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July 2015 - Terra Infirma

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30 July 2015

Sustainability in Portland, Oregon (Part III)

IMG_8473So I had my meeting with sustainability officials at the City Council of Portland, which is unlike any local Government I've come across before. It has only 6 elected officials – the Mayor, four commissioners and an auditor – for a city of half a million people. Apparently this means things can happen quickly – IF you have the attention of one of the first five.

My meeting wasn't on the record, so I must emphasise the following things I gleaned are my impressions rather than the express opinions of the Council officials (and I take full responsibility for any errors):

  • While the City now has an exemplary sustainability reputation, it wasn't always this way. It was sued by the federal Government in the 1970s over air quality standards.
  • The City has integrated sustainability into its city plan, but that plan doesn't mention sustainability – it is just embedded in there;
  • Renewable energy is not a big thing in Portland as Federal incentives are weak and electricity is dirt cheap (8c a unit). This explains the one weakness I've noticed in Portland compared to, say, Newcastle where I live, a lack of domestic solar;
  • Summer temperatures are definitely rising (it hit 36°C yesterday and may be warmer today) which has led to retrofitting of domestic air conditioning which is a big challenge;
  • The first move in the cycle network was to install cycle parking around the city. As local businesses saw more business coming their way from cyclists, they became open to the idea of more cycle infrastructure. There's now a waiting list from businesses for cycle parking;
  • The cycle greenways that form the wider network were very low cost – signs, speed bumps and the occasional cycle crossing. The idea is to divert drivers and create safety in numbers for cyclists by funnelling them along those routes;
  • The sustainable drainage swales I saw, are not just a trial – there's 1,000 of them across the city. In addition, every new development is responsible for dealing with 100% of stormwater on site. As a result, many buildings have green roofs and/or gardens to retain excess water;
  • While the hippy/alternative culture creates expectations, it can also cause resistance to, for example, a shift to more dense housing to avoid unlimited sprawl;
  • A key tactic is to compare the cost of 'sustainability infrastructure' with that of car infrastructure. For example a new major bridge is about to open for trams, light trains, cycles and pedestrians. If cars had been factored in, it would have tripled the costs.

I'd like to send a big thank you to everybody who helped with this visit – I've learnt a lot!


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28 July 2015

Sustainability in Portland, OR (Part II)


I've now been in Portland Oregon a week - long enough for my body clock to adjust (almost) to the local time zone. And in those seven days, I've picked up on plenty more sustainability related stuff which I thought I would share (my initial thoughts are here).

First up, the integrated transit system - bus, local train and streetcars. While I find it frustrating that the bus services follow the N-S, E-W grid iron street layout rather than radially from the centre (which means you can't get a direct ride into town if you live in the NE like us) the service is otherwise pretty amazing. A flat fare covers all rides for 2 hours or you pay double for all day. An app gives real time information on arrivals at any stop – people tend to magically appear just as the bus hoves into view – it also acts as an electronic ticket. And just in case you think that you couldn't get much more integrated than that, buses have a nifty double bike rack on the front. These are well used, as is the service in general – 45% of commuters use the service according to the posters.

Second, the car drivers here are so polite, I gather it's become a national joke. Time after time, I've stopped at the corner of a block to check back for straggling family members and then turned back to the road to find a driver waiting patiently for me to cross, even on reasonably busy roads. I'm not quite brave enough to try walking around blindfold, but I think my survival chances would be reasonable.

portland swales

Despite the current drought, leavened by a couple of downpours in the last couple of days, Portland is famous for its heavy rain. We couldn't help notice these nifty soakaways installed around one of the local colleges – it appeared to be a trial.

Finally, there seems to be a great culture here. Posters urge people to get involved in planting trees, even though the city is relatively verdant as you can see from the main picture. Lots of front yards have veg growing in them and a satirical book on the city in our house suggests "If you don't keep chickens in your back yard, people will suspect you are a Republican."

On Sunday, it happened to be the 'Sunday Parkway' for our neighbourhood – a car free circuit was in place to allow active transport – watching 8 year olds wobble safely up the middle of the road was a sight to behold. Stalls ranging from 'boycott Shell' to the local church were dotted along the route and some streets just off the circuit had decided to throw a party.

Oh, and it's not just the beer that is local – most of the wine we've quaffed has been produced in the Willamette Valley.

Apart from that last one, I'll be asking the Council about all these things on Tuesday.


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23 July 2015

Greetings from sunny, sustainable Portland, Oregon

jimmy beer
So, I'm in sunny Portland with the family, recently declared the most sustainable city in the US by the Mother Nature Network and the second most sustainable in the world by Grist back in 2007 (annoyingly Portland wasn't included in the recent global sustainability ranking of 50 cities – other US cities were – so it is difficult to judge how it stands up against, say, Copenhagen.)

The city is renowned for being achingly hip, so much so it has even spawned its own sketch show, Portlandia. I overheard an unwittingly hilarious conversation at a cafe about the traumas of trying to survive on a vegetarian, gluten-free diet which could have been straight from the show. But the upside is organic food aplenty, craft beer (OK, we took the kids to a beer festival... above) and more people on bicycles than I've seen anywhere else  in the US (albeit in my limited experience).

Portland seems to be the Prius capital of the world – I've certainly never seen so many in one day's walking. But through European eyes, any carbon savings from the Prii will be more than obliterated by the sheer number of humungous SUVs which many Portlanders seem to drive for no discernible reason other than because they can. Even the hipsters seem to prefer unhealthy sounding elderly station wagons than something leaner, cleaner and more modern.

There's a drought on here. Not enough snow in the winter or rain in the spring has depleted reserves. Most people in this neighbourhood have respected calls not to water lawns – most are parched brown.

Last but not least, the people we have encountered so far are delightful. Not just the 'have a nice day' clichés, but ordinary passers -by going out of their way to be helpful to a family of Brits trying to negotiate a strange city.

Next week, I've got a meeting with the City Council to hear how they are delivering sustainability in the city – expect a post next week.


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20 July 2015

The holidays start here...

grass feet small

As of today, I'm on my usual summer mixture of holiday, work and childcare - blogs will be less frequent, less regular and more informal.

The good news is that for the next three weeks, I'll be based in Portland, Oregan, renowned as a sustainable city, and I've got a meeting booked with the City Council to hear what they've done and how they've done it. Salves my conscience a little for the most carbon-hungry trip I've taken in a decade...


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17 July 2015

Get people out of their comfort zone? Not too far...


The phrase "get people out of their comfort zone" is a cliché which gets bandied around a lot, but have you ever sat down and thought about it?

During my sustainability training and/or engagement workshops, I used to try and split up work teams to get them out of their comfort zones. Then a couple of times I got lazy and didn't bother, and found that people performed better in the workshop when they were with colleagues they knew.


I recently found this diagram in a paper  by Moran and Tame (Journal of Sustainability Education, 2013) which may explain this. It comes from the field of experiential adventure education.

It basically says, yes, to make real change, you have to get people out of the comfort zone. But, if you drag them too far, they end up in the panic zone and flee or freeze. In between is the stretch zone where you get peak performance and peak learning.

The sustainability workshops I run are challenging to most people and will stretch them. To throw them into the unknown without their colleagues around them was probably pulling people towards the panic zone – not full on meltdown panic, but "I don't like this, so I'm going to keep my mouth shut" discomfort.

So by all means challenge people, but don't drive them too hard or you will lose them.


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15 July 2015

What's the X Factor in Sustainability Leadership?

green superhero

I've often said leadership is the difference between the best and the rest in sustainability, but of course there's leadership and there's leadership. Management boffins sometimes categorise three different styles (in order of increasing effectiveness):

  1. Laissez-faire: no real leadership – organisation is allowed to drift;
  2. Transactional: business as usual with interventions only to fix problems;
  3. Transformational: visionary leadership with all resources focussed on meeting the vision.

If we apply that model down to the narrower field of sustainability leadership, it is clear that the big names – the late Ray Anderson of Interface, Sir Stuart Rose at M&S, Paul Polman at Unilever, Jeff Immelt at GE – you can see all the fingerprints of transformational leadership.

If that's the best, then most of the organisations I come across are in the transactional level. They may have gained buy-in to launch a programme and get the CEO to write a bland introduction to the annual report, but there's no drive from the top. Nobody is asking "Why aren't we the best in our sector in sustainability?" Nobody is writing a big cheque. And they get incremental improvements at best,

The difficult bit of course is getting from here to there as it has to come from within the leader – here's how I do it!



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13 July 2015

The problem with sustainability targets...

Athlete compete in paul vault


Recent events have reminded of that legendary, probably apocraphyl, letter from a bank manager to a spendthrift student:

"We have increased your overdraft to £1,000. Please note that this is a limit, not a target."

This attitude appears to have been adopted by the UK Government on carbon and renewable targets – they are seen as just that, targets, to be met and no more. Taking this view narrows mindsets and efforts down to 'business as usual plus a bit'. The 'plus a bit' tends to cost us extra, rather than going for renewable breakthroughs which would drive innovation, economic growth and job creation – a worthwhile investment in anybody's book.

As an aside, this is being debated in front of a backdrop of record renewable energy production – for an hour last month, 43% of UK power came from renewables, pushing coal down to just 7%. For a while last Thursday Denmark managed to produce 140% of its power from renewables – the excess being sold abroad. There is no such thing as "too much renewable energy."

This conservative attitude is not limited to politics either. I have heard the words "what's the least we can do to get out of jail?" uttered in one of my sustainability workshops (but we ended up raising the bar, not lowering it by the end of the session).

In another session a delegate mused on a 10 year target of 40% reduction in carbon footprint, saying "4% per year, mmm, I think that's doable." I challenged him – to get to 40% probably means not reducing carbon very much for several years while installing the kit or transforming the supply chain to deliver 40%. If you chunk it down, you'll exhaust the 4% improvements – and yourself – in a couple of years.

To deliver the kind of change we need requires a change in mindset. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal is a key step to delivering that new mindset.



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10 July 2015

A week's a long time in (climate) politics pt2

George_osborne_hiLast week, watching him deputise for the PM at Prime Minister's Questions, I was pleasantly surprised by Chancellor George Osborne making some quite strong pledges to tackle climate change, albeit with the caveat "at the lowest possible cost." Osborne has long said to be a 'luke-warmer' – someone who accepts the basic science of climate change but believes the risks are over-stated (see Matthew D'Ancona's excellent 'All In It Together' for more) – so this appeared on the face of it to be a positive move.

But this week's summer budget was a major let down. Although the media has focussed on Osborne's efforts to shift the working poor from welfare to higher salaries, there was a lot of bad news hidden in the details for the emerging green economy. You can see a good, if depressing, summary at Carbon Brief here.

There are some big questions here:

  • Why undermine what is probably the most exciting drive for innovation, jobs and investment we have?
  • Why stunt the growth of the next generation of energy production to allow North Sea oil and gas to stagger on for another couple of years?
  • How does he square the pledge to tackle climate change with these backwards moves?

This cognitive dissonance was all too common in Corporate Social Responsibility a decade ago, but many have realised that the only way forward is to align business growth to sustainability. Osborne would be well advised to learn from the very people who will deliver the economic growth he so craves.


Photo reproduced under the Open Government Licence

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8 July 2015

Which sustainability reporting framework, if any?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I ponder how you go about choosing the reporting framework you use - if any!

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.


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6 July 2015

How do you know your colleagues are engaged in sustainability?

litmus2I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of years trying to find an effective measurement of employee engagement in sustainability. You can easily measure your side of the equation – how many people have been through engagement processes or training courses – but measuring results is trickier.

Looking at the wider employee engagement literature, three measures of engagement stand out and some put them in the following order:

  1. Discretionary Effort
  2. Intention to Stay
  3. Advocacy

The second one is difficult to link to sustainability as there's a whole bundle of factors will determine whether you stay in a job or go.

In my experience, the best in sustainability have difficulty keeping up with projects and initiatives springing up spontaneously all over the place, so discretionary effort in sustainability makes for a really good litmus test for successful engagement.

Advocacy – whether employees would boast about their employer's sustainability efforts to a friend – makes for a second level measure.



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3 July 2015

Why you must align line management to sustainability

Environmental data and analysis

I've long argued that Leadership is the difference between the best at sustainability and the rest. Leadership is responsible for two critical sustainability issues:

  • Strategy: all the goals, objectives, projects and resources required to deliver change for sustainability;
  • Culture: the attitude of employees to the sustainability programme.

Arguably the second outweighs the first – "Culture eats strategy for breakfast" as the quote attributed to Peter Drucker goes.

Towers Watson's Global Workforce Study 2014 gave an interesting insight into the relationship between the effectiveness of leadership and management and the engagement of employees (which in turn is related to how likely those employees are to deliver on strategy) (see below).

Enagagement levels

In other words, to get employees effectively engaged you need both leadership and management. The remarkable thing is how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. While this is for general engagement with the job, there is no reason to think it is any different for sustainability in particular.

It also gives weight to my views on the critical importance leadership – and my description of middle management as "the place green projects go to die." So we need to get the whole line management aligned to sustainability.


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1 July 2015

Are millennials really that green?


I was very struck by the above photo showing the aftermath of the Glastonbury festival. Every year we hear how Glastonbury is more than just a big series of concerts, that it has a spiritual dimension, has a strong environmental message, is the crux of 'the new politics' etc, etc. But the picture suggests if you want a symbol of our consumerist, wasteful, throwaway society, you couldn't go to a better place.

Then I came across a stat on this morning that over-55s are much better at recycling than 18-25 year olds. This flies in the face of the assumption that the millennial generation is inherently green and 'gets it'.

The intention might be there – this is the age group most likely to vote Green – but when it comes to practice, it seems the younger generation isn't quite where they think they are. I wonder if that couple in the picture is saying a fond farewell or shedding a tear for the future.

I am turning into a grumpy old man!


Picture © EPA used under fair use.

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