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Portland mayor sells a greener Toronto during a red-hot election

Portland Mayor Sam Adams tours Sugar Beach at Toronto's waterfront on Sept. 21.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It may not seem like the most opportune time to sell green ideas in Toronto.

The man leading the mayoral race says Toronto can't afford to invest in green energy right now; his closest rival would put a pause on bike lanes through the city. And as unemployment continues to be an issue, environmental initiatives take a public-opinion back seat to economic concerns.

Not according to Sam Adams.

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The bespectacled, moderately jet-lagged mayor of Portland, Ore., is in town selling his city's innovative sustainability campaigns in everything from public transit to a wide-ranging climate-action strategy and a "complete-neighbourhoods" goal of ensuring everyone in the city has everything they need within a 20-minute walk.

But, more to the point, Mr. Adams is in town on a green-tinged trade mission - selling not just ideas, but companies and products that can deliver enviro-friendly, efficient solutions that are making his small - "but scrappy!" he hastens to add in an interview - city a global leader.

Forget global warming and increasingly smoggy air: In Mr. Adams' mind, sustainability is an economic imperative that cities can't afford to miss. "For us, the business case is by the numbers," Mr. Adams said. "This is not about well-intentioned sloganeering from either side."

He calls the approach "radical common sense," adding: "It's being hyper-vigilant around points of view that are based on historical thinking, that are based on, 'That's the way we've always done it' or based on a superficial sort of understanding. I believe in inspired decision-making, but I also believe it should be based on a firm foundation of facts."

In Portland's case, that meant co-ordinating every dollar spent in the region by multiple government bodies to avoid overlap. The city's transportation strategy is also its urban development plan - something Toronto is still trying to wrap its head around.

If you believe the economists, it's working: A 2007 report by Impresa Consulting found Portland's transportation strategy is saving the city $2.6-billion (U.S.) annually - in both transportation costs and the value of time that would otherwise have been spent in long commutes.

True, Portland has the luxury of having operation of its enviable light-rail transit funded in part by the regional government - a long-term commitment Toronto has yet to win from the province. But it's an example Toronto could afford to learn from, says York University environmental policy professor Mark Winfield.

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"We need to be thinking about how what we're doing on transit will integrate with what we're doing with land use," Prof. Winfield said. "Our mayoralty candidates… seem to be assuming they can make these decisions about transportation and planning in a complete vacuum. There's a touch of unreality to some of the things some of the candidates have been saying."

Make no mistake, though: After a speech to a receptive Board of Trade audience Tuesday morning, Mr. Adams' trade mission is all business. The half-dozen companies with him are here to offer environmentally innovative services that Toronto needs and can't get elsewhere.

It's a trade deficit that works in Mr. Adams's favour. And he knows it. "In some ways, coming here to talk about Portland's experience, there's a part of me in the back of my brain that's somewhat fearful: If a big city like Toronto starts doing what we're doing, they're totally going to be able to out-compete us."

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