When I first stumbled upon the Solarpunk Portland website, I was quickly excited by what I saw and read. Right in our own backyard, just a few dozens of miles north from where I sit here typing away, a group of solarpunks is reimagining the state’s only big city through a series of proposals for metro-wide transformative infrastructure projects.
I probably never would have guessed it even if I had tried. At the same time, I wasn’t at all surprised that when I reached out to them through their website and the person who responded is someone I’ve known for about a decade through various activist groups and projects from my time living in Portland. Once, he even volunteered to come over and help do some work on our house that was incredibly helpful to us
The group of folks who make up Solarpunk Portland started by getting together over homecooked food. At these informal gatherings they discussed, imagined, and dreamed together about what it could look like to transform Portland into a solarpunk city. Those discussions resulted in the formulation of Solarpunk Portland’s Original Vision Document.
The vision document delves into the numerous ways in which the solarpunk vision does and can apply to the city of Portland. It touches on issues of housing, transportation, equity, public safety, energy production, education, healthcare, and much more. You can read that document for yourself, so I’m not going to engage in a longer summary here. But that vision document has been further distilled into four proposed infrastructure projects that all center around the use of space and transportation, and will help transform Portland into a more livable city with a much smaller carbon footprint.
The proposed projects include steel freeways, which are essentially freight rail lines that run down the center of a freeway. The proposal would have steel freeways built along I-5 and I-84, the two major interstate highways that run through Portland. As the Solarpunk Portland website describes the idea:
Container trucks are then required to cross-ship their containers to rail for transportation into town. This eliminates both the traffic and the pollution associated with heavy trucking.Solarpunk Portland Steel Freeway Project Proposal
Another proposal is for an automated sidewalk system to increase non-automobile and non-carbon based personal and shipping transportation within the city. A third proposal envisions the Portland area becoming a hub of production for Airships that are self-powered by solar tarps fitted to the outside of the superstructure, can reach bullet train level speeds, and would serve as a system of longer distance, regional, no-carbon transportation. Solarpunk Portland’s website also includes a proposal for an arcology project to create livable space for the large number of climate refugees and others who are expected to move into the region in the coming decades.
The population of Portland doubled in the 2010s, and it’s expected to double again in the 2020s. Projects like these, then, would be desperately needed even if they only served to maintain current standards of livability. Those current standards are pretty poor in a lot of ways for a lot of people. Without projects like these, that will only get worse over time as more people move to the city.
The proposals are not fleshed out and in-depth treatises, which makes them more accessible to the general public. All the better since most of us have little to no interest in reading pages of academic jargon. The proposals also aren’t technical manuals or blue prints for how to accomplish these visions, and they aren’t meant to be. They are simply proposals and possibilities. They’re straightforward ideas that are both visionary and practical, and that if adopted would go a long way toward transforming Portland into a more livable, solarpunk city.
All of this sounds great. But one thing to needs to be taken into account is the overwhelming whiteness of the city of Portland. In 1940, 98% of the city’s residents were white. By the time I moved there in 2009, the city was still more than 75% white. It was the 5th whitest big city in the U.S., and had the whitest city-center population of any big city in the country. The whole state of Oregon has a horrendous history of violent colonialism, codified black exclusion, and institutionalized white supremacy that sought to turn the state into a “white utopia.”
Given that sordid and racist history—and given the need to be accountable, to make restitution and reparation for that history if we are truly going to build any kind of better world here in Oregon—one thing that needs to be include in these proposals at least some kind of account for how marginalized communities in Portland, and particular local BIPOC and immigrant communities, are positioned to take the lead in this transition to a Solarpunk Portland.
Justine Norton-Kertson (they/he/she) is the co-editor-in-chief of Solarpunk Magazine. They live in rural Oregon with his partner, puppies, cats, goats, and beehives. She can be found on Twitter @jankwrites.