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Nihao, Climate Action

The November announcement by the United States and China of new commitments to reduce carbon emissions came as a surprise — even to
climate policy insiders. But to BPS staff Michael Armstrong and Mark Raggett, newly returned from a technical exchange to Kunming, China, it was a natural extension of a two-year partnership between Portland and Kunming to accelerate carbon reduction at the city scale.

Raggett and Armstrong joined an eight-person team on an October visit to Kunming, a city of four million in southern China. Like Portland, Kunming enjoys clean air, beautiful surroundings, and a recognition that environmental quality can spur economic opportunity. And like many Chinese cities, Kunming is growing at a jaw-dropping pace, with construction cranes dominating the views in every direction. All the same, Kunming is determined to preserve the high quality of life that is part of its appeal. Kunming built the first bus rapid transit system in China and is now building five subway lines . . . simultaneously! It is also trying to maintain its 25 percent bicycle/scooter mode split by building a citywide network of bikeways. And in what would be a first for China, Kunming is analyzing the feasibility of using an urban growth boundary to guide growth.

How do you say “urban growth boundary” in Chinese? “U-G-B.” 

bannerThe Portland-Kunming exchange is part of the cities’ EcoPartnership, a program established by the U.S. State Department and the Chinese Foreign Ministry to support city- and state-level collaboration between the two countries. With financial and technical support from the Energy Foundation covering all the expenses, the Portland-Kunming EcoPartnership has been among the most active and successful of the collaborations, trading information about bikeway planning, water quality, green building, and urban growth boundaries.

As Kunming officials finalize their plans for developing the site of the former airport — for history buffs, this was the home base to the “Flying Tigers,” — the American volunteer pilot corps operating in China and Burma during World War II—they soaked up Mark Raggett’s descriptions of Portland’s South Waterfront development.  The Kunming planners took particular interest in the greenway along the river, the varied heights, sizes and shapes of the buildings, and the mix of residential and commercial uses.

Michael had the satisfaction of seeing well-thumbed copies of the Chinese translation of Portland's Climate Action Plan, which was translated into Mandarin several years ago and has been downloaded more than 1,000 times. In discussions with Kunming counterparts, Michael underscored that Portland's efforts to address climate change span initiatives as diverse as solar energy, walkable neighborhoods, and composting food scraps. Kunming officials were captivated by images of Tilikum Crossing and the fact that Portland's newest bridge will carry light rail, streetcar, buses, bicycles and pedestrians, but no private vehicles. Together with Portland's track record in reducing carbon emissions to 11 percent below 1990 levels over a period of substantial population and job growth, Portland's continuing climate work exemplifies the ability of cities in the U.S. and China to do their part to respond to climate change.

The October visit was led by Gail Shibley, Mayor Hales’ chief of staff. Robert Liberty, director of Portland State University’s Urban Sustainability Accelerator and former Metro councilor, joined the delegation to share Oregon’s approach to urban growth boundaries, and Sean Penrith, Executive Director of the Climate Trust, explained how his organization invests in carbon offset projects to minimize the cost of reducing carbon emissions. Portland Bureau of Transportation planner Denver Igarta also took part, sharing design and planning insights from Portland’s experience with bikeways and examining Kunming’s bus rapid transit system.