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A greener shade of jade

Our economists partnered with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon to study the possibility of bringing much-needed environmental infrastructure to one of Portland’s most historically underserved neighborhoods

Southeast Portland’s Jade District is a neighborhood on a mission. Long forgotten and underserved, local residents and community-based organizations in the area surrounding SE 82nd Avenue and Division have come together to transform their neighborhood and drive economic opportunities and benefits for their community.

Contrasting with Portland’s image as the whitest big city in America, 45 percent of Jade District residents identify as people of color, including 23 percent of whom identify as Asian — the neighborhood’s name evolved more as a guiding identity and initiative, rather than a strict geographical boundary.

In 2011, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) formally designated the Jade District as a Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative, which is a public/private partnership that aims to transform underserved commercial districts in east Portland into engines of economic growth without displacing the communities that reside there.

Watercolor image of evening shoppers at cultural market
First launched in 2014, the Jade International Night Market has grown to become one of Portland's signature cultural events, drawing more than 20,000 people each summer.

Due to the success of events like the Jade International Night Market, which draws tens of thousands of people each summer, the neighborhood has become known as the cultural heart of the region’s Asian community. But these treasures belie a stark reality of economic and environmental injustice: the two census tracts that encompass the area depict a median household income just 47 percent of the citywide average, with 36 percent of residents living below the poverty line. Almost 70 percent of the Jade District’s residents are renters — 23 percent above the city at large.

The public and environmental health outcomes for residents reflect these statistics. With auto-oriented development and a major freeway nearby, nearly twice as many Jade residents experience asthma than the national average. The region has poor-quality, narrow sidewalks, is park-deficient, and has less than half of the tree canopy that the U.S. Forest Service recommends. These outcomes mirror other communities across the country with similarly vulnerable populations.

Thankfully, organizations at all scales have taken notice of these injustices. The Jade District was recently selected as a partner community for the 2017 Greening America’s Communities program–an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to provide guidance and financial support for the design of green infrastructure projects. Common examples of urban green infrastructure include bioswales, street trees, rain gardens, restored open spaces, parkland, restored native plant habitat, and green streets.

This selection process came after years of hard work — stemming from the Jade District Visioning Process in 2014, which offered an opportunity for residents, local businesses, and regular visitors to the neighborhood to identify projects the District wanted to see happen: a space to gather, a neighborhood center, park infrastructure, safer streets and crossings.

Their effort has mobilized local stakeholders to refine these concepts into actionable demonstration projects that can serve as a model for future implementation in the area: a potential park site, the Fubonn supermarket, and a small section of SE Division Street.

This past year, the EPA worked closely with the Multicultural Collaborative for the visioning and design process of these projects, in close partnership with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) to aid with community outreach and engagement. A three-day design charrette was held for stakeholders to come together and contribute to the designs.

Volunteers collect garbage along busy highway
Volunteers assist with clean up efforts in the Jade District.

“We thought it was an innovative opportunity; not only to address a lack of greenery, but for plenty of the other objectives we identified as well: safer infrastructure, supporting small business success, and community stabilization. It was important that people selected as part of the process were of the community and understood it,” said APANO’s Maiyee Yuan, a community organizer for the Jade District and coordinator of the organization’s efforts to ‘Green the Jade.’ “It was a positive, win/win situation: the designers were familiar with our neighborhood and took great intention to listen to community members during the whole process.”

Ecotrust has been hard at work building support for a green workforce collaborative in the region, and wanted to gain a better understanding of the costs and benefits of greening the District. We were curious: Is it possible to bring much-needed environmental infrastructure to one of Portland’s most historically forgotten neighborhoods without encouraging gentrification and displacement?

“Ecotrust is interested in seeing how our triple-bottom-line model plays out in urban areas,” staff Senior Economist Noah Enelow said. “How do you build a green workforce equitably, so that all people have access to these jobs?”

So in partnership with APANO, Ecotrust undertook a cost benefit analysis of the three focus areas. These types of analyses are commonly used in public decision-making processes to determine the best option from several alternatives. The resulting report, Greening the Jade, explores the results of this analysis and offers suggestions for how to channel investments so that community members receive the benefits rather than the creeping economic and cultural pressure of gentrification.

While the analysis was based on draft designs from the EPA technical assistance process, the results were clear. In just one example, the study concluded that creating a park in the Jade District would produce annual benefits of nearly $200,000 due to carbon sequestration, air quality improvement, and stormwater management abilities. Yet with any neighborhood investment, especially one with high rates of renters and low median household incomes, the potential for gentrification pressure is real and immediate.

“When working with all of our partners, we want to make sure that any improvements stabilize the community instead of acting as a displacing force,” Yuan said. “The core mission of APANO and the Jade District is to help prevent displacement.”

To help mitigate these concerns, APANO suggests a few strategies for ensuring that neighborhood residents receive the intended benefits of this work: providing homeownership assistance to current renters, offering down payment assistance, and building additional affordable housing units and parking spaces. Even more important is the need to support culturally specific, minority-owned businesses in the neighborhood so that the financial outcomes circulate within the community, a priority for Ecotrust.

“There needs to be an effort to ensure people in the District actually benefit from these efforts,” Enelow said. “We wanted to help get this project off of the shelf, moving from just a design document to an executable project.

Yuan agrees, and is enthusiastic about the report’s potential.

“The charrette process really helped provide a visual for the community, while the Ecotrust report was a great resource for understanding how this project fits in with broader theories, studies, and strategies for moving our work forward,” she said. “It provides an important intersectional lens: how green infrastructure can benefit social cohesion, the environment, and health outcomes for our community, all while extending our capacity by providing the elements that funders are looking for.”

For more information about Ecotrust’s work supporting a green workforce in the region, check our report: Jobs and Equity in the Urban Forest