TOWARD A SUSTAINABLE EUGENE
Eugene's new Sustainability Commission held its first meeting Wednesday, November 28th, at the Human Rights Center on Willamette Street. To some this will be welcome news that Eugene is paying attention. Others might wonder what sustainability means. What does it have to do with Eugene? And why would we need such a commission?
Sustainability, as defined at the meeting Wednesday evening, is "that which allows for the perpetuation of social, economic, and environmental conditions which fulfill our current needs without jeopardizing the needs of those in the future." In other words, this is Eugene trying to look ahead, trying to plan a little further into the future for a world that will be offering Oregon several critical challenges in the years to come.
Two issues stand out: the physical changes of global warming and the economic impact of increased energy costs associated with peaking oil production. Climate change is well-documented. What its effects will be over the next twenty-five years are unclear, but concerns for snowpack depletion and water security must be factored into any economic planning for the south Willamette Valley. Peak oil (that we are essentially halfway through the earth’s reserves of petroleum) is less known to the public, but its consequences are being felt right now as we watch the cost of all petroleum products climb. This is a trend that will only continue and includes the price of food. With these kinds of issues in play, all urban development from this point on must be reevaluated through energy use, transportation planning, food security, and water management. Thanks to our mayor and several city council members, Eugene has had the foresight to get started with this by following the Sustainable Business Initiate (SBI) Task Force recommendation to immediately create a sustainability commission.
The SBI Task Force has already identified several green targets for Eugene, including a strategy to achieve zero waste, a goal to become carbon neutral by the year 2020, and a city wide commitment to sustainable practices and businesses. Other things that the Sustainability Commission might suggest to the City Council are tougher building codes for energy conservation, with emphasis on passive heating and cooling design and active solar technology, an upgrading of Eugene's system of bicycle paths, and a further commitment to mass transit.
Because energy, climate, and food availability are closely tied, a detailed mapping of soil quality in Lane County would be advisable for the extension and preservation of arable land.
To help promote local business opportunities and strengthen community-based economy, the city could issue a ban on any additional big box stores (Target, WalMart, etc).
In the spirit of real concern for climate change, and in light of the fact that the Lane Council of Governments Metropolitan Policy Committee recently approved $800 million for new road construction–essentially the very worst thing possible for the climate–encouraging automobile use and trading green space for blacktop, the committee could call for a moratorium on any new road building and instead focus limited funds on road maintenance and infrastructure repair.
What is really being asked for is a preparedness plan for the future of Eugene. This isn't just a three-year vision to upgrade the downtown area. This isn't just another chamber of commerce slogan for making Eugene an appealing place for new industry and investment. It's looking ten, fifteen, twenty years into the future of Eugene. It's asking hard questions about what the south Willamette Valley will look like in the year 2030 when the price of gasoline could exceed $20 a gallon.
For the sake of getting an angle on what might be necessary, try to imagine three Eugenes, three possible outcomes for a Eugene twenty years from now. One Eugene future is little more than an extension of what we have seen in the past twenty years: modest growth, steady development, perhaps an increased migration of wealthy California baby boomers, retiring to a warmer, dryer northwest. Who knows, climate change might actually be a boon to the Eugene economy.
A second Eugene is one where soaring energy prices have severely cramped the middle class, eliminated jobs, increased the cost of food, left new highways empty and stretching out into ghost towns of unfinished housing developments. In this second Eugene we might see water shortages related to changing weather patterns. We might see a larger influx of the homeless as parts of the southern United States and Mexico become less livable. Things might just get a little tight financially for all of us.
A third Eugene is one where we have planned ahead for these kinds of possibilities, where we have localized the economy and our lifestyles so we turn the south Willamette Valley into a more compact and self-reliant entity. A Eugene where we have tightened waste management, enhanced our network of reservoirs, enabled local agriculture, and found ways to reduce our use of automobiles, so that we are capable of controlling our own fate, at least to some extent–rather than struggling against the outside pressures of globalization.
As a city, we can't stop climate change. We can't stop the world's drain on petroleum reserves. But there are things we can do. We can strengthen our community. We can prepare for higher energy costs. We can be a model of forethought. An effective and bold City Sustainability Commission is a small but necessary first step.
OF NOTE: The city of Portland, Oregon has recently become one of the first large U.S. cities to seriously address peak oil and how it will effect their city. In March of 2007, the Portland City Council issued a report entitled "DESCENDING THE OIL PEAK" (Click title for PDF). It lays out a comprehensive plan for preparing Portland for rising energy costs. For anyone interested in finding out more about Peak Oil, what it means economically, and how we might prepare for it, reading this report is a good place to start.