‘Ecological Wealth’ and Neighborhood Action: Portland and Living Cully

I was in Portland for the first time last summer and it was charming. It had the feel of a logging town that had grown without loosing its roots–it had bridges crossing rivers, backed by tree-topped ridges, and a downtown that was small, artsy and independent.

Portland has become a beacon for young environmentalists and artists–anyone who’s seen Portlandia knows the hype. But as Tony DeFalco and the alliance he works with, Living Cully point out–this movement is pursuing only a double bottom line–that of economy and ecology. The social bottom line is being left out….

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I was in Portland for the first time last summer and it was charming. It had the feel of a logging town that had grown without loosing its roots–it had bridges crossing rivers, backed by tree-topped ridges, and a downtown that was small, artsy and independent.

Portland has become a beacon for young environmentalists and artists–anyone who’s seen Portlandia knows the hype. But as Tony DeFalco and the alliance he works with, Living Cully point out–this movement is pursuing only a double bottom line–that of economy and ecology. The social bottom line is being left out.

While a civic interest in livability and a growing ‘natural capitalism‘ economy are building a more vibrant urban fabric and economic opportunities in Portland, poor populations and populations of color have been left out of the city’s rising wave of wealth and ecological vibrancy. I heard DeFalco speak last week at the Design for Equity Summit hosted by the Bruner Loeb Forum and Enterprise Community Partners.

Living Cully’s goal is to build ‘ecological wealth’ for residents of Cully, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Portland. They do this work on two fronts. Firstly, they build their own ecological assets through community projects, and economic and environmental development projects. In a part of town where only 24% of streets have sidewalks on both sides, this can mean everything from building rain gardens in residents backyards, to building larger-scale parks. This means also identifying opportunities for ecological generators to be economic generators.

The second front Living Cully works on managing the pressures and opportunities presented by the growth of the rest of the city. Gentrification was a central topic in last week’s Design for Equity summit. One of the key ironies is that when marginalized communities take it upon themselves to improve their communities, improvements often attract higher income populations which put financial pressure on existing residents.

As Portland’s fortunes grow, Cully is extra vulnerable to gentrification, but rather than just taking a “not in my backyard’ approach, Living Cully is working proactively at the municipal level, giving Cully agency in larger conversations about the city.

This means making sure Cully doesn’t get left out of urban-scale projects like bike-sharing programs, and that development in Cully, whether its infrastructure construction or new businesses, share the wealth through hiring locals.

Living Cully also produced ‘Not in Cully,’ a roadmap to prevent displacement as Cully gentrifies. ‘Not in Cully’ lays out a proactive set of strategies to keep existing residents in the neighborhood through housing affordability policies, and making sure their fortunes rise with the neighborhoods’–through helping existing businesses remain in the neighborhood as the commercial landscape changes, and helping families become more economically self-sufficient.

I am so impressed by the work of Living Cully and they way they’re deploying the concept of ‘ecological wealth’–a term I’d never heard of before. It shows that ecological assets are not just an extra. They’re not something that should be reserved for the wealthy. Ecological services help us live better, longer, healthier, happier, and they also build wealth when built and maintained strategically.

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