Michael Armstrong: Chasing the Dream of the 90s: A Practitioner's Perspective on Planning and Sustainability in Portland, Oregon
Michael Armstrong '91 is a principal at City Scale, a consortium of urban sustainability professionals working alongside cities to advance the next big moves toward healthy, affordable, low-carbon communities. Prior to joining City Scale in 2017, Armstrong worked for 17 years for the City of Portland, Oregon, managing Portland's climate change and sustainability programs. Armstrong led the development of Portland and Multnomah County's 2001, 2009, and 2015 Climate Action plans and managed the city's policy and programs for climate change, energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable food systems, green building, electric vehicles, smart cities, and waste collection, prevention, and recycling. He cochaired the planning committee for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) from 2014–17, cochaired USDN's policy committee from 2012–16, and served on the Innovation Fund Selection Committee for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Armstrong received an M.P.A. from Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a B.A. from Cornell University, and attended Deep Springs College.
"It's like Gore won. . . . people ride unicycles. . . . in Portland, you can go to a record store and sell your CDs." It is, they do, and you can. Portland's greenhouse gas emissions are 20% lower than in 1990, despite population growth of 33% and the addition of 90,000 jobs. Since 1990 the region has added four light rail lines, quadrupled its bicycle commute rate, and tripled its recycling rate.
But Portland's success has been unevenly shared. Much of east Portland has no sidewalks. Income inequality has widened. Housing costs have outpaced incomes. One quarter of Portland's high school students drop out.
Despite its heterodox reputation, Portland's arc from car-centered timber town to climate leader to the challenges of "success" has parallels in a wide range of urban communities. Networks of urban sustainability practitioners have emerged that enable Portland and communities across North America to collaborate and learn from one another, creating a vast, virtual laboratory to tackle the intertwined challenges of climate change, equity, and prosperity.