it has an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gases. This will be a challenging task, and it is not made easier by presenting reports that conceal fundamental failures to move forward, that hide key data and analysis that tell us where we really are, and which avoid accountability for failing to make meaningful progress toward our stated goals.


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