In Oregon I hit the roof

PORTLAND, OREGON - Would you like weeds with that roof? Or perhaps a parking lot bioswale? If so, Portland, Oregon, is the place for you. And me. It was my last stop on a tour of swing states, run by the U.S. State Department's Foreign Press Center to help Canadian journalists understand American politics. It's a good idea, given how many Canadian journalists vacillate between figurative and literal inability to believe George W. Bush might be re-elected. But at first I didn't understand why the tour included Oregon, which I thought so liberal its Republicans deserve endangered-species protection. Portland is liberal (but for a coin toss it would be named Boston). But rural Oregon is Republican, the suburbs swing, and Al Gore won the state by only half a percentage point in 2000. That should worry all Democrats to the right of Dennis Kucinich, especially as Oregon has set trends from directly electing U.S. Senators to the first Nike shoe (made in Eugene on a waffle iron) to New Age spiritualism to rejecting universal health care by a four-to-one margin when shown the price tag.

Portland itself is delightful, partly due to "progressive'' policies including an early 1970s state law severely restricting urban sprawl. Originally to protect farmland, it ended up protecting wilderness outside the boundaries and livable cities within. For instance, with downtown space at a premium, Portland residents soon ripped out their hideous riverside freeway in favour of a park (where a plaque offers a stirring denunciation of the wartime internment of Japanese Americans ... by Ronald Reagan).

I especially liked visiting the Portland offices of EcoTrust. My regular reader would not expect an organization devoted to building "Salmon Nation'' to be my cup of herbal tea. But it's in an 1895 warehouse that got the first U.S. Green Building Council gold-level certification for historical building renovation, with lovely salvaged timber beams, soaring open spaces (atop which sat a very non-PC stuffed elk head). And splendid plants on the roof. Not algae. Not potted geraniums. A large, mostly hydroponic garden.

No, they're not eating roof carrots. Soil is too heavy. And besides, the point isn't what grows there, it's making a livable building in a livable city. Especially in Portland, heavy rain can wash air pollution right into the rivers. But at EcoTrust, at least, it's filtered through rooftop plants, then runs down through gutters into "bioswales,'' which look much like the plants in big concrete boxes you see in better parking lots everywhere except they don't have bottoms; it's soil all the way down, and the plants are chosen for their tolerance of soaking and parching. Meanwhile, much of the roof that doesn't have plants has planks rather than asphalt, keeping the building cooler and making Portland a bit less of a "heat-island.'' Every little bit helps. And as good greens they prefer native plants. But rooftops, even in Oregon, turn out to be harsh environments. So as practical greens they seek local plants that thrive like traditional imported ones. (For more see

Portland more generally is a showpiece of sensible urban design. They even brought back streetcars, nicer than buses if less convenient. And when a street becomes a hive of commerce and cafés (Oregon's main industrial product, so far as I can tell, is latte), they put a new track down the next street to expand the buzz.

So why's it a swing state? Well, the practical progressives we met there were strikingly uninterested in the Democrats' national agenda. (And one regular Oregonian, a pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage registered Democrat, said she was definitely for Kerry until she heard him speak, but he was so "vapid'' she's now painfully undecided.)

The green roof guys are not my kind of Republicans. But they're into practical, small-scale, business-on-side results. John Kerry could learn a lesson here. So could our politicians, national and local, with their gridlocked posturing and lack of useful specifics.

Doubtless it's partly the civic culture transplanted from New England. But it's also partly the institutions that came with it. Like vigorous public participation in politics (including referendums this fall on matters from the definition of marriage to compensation for regulatory takings to making medicinal marijuana practically available). It encourages schemes that create as many winners and as few losers as possible, rather than a maximum of partisan rhetoric and self-satisfaction. Oh, and Portland has one downtown and 24 suburban municipal governments, to facilitate local experimentation rather than... say, what was municipal amalgamation for anyway?

So when do you think Ottawa will tear out a neighbourhood-destroying, soulless freeway? Right. About the same time roofs sprout plants and politicians let us decide if we favour same-sex marriage.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson