Portland’s Greenstreets Program a Sterling Best Practice Model

42nd_Belmont_small.jpgA typical greenstreet facility in Portland, Oregon. This one compines a stormwater treatment facility with a bulbout to reduce pedestrian crossing distances. Photos: Portland BES.

When Streetsblog San Francisco took part in the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Project for Transportation Reform in Portland last week, city planners and transportation engineers treated participants to numerous tours of innovative network solutions that city has embraced, including its greenstreets program for stormwater treatment on street rights-of-way. With nearly five hundred greenstreet facilities already in the ground, Portland has plans to add another five hundred in the next five years, greatly reducing the burden stormwater can place on its sanitation system.

Portland’s greenstreet facilities often take up multiple on-street parking stalls and replace the asphalt with beds planted in native species that help absorb significant volumes of streetlevel wastewater, near 100 percent in some locations. Facilities include swales, curb extensions, planters, and infiltration basins, and are typically linear and pool 6 to 9 inches deep [PDF].

David Elkin, a Landscape Architect working for Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), explained on the tour that the first experiments with greenstreet facilities in Portland were necessitated because the city had to meet mandates in a Clean Water Act lawsuit for polluting the Willamette River, which flows through Portland. The city faced the challenge of increasing the number drainage pipes in east Portland, at a cost of $150 million, or develop another solution for reducing "upstream" water volumes, those that came from surface streets. By adding the greenstreet facility network, which initially cost $11 million, the city met its target stormwater capture and estimated that it saved $60 million in pipe replacement costs.

"We can talk about all the multiple benefits that greenstreet facilities provide, but the bottom line is it saves taxpayers dollars," said Elkin, noting that the first on-street facility was installed in 2002. "Instead of just a patch or trench in somebody’s street, we’re going to leave behind a green, vegetated facility."

16th_Everett.jpgThe holy trinity of intersection design: a combination of greenstreet facility, painted bicycle lane and bike box, and pedestrian bulbout.

Elkin described the extensive outreach the BES conducted in conjunction with the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) to explain the benefits of the system to Portland residents. He said a particular sticking point was the removal of parking spaces–some facilities required removing up to five spaces. When the engineers talked vaguely about the importance of reducing upstream volumes, they met with relatively little interest from the public, according to Elkin. When they spoke about cleaning up the Willamette and protecting the water supply, they received resounding support, including several ballot measures re-affirming the public’s trust in the initiative.

The coordination between city agencies was so thorough, when the DOT reviewed its program for Safe Routes for School treatments, it asked BES to determine where it could match stormwater facilities and pool resources to reduce the costs of doing both. Elkin explained that the two agencies routinely build five facilities together each year.

Mike Faha, co-leader of the CNU tour and Principal of Greenworks, P.C., said, "Only in the last few years have public agencies locally figured out they have the responsibility to [treat stormwater run-off] for public right of ways–obviously that’s a good source of pollution out there with vehicular traffic. The public sector has come to the plate and they’re starting to adopt greenstreet standards."

Faha admitted they had made mistakes in planning earlier facilities ("There are stormwater facilities that are sitting high and dry because the inflow was not designed properly"), but that the city was willing to admit those mistakes and improve upon them.

Understanding pedestrian access and safety and coordination with bicycle infrastructure were two of their current priorities. "We’ve gone through an evolution in our thinking – how do you not create conflicts with vehicles, how do you plant it in such a way that it doesn’t block vision from vehicles [at] crosswalks. The big issues are pedestrian safety, maintenance, and the types of plants you use."

As though on cue, a planner from Ohio asked Faha and Elkin if they only used native plants, what he described as unsophisticated and "country," which brought loud protest from a Portlander who volunteered with a local planting group to be sure the city used as many natives as possible (a first-ever New-Urbanism brawl between the plant people was narrowly averted).

Faha conceded that these issues tended to draw some of the most vehement concern from the public, though it was clear to all participants that our two guides relished the fact that these minor qualms were the worst of it. Said Faha: "We’re figuring it out and I think the city of Portland has some pretty good design standards for greenstreet facilities."

55th_belmont_small.jpgThis facility treats the cascade that used to come off Mt. Tabor during a strong storm. It also rationalized a difficult intersection and shortened pedestrian crossing distance by more than 50 feet.
SE_12th_and_Clay.jpgThis facility combines pedestrian, bicycle and stormwater facilities, with a unique twist. This is one of the first advance bicycle stop bars in Portland, where cyclists (lower right of picture) yield when pedestrians are present, but then move forward to the stop bar to gain a view of perpendicular traffic.
headwaters_raingarden_4_4_08.jpgBefore the greenstreet treatment, this was an asphalt parking lot that routinely flooded.

  • dude

    this is all wonderful, but the image above with the caption “the holy trinity…” reveals another thing about Portland — not always the best land use or development pattern. I suppose that will change over time, but Portland has a lot of great street design mixed in with some fairly suburban-style older development.

  • Matt Garcia

    This is the kind of thing that I wish San Francisco was actively working on more. There is so much impermeable hardscape in this city and it’s very frustrating to see damaged concrete sidewalks replaced with (shocker) more concrete. I don’t know much about the issue but it seems like the problem is an intersection of private-owner’s responsibility for the sidewalk in front of their property and DPW not even having enough money to repair already-damaged sidewalks (much less dramatically change walkways that are undamaged).

    And while there are programs out there for individuals to change their property (plantsf.org etc.) there just isn’t enough being done on a city level to improve the way our landscape handles stormwater and sewers polluting the Bay. It just seems as though it would be so beneficial to our city in the long run if we had effective and sustainable stormwater management in the form of permeable softscape.

    Sigh. Time to check those Portland job listings…

  • It seems that our problem in San Francisco is the huge amounts of water flowing down very steep streets. These catch basins require decent amounts of flat land to do any good. That said, any project that can reduce the amounts of water cascading down hills and flooding houses is a good thing. This could easily be done in some of our nifty pocket parks we’re making – even call it habitat creation!

  • James Figone

    Thank you for this article. I continue to be amazed at how other cities are moving forward with very ambitious livable streets improvements. One of the treatments above looks like a wetland habitat and is quite striking in an urban landscape.

    @Matt Garcia: I wonder how many people looking for sustainable way of life are considering moving to Portland vs staying in SF. It would be interesting to calculate the economic impact of livable streets improvements in terms of property values, health impacts and infrastructure expenditures.

  • zsolt

    Let me get this straight… if we remove concrete from the sidewalks and plant trees and greenery, then where will San Francisco’s motorists park their cars? Seems to me such projects are an attack on the working class. Shame on you.

  • zsolt

    Oh wait this isn’t SFGate.com. I would like to retract my comment.

  • mike

    Looks beautiful! We have a ways to go to catch up but rest assured that SF is doing just that. Folks in the PUC, DPW, Planning, and MTA are working on a variety of projects. Here are some…

    Lake Merced is complete:

    Leland Ave is underway:

    Cesar Chavez is proposed:

    And a variety of smaller projects like bulb outs that allow stormwater to drain into landscaping are proposed around the city.

    In the meantime, get your jackhammers out and break through some of the concrete in front of your place!

  • Matt, I think they call that urbanite (impenetrable hardscape).

  • Drewl… so beautiful, so efficient.

  • @Matt — One thing Portland is also good at is not creating enough jobs for both lifelong Portlanders and the newcomers (myself included) who are attracted by the city’s livability.

    We are by no means an SF-scale city, but our mixed land-use is pretty good. The city celebrates the concept of a 20-minute-neighborhood: everyone living in the city should be within a 20 minute walk or bike ride to grocery stores, restaurants, post office, etc. There is still a lot of work to be done until we can say this is the case for ALL of Portland’s neighborhoods, but it’s inspiring coming from larger cities that don’t have this concept on the table.

  • JJM 63

    Does anyone have experience with them in snow and ice country? I’m in upstate NY, and wonder how they would fair after being buried with snow and salt by snowplows.

  • Jessica Roberts

    I live in a bike-friendly co-housing community in Portland and we petitioned the city to put in greenstreet curb extensions outside of our buildings. They did, and it has really beautified the corner. I feel pretty lucky.

    One other remarkable thing about this program is that Portland has dedicated very little money to stand-alone/infill traffic calming projects (as opposed to corridor projects). Also, from the DOT’s point of view it is just a cost outlay. The partnership with the Bureau of Environmental Services has been great because they actually see a net financial benefit from these projects, so they have a real incentive to free up funding. I encourage advocates to explore this type of partnership and bring in brand new funding sources that aren’t competing against other DOT priorities.

  • I love Portland’s bioswales!!!! Like beautiful little swamps on each block. Native plant love!

  • Thank you!

    As a Michiganian who has lived on both coasts here, and for 31 years in Europe, I am deeply concerned by our absolute dependence on petroleum, especially for food production! Where will any of our urban dwellers get food when all the petroleum is gone, and the fields of South Dakota prove to be too far from Portland, Los Angeles, New York and Miami to be able to deliver grain, meat and fruit etc. to them at affordable prices?!
    Most Europeans live much closer to the land, because their cities existed before cars and oil arrived, and most of them have allotments for many to grow their own food.

    Please look 60 years down the road for the end of oil, and 2,000 years down the same road for only 20 times the 5 generations that we have met in our own families. Will they thank or condemn us for our sprawling and profligate ways, when we could easily have made their lives so much more sustainable, while we still had the fossil fuels and climate to do it?

    Please see my website at http://www.greenmillennium.eu for some ideas that I hope will spur debate!

  • bridgit vb

    To JJM 63:

    If a good infiltration base is laid with adequate gap space then these will certainly function better than the alternative. Another benefit is that the presence and proper use of these features can reduce the need for salt by creating a gradient for the melting water to flow into the planters.

    If a city were to combine this with porous paving for pathways and streets [also have been tested for icy conditions in Wisconsin -see: The Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association (www.wispave.org porous asphalt mix design specifications) and the Wisconsin Ready Mixed Concrete Association (www.wrmca.com list of pervious concrete contractors). FilterPave (www.filterpave.com), porous pavement made from recycled glass was laid in Baraboo at The International Crane refuge walking paths and observation areas.] salt application can also be significantly reduced because there will not be any standing water to freeze and create dangerous conditions.

    Also, still in accordance with piling regulations, the planter sites would be well suited for piling snow because it will allow for faster infiltration and reduces the burden on storm sewers.

    Hope this provides a good starting point.

  • Matt Garcia

    @mike Thanks for the links about the City’s projects! It really helps to see things actually being done. Hopefully they’ll increase the momentum for this sort of thing in normal street repair and construction (versus reserving it for special revitilization projects)

  • dave buffalo

    yes – this can work in the snow/ice states/cities. It is just a matter of selecting plants and amending soils to mitigate the osmotic affects of salt. Although we have not evolved yet in to using these bio retention types of landscapes along our streets – only in parking lots so far – we still do major landscape designs and construction along streets and in pakring lots. Same thing. Salt, heavy snow, ice, rain, and more…….over and over all winter…. It works if planned and constructed properly.

    Dave – Buffalo, NY


San Francisco Starts Building Green Streets For Stormwater Management

Without question, Portland’s Greenstreets program is the benchmark for American cities seeking to manage storm water and runoff from the street level before it enters the sanitation system pipes. Now, San Francisco is on its way to constructing its first on-street stormwater facilities in two places in the Bayview and Visitation Valley, pilots that should […]