Spreading sustainability, Portland style

Last March Portland State professor Steven Johnson found himself riding on the back of a motorcycle sweeping through the streets of Katmandu, Nepal. The water there ran through streams of polluted black muck.

Last March Portland State professor Steven Johnson found himself riding on the back of a motorcycle sweeping through the streets of Katmandu, Nepal. The water there ran through streams of polluted black muck. Plastic bags wisped and floated through the air as he passed through what were little more than ghettos, and he began to wonder how he was going to convey Portland’s culture of sustainability in a place like this.

You could say that professor Johnson is an ambassador for the city of Portland, spreading the word of Portland’s sustainable ideals and community-oriented personality to cities and cultures all over the world. He has traveled across Europe and Asia, over nine countries and 50 cities to be exact, speaking on urban planning and civic engagement and helping people to realize the relationship between the two.

Most recently he toured Asia, from Japan to Nepal and Thailand, discussing his latest paper, “Community Governance and Sustainable Development.”

“Three years ago I decided I wanted to spend about a quarter of my time overseas to share my experiences and knowledge,” Johnson said. “I didn’t just want to go there to learn, but I also wanted to offer something.”

Deeply rooted
In 1880, Johnson’s great grandfather, a railroad builder, settled on 80 acres off of Johnson Creek [no relation] in Southeast Portland, the land where he now resides.

Raised by his father, a pacifist who refused to fight in World War II, and his mother, whose idea of good bedtime reading was Silent Spring, he took on this outlook and later actively implemented it in his own life, melding it with the ’60s revolutionary generation that migrated in large numbers to the Willamette Valley.

“They were attracted to the landscape, to the low-key lifestyle and a safe haven from the burnout going on in San Francisco,” Johnson said.

Johnson, like his father, refused to fight in the war of his time and applied as a conscientious objector in 1969 during the Vietnam War.

“My lottery came up and I had to go down and stand in front of two gigantic marines and say, ‘No, I’m not going to go,'” Johnson said. “I couldn’t work, couldn’t get a passport. I worked in a pickle factory and sold almonds to co-ops. That was my way of making a living, you know, odd jobs.”

In 1971, the army rescinded his induction order. During this time he was able to graduate from Lewis and Clark College with a Bachelor of Science in English literature, moving on to earn his master’s in English literature at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University in 1972.

However, it wasn’t until seven years ago that he pursued his doctorate in urban studies at Portland State.

Conveying community
In fact, over the last 35 years Johnson has been involved with over 500 nonprofit organizations, public agencies and businesses.

What Johnson now realizes is that he is interested in the big picture, or as he puts it, “the whole thing”—how small efforts from multiple sources can contribute to better a community, region or the world.

“The story people know is the leaders, they don’t know the planners and the starters,” Johnson said. “We have a celebrity-based leadership society. We usually wait to have a leader.”

It is this mentality that Johnson battles in “Community Governance and Sustainable Development.” The central idea of the paper is sustainability and urban planning combined with widespread community involvement.

Johnson wants people to understand that leaders aren’t the beginning of getting things done; rather it is the grassroots efforts of communities that get the ball rolling. Leaders come after the ideas emerge—a concept Johnson has worked with over decades in the Portland area.

This is what brought him across Asia over the last month. Johnson learned that he had to express his ideas differently depending on where he was. He couldn’t tell the same story in Japan that he could in Nepal.

“I’ve often gone to places where they are developing a democracy where it can be good to implement these policies early on,” Johnson said.

Trying to get countries to implement good sustainable practices is what he faced in Nepal. Clutching onto his Nepalese host on the back of a motorcycle, Johnson knew he had to tweak his presentation a bit. Nepal wasn’t Tokyo or Bangkok.

“We’re tearing down this road, it’s just holes and plastic bags,” Johnson said. “In one way I’m thinking ‘here is this richest of life in a developing country where everything is out in the open, and I’m smelling food.’ And then I think, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be this bad, with people living in houses with corrugated roofs.’ I thought of my presentation with pictures of nice green streets, all neat clean Pleasantville. How am I going to transfer Pleasantville to this?”

After his motorcycle ride, he headed back to his hotel to re-work his presentation into something that citizens of Katmandu could relate to. Luckily he was able to come up with something that worked.

“I just tried to create a context for it,” Johnson said. “Some of it I presented straightforward, I’d say you got to start small … and you start at a little tributary and show what it could be like. I’d try to create the larger picture of what is going on in Portland, and then help them think through incremental steps.”

This is what Johnson likes doing, and what he sees as important in life. It is what he has been doing in Portland for decades and what he now wants to export to cities around the globe.

“I’ve never been able to imagine my life without involvement, I want to be part of history,” Johnson said. “What seems permanent to me is going forward with this planetary history. It makes life worth living to me.”