Center for Environmental Science Applications (CESA)

Finding solutions to sustainability challenges by linking ideas, people and resources

Northward and westward

Last August, the Center for Environmental Science Applications (CESA) relocated from Phoenix to Portland Oregon. This was less complicated than it sounds, as the Center is primarily me, with assorted collaborations and partners, most of which remain at Arizona State University. I took on the position of Vice President for Research and Strategic Partnerships at Portland State University (PSU), while still retaining an affiliation with ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. This move was in many ways an outgrowth of projects started under the auspices of CESA, especially those dealing with cities.

While smaller than ASU, Portland State is a large, urban, public research university with nearly 30,000 students. PSU's research profile today is comparable to ASU's around 1997, which coincidentally was when I took on a similar position as ASU's Vice Provost for Research. Like ASU, PSU was for much of its life primarily a teachers' college, training mostly local students. PSU's motto is "Let Knowledge Serve the City," and the school has a strong emphasis on most things urban. Its campus blends imperceptibly into downtown Portland. The region's vaunted transportation network crisscrosses the campus, with the university's main plaza being diagonally bisected by streetcar tracks and framed on either side by north- and southbound light rail lines. PSU is also becoming a major player in the cultural life of the city. Its lectures, concerts, farmer's market and sports events are all well attended by the public.

Historically, the strongest programs at PSU have been those that connect it with the community: policy and government expertise in the College of Urban and Public Affairs; links to NGOs, social welfare organizations and health-care providers through the College of Social Work; and environmental studies tied to the region's world-renowned land-use and transport policies. More traditional technology-based research programs in computer science and engineering, chemistry, and biology have only recently begun to gain outside recognition. Two years ago the local Miller Foundation invested $25M in the University's Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

Against this backdrop, I've been asked to help expand PSU's research capacity and to strengthen its relationships with outside organizations and interest groups. This brings me back to the connection with CESA and why I've chosen to work at PSU. The main attraction is the confluence of urban-related expertise across the university and progressive policies embedded in the fabric of the cities and culture of Metro Portland. ASU has outstanding research programs exploring how Phoenix can maintain a balance with its harsh desert environment. But the reasons that people moved to Phoenix--cheap housing, service-oriented jobs and libertarian politics--do not necessarily lend themselves to interest in sustainable urban policies. Rightly or wrongly, when people around the U.S. or across the globe think of cities to emulate for sustainability leadership, Phoenix is not on the short list.

In contrast, over the past several decades, the people and institutions of Portland have cultivated a reputation as the bell-weather for sustainable urbanism. This leads to what I see as PSU's signature opportunity: to be the most comprehensive coordinator and initiator of urban-related academic, private sector and NGO research, while also helping Metro Portland figure out how the world's cities can become the engines for sustainable development, climate adaptation, and environmentally-sensitive technological innovation.

In future posts, I'll comment on emerging opportunities for experimentation and collaboration among cities around the world, and other hydrated observations from here in the Northwest.