I've lived in, and around, Salem, Oregon for thirty-four years. LIke most long time residents, I run hot and cold with our semi-fair city. There's a lot to like, but Salem's reputation for being boring, lackluster, passionless, and uncreative is well-deserved.
Part of our problem is proximity to Portland and Eugene, each about one hour driving time away. These cities are much more vibrant, green, quirky, exciting. Plunk Salem down in Nebraska and I bet lots of jaded people there would respond with This is a cool town.
Agreed. But we could be a lot cooler. Which is why I came away from a recent Salem Progressive Film Series presentation much encouraged.
Even more inspiring than the film itself, though, was the panel of speakers who appeared after the showing. Chris Jones and Courtney Cox talked about the University of Oregon's Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI). James Santana, about Salem's oh-so-green Pringle Creek Community.
I was vaguely aware that students at the U of O were doing something or other here in Salem, having read a newspaper story about their ideas for invigorating the Liberty Road area south of downtown.
But Jones and Cox opened my eyes to what a big deal this is -- Salem having been selected as the second city (after Gresham in 2009-10) to get the benefit of something like 80,000 hours of student/faculty work.
So said the New York Times last August in an interesting story about Salem's involvement with SCI, "In Oregon, Students Seek Key to a Sustainable City."
If Salem's key to economic sustainability in the 20th century was brick-and-mortar buildings such as the mall, then what is the solution for today? Short on tax dollars, this city of 150,000 people is about to be long on ideas -- and perhaps a little paper, glue and elbow grease mixed in.
Roughly 600 University of Oregon students in 25 classes will devote 80,000 hours to Salem during the coming year. The novel program, part of the university's three-year-old Sustainable Cities Initiative, will focus on making Salem more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.
Students in architecture, planning, law, journalism and business classes will explore how Salem could nurture green business clusters, reuse industrial byproducts, connect parks with bicycle paths, redevelop brownfields and design energy-efficient municipal buildings, among other things. Just as important, the students will consider market and regulatory barriers to implementing their ideas.
Just what we need: energetic creativity.
l liked it when Chris Jones showed slides of how the Salem riverfront looked before and after its redevelopment into green space, an outdoor amphitheatre, carousel, and more fun stuff -- replacing a bunch of rundown industrial buildings.
He said that several decades ago it would have been a crazy idea to envision the Willamette riverfront looking like it does now. But this is how cities reinvent themselves, by people coming up with seemingly crazy notions which turn out to be wonderfully appealing and workable.
Courtney Cox, a City of Salem staffer who is the lead contact with SCI, gave the Progressive Film Series audience an overview of the projects students/faculty are engaged with.
Pretty darn exciting. If even a few come to fruition, Salem is going to be a much better city than it is now. The key, of course, is bridging the gap between Great Idea and Done Deal.
When question time came, I raised my hand. My query to Chris Jones was one of those speechified questions where someone wants to get a point across in the course of asking for an opinion. It went something like this:
There's a reason why this film is being shown at a Progressive Film Series rather than a Conservative Film Series. Somehow right-wingers have gotten it into their heads that greenness and sustainability don't mesh with economic development.
Yet when I watched "The Nature of Cities," and saw examples of green urban development, my inner tourist said I want to go there! I want to shop there! I might even want to live there!
So isn't it true that economic thriving goes hand-in-hand with environmental sustainability? And how is it that conservatives aren't into conserving our Earth's precious resources?
Well, at least I eventually got to asking some questions. Chris wryly said he was glad he'd gotten such a simple question. And then proceeded to respond to it. As expected, he agreed with the premise that economic development and green urban design are sympatico.
My main concern, when it comes to Salem, is whether city government, and its citizens in general, have the knowledge, values, and commitment required to make great sustainable concepts into a great sustainable reality.
A few days after seeing the film and hearing James Santana speak, I headed off to his Pringle Creek Community to see how it was coming along. It had been several years since I'd visited this 32 acre offshoot of the much larger Sustainable Fairview development, which is coming along considerably more slowly than Pringle Creek.
It was good to see that a half dozen or so green homes have been built, though this is a small fraction of what's in the master plan. I went on an Open House day, so got to chat with several homeowners about their decision to be Pringle Creek Community pioneers.
All were friendly, welcoming, and (not surprisingly) knowledgeable about green building practices. I especially appreciated how the woman who owned the first house I visited was pretty calm when we heard frantic barking coming from her front porch.
"My dog is tied up outside," I said. "Do you have a cat?" Indeed she did. But no harm was done and the cat was quickly brought inside. After that, Serena, our dog, was eager to move on to tne next open houses. Unfortunately (for her), no other curious cats poked their heads around a wall to see what sort of canine was leashed to a porch railing.
I hope Pringle Creek Community prospers.
And that its green vibe eventually encompasses all of Salem. The University of Oregon's Sustainable Cities Initiative is going to give us some terrific ideas. Now we just need to commit to making them happen.