The famous American author and political activist Helen Keller once said, "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."

This sentiment never ages. As I repeatedly hear, partnership is the new leadership. For those grinding away developing partnerships for urban regeneration projects, this can be at times a double-edged sword.

In Portland, there is an exciting initiative taking place that was decades in the making. The city of Portland is noteworthy for its construction collaboration, with government, the private sector, and non-profits uniting to achieve outcomes that would not have been possible if attempted on their own. These partnerships have helped bring about greater impact overall, as the following examples show:

Light rail goes aerial

The South Waterfront Ecodistrict is a 48-hectare brownfield site on the Willamette River, just on the edge of downtown. It is slowly evolving from industrial ship building uses to a vibrant riverside community. It is a compact mixed-use and walkable community, with LEED Platinum residential towers, cogeneration, district stormwater, urban farms, greenroofs and transitionary uses (for example, a pop-up drive-in theatre) on empty land parcels. This urban regeneration project is also one of 18 developments across the world to be part of the C40 Cities Climate Group Climate Positive Program. It was one of the original Portland pilot projects embedding the EcoDistricts Protocol.

green roof1

But there is a special place at South Waterfront, where streetcar meets cyclist meets pedestrian meets bus, meets…aerial style-tram. For years, Portland had rolled out light rail and streetcar. It worked out the business model long ago, and the rest is history. The aerial tram was never part of that, but when the time came to solve an extremely complex accessibility issue, an innovative partnership was required.

The challenge statement was to identify a solution for moving 1,500 students, faculty and members of the public each day between the new Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU)campus at South Waterfront, up to the existing campus one kilometre up the hill. A grade differential of 150 metres was to be overcome, as well as a major Interstate highway and two state roadways.

The solution, an aerial tram, was the result of a rigorous planning and design process (including international design competition) administered by the independent non-profit sponsor Portland Aerial Transportation Inc. That organisation helped facilitate the partnership and joint funding between OHSU, the City of Portland and local property owners. The tram is now owned by the City and operated by OHSU.

Portland Aerial Tram

Since its opening in 2006, it has carried more than 10 million passengers, averaging 3,300 persons a day. It remains one of only two aerial trams in the United States, and has become an integral part of Portland’s transit network thanks to the partnership model developed to plan, design, fund and operate the infrastructure.

The Pearl District

The Pearl District is probably the jewel in the crown of project collaboration and partnerships for the City of Portland. Once a flourishing industrial, manufacturing and transportation precinct, the neighborhood took a sharp turn when transportation shifted from rail to trucks in the mid-20th century. This left a vastly vacant area with little life, which led to an opportunity for a thriving artistic community to move in and ‘colonise’ empty warehouses and lofts. These artistic roots remain the district today, with the presence of Institute of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Portland and the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

But a more formal plan was required, so in 2001 the Pearl District Development Plan was created, articulating a vision of livability and prosperity for the once declining district, aiming to take the residential population from 1,300 to 12,500 and increase jobs from 9,000 to 21,000.

Catalytic projects co-funded by the City and private sector saw road viaducts demolished, parks built and new housing constructed. The introduction of streetcar into the Pearl in 2001 not only was a key catalyst for economic development, but also built a sense of place and vibrancy, as the Pearl’s walkable pedestrian-oriented environment began to thrive.

And the streetcar presented one of many instances where shared investment (19 per cent private/79 per cent public/two per cent other) and creative financing (Local Improvement District) were used to deliver critical infrastructure. Although there is seven-plus years of urban regeneration to occur in the Pearl, to date approximately $150 million of public investment has been used to leverage in excess of $1 billion from the private sector.

The City’s progressive policy environment pushed the boundaries of green building, eco-roofs, green infrastructure, public transit and affordable housing in the Pearl District. The success to date leans heavily on the collaborative environment that was created and facilitated by the Portland Development Commission (PDC), the City’s economic development agency. The PDC ensured that solutions were co-created and not dictated. This collaborative governance approach ensured a contingent relationship was maintained between housing, parks and infrastructure, resulting in decision-making that scrutinized each investment opportunity from a sustainability bottom line.

From that famous song written by Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, “from little things, big things grow.”

Having mastered the art of civic-public-private partnerships, rewritten the policy book on issues like stormwater management, and achieved significant reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions while growing its economy, Portland now exports it green city building expertise around the world under the banner of a program called “We Build Green Cities.” And of course it does this in partnership with local firms, non-profits, developers and financial institutions. To be honest, this is difficult for some local authorities to understand.

How does a municipal authority get away with joining forces with private sector developers, consulting firms, think tanks and non-profits to help other cities around the world build greener cities? Well, when you have built a green city yourself, you write your own playbook on where you go next.