Our community's climate justice work: read the latest stories

Photo of person in the foreground at an event. Tent in the background partly reads: AAAH A HUD approved housing.
Community is at the heart of our work at PCEF. We are eager to share stories about the projects and people who are making a positive impact for those who are hit first and hardest by our changing climate.
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Returning concrete jungles to nature

A global movement is underway in neighborhoods across Portland. Paved lots are being renatured into urban farms, natural playscapes, tree-lined streets, and wildlife habitats. Major urban centers in the UK, France, Australia, and Ontario have also caught onto the movement, as the BBC recently reported

Leading the charge locally is a nonprofit called Depave. The Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF) is partnering with Depave to transform hot, impervious slabs into greener, cooler, more connected, resilient, and sustainable community gathering spaces. 

From hot impervious pavement to shady green sanctuaries and playscapes

Group of people removing concrete and asphalt to turn it into a green space.
Volunteers remove pavement at Morning Star Baptist Church during the first phase. Photo by Elle Hygge.

Depave’s next PCEF-funded event will be held at Morning Star Baptist Church in NE Portland on June 22. Volunteers will remove 10,000 square feet of pavement to make way for a nature play area for Los Pequeñitos, a Spanish language immersion school located in the church that provides affordable childcare to families in need. 

Morning Star Baptist Church is one of Cully’s most prominent African American institutions. It has served the community for 77 years. Depave and PCEF will have removed a total of 20,000 square feet of pavement at the church when they complete the second phase of the project later this month. Depave and PCEF worked together last summer on the first phase of the project, transforming the initial 10,000 square feet of pavement into sanctuary spaces for older church members and a community food garden stewarded by Mudbone Grown, a Black-owned organization in Portland that promotes intergenerational community-based farming. 

Accelerating Depave’s essential work

PCEF has awarded Depave nearly $540,000 to complete projects like Morning Star Baptist Church. The funding has allowed Depave to remove more than 38,500 square feet of pavement across six sites in the Portland-Metro area. That’s the same area as eight NBA basketball courts. Projects in addition to Morning Star include:

Depave volunteers have removed more than 360,000 square feet of pavement in Portland since it was founded in 2008. That’s the same area as the total retail floor at Pioneer Place. Their efforts have diverted approximately 24.5 million gallons of rainwater from storm drains each year: That’s 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Depave has also planted over 1600 trees, shrubs, and other native plants in 2023. 

Depave project sites are selected using an equity matrix to prioritize under-resourced, frontline communities experiencing concentrations of urban heat and lack of greenspace due to historical context of racialized zoning codes and land use. 

The problem with pavement is two-fold

Large group of volunteers removing pavement to make way for a green space.
Volunteers remove pavement for a future green space at Morning Star Baptist Church during the first phase. Photo by Elle Hygge.

An overabundance of pavement radiates heat in the summer and creates stormwater runoff issues in rainy months. Neighborhoods with less green space can get up to 20 F hotter than those with more tree cover due to what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls the urban heat island effect.

At the same time, atmospheric rivers, like those experienced in Portland, are increasing in frequency and intensity due to the impacts of climate change, according to the Journal of Geophysical ResearchNeighborhoods with more pavement cannot absorb extreme rainfall, increasing the risk of flooding, untreated sewage, and toxic urban pollutants flowing into local waterways and riparian habitats. 

NASA Earth: Depave is making an observable and quantifiable impact

Depave’s impact on urban heat in Portland is observable and quantifiable, according to NASA’s remote-sensing data and tools. NASA measured decreases of up to 7.7 F in reflected heat across six sites that received Depave’s urban greening treatments. As these greenspaces grow out and mature, NASA hypothesized that the cooling effects of vegetation will increase. 

As the hot summer months approach, the urgency of Depave’s mission grows. PCEF is proud to support Depave as it reclaims and restores Portland’s natural environment. Together, PCEF and Depave are showing how a public-private partnership can successfully combat the urban heat island effect, reduce stormwater runoff, and enhance community resilience and sustainability.

Watch the story on KGW8

See photos from the event

PCEF’s tangible impact celebrated at Portland City Council

Dozens of community members turned out to cheer five years of accomplishments by the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF) at a Portland City Council work session May 14. The fund uses a tax on very large retailers to pay for projects that make all Portlanders, particularly underserved communities, more resilient in the face of climate change.

Image of dozens of people gathering outside the City of Portland building with PCEF support signs.
Dozens gather outside a City of Portland building in support of PCEF.

State Rep. Khanh Pham described the three-year grassroots campaign that led to PCEF’s approval by more than 65% of Portland voters in 2018. PCEF Program Manager Sam Baraso discussed alignment with goals approved by City Council in 2022, and its five-year Climate Investment Plan approved last fall. Baraso also elaborated on $1.3 billion in current and pending PCEF projects taking place through 2028.

Those projects include:

  • $590M to City bureaus over five years for a variety of climate related projects, such as taking over the planting, care and maintenance of street trees throughout Portland, building the cooling effect of trees throughout the city, and expanding bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure;
  • $50M to seven public school districts in Portland, which will help pay for things like improved heating and cooling systems and de-paved school yards;
  • $302M for a series of climate related strategic programs, such as greener and more affordable housing and also transportation, like helping people with low incomes afford electric vehicles;
  • $190M for grants to nonprofits, covering a vast array of climate projects from building community solar installations to net-zero affordable housing. Prior projects led by nonprofits include Cooling Portland, a response to the deadly 2021 heat dome that has installed more than 7,000 efficient air conditioners to people at risk in climate-related heat waves;
  • $158M for the new Collaborating for Climate Action initiative, which will distribute some of the growth in PCEF funds toward high-impact, multi-stakeholder projects, which can include public-private collaborations.

Local governments well-positioned to tackle climate change

Commissioners asked thoughtful questions about the size of the fund and PCEF’s impact on climate, job creation, business, and the City budget, along with the City’s role in managing the program. Although climate change is a problem that requires global solutions, local governments are in a great place to make meaningful impact because of their connection to the community, said Deputy City Administrator for Community and Economic Development Donnie Oliveira. 

For example, a PCEF program for significant green energy retrofits on 3,100 local homes won’t simply cut greenhouse gas emissions but will also address a host of safety and health problems and develop a local workforce skilled at handling these retrofits, Oliveira said. 

“The investment PCEF is making is much more broad, much more intersectional,” than simply investing in a clean energy project elsewhere, he said. “Interjecting 1.3 billion dollars into our community is good for business. It’s good for prosperity and wealth generation. These are dollars that are staying within our community.”

Social benefits beyond measure 

Gathering of people supporting PCEF, holding signs, and walking into a City of Portland building.
Supporters of PCEF ready to attend the City Council work session.

Pham said the program’s benefit includes social benefits that often aren’t captured when people calculate the cost of preventing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, buying electric school buses and government vehicles in Portland means less air pollution and asthma for the surrounding community, and a generation of local children who breathe more easily. Oliveira agreed. 

“If we were just doing GHG reduction targeted programs, we might just invest in a solar farm in eastern Oregon … that’s a cheaper GHG reduction moment for us,” Oliveira added. “But that’s not the point. The point was to put the dollars to work in our community for Portlanders … That’s the power of PCEF. It’s not just climate action. It’s the prosperity and the resilience all tied together.”

Learn more about the tangible impact PCEF is having on climate change in Portland.

Creating comfortable and climate-resilient learning environments for PPS students

Image of a classroom with rows of desks and a blackboard.
Photo by Victor Salazar.

The Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF) is poised to spend $50 million over the next five years to make city schools greener and more resilient in the face of climate change.

Community members testified in favor of the Climate Friendly Public Schools initiative at the Portland City Council meeting on April 25, explaining how PCEF investments will lower greenhouse gas emissions while saving students from sweltering classrooms in summer, bursting water pipes in winter, and intensifying bouts of wildfire smoke. The council will vote on the initiative on May 8.

“How are students expected to focus in 90-degree classrooms?” asked Lincoln High School senior Chloe Gilmore, a youth climate organizer, who described dripping with sweat and struggling to learn during a heat wave two years ago. “How are students expected to succeed in polluted air and extreme temperatures?”

Aging infrastructure in need of critical retrofits
Portland has about 70,000 K-12 students attending public schools operated by seven districts including Portland Public Schools (PPS). School assets – buildings, land, and vehicles – offer huge opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve climate resilience while promoting learning, said City Commissioner Carmen Rubio. The PCEF investment is expected to cut up to 24,000 metric tons of lifetime carbon dioxide emissions in schools.

Within PPS, potential climate mitigation projects range from upgrading aging heating and cooling systems to replacing inefficient windows to transitioning to electric vehicles, Chief Operating Officer Dan Jung said. PPS also plans to green playgrounds at schools within the city’s urban heat zones.

“By depaving and planting trees and other green infrastructure, we will both decrease temperatures and improve the learning environment for our children,” Jung said.

PCEF funding will cool underinvested classrooms in the summer, warm them up in winter
PCEF, passed by Portland voters in 2018, taxes large retailers to fund projects that address climate change for all Portlanders, particularly the city’s most vulnerable. PCEF’s Climate Friendly Public Schools initiative targets schools where over 50% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. District allocations were determined by a series of weighted factors including enrollment percentages of students of color.  

Each district will pitch projects that best serve its needs; PCEF staff will review them to make sure they meet the plan’s goals. PCEF also will provide extra funding for student-led climate projects.

The targeted strategy makes sense because schools with more resources and stable leadership are in a better position to advocate for climate retrofits, said PPS parent Noelle Studer-Spevak, a volunteer with Families for Climate. For others, it takes significant outside support to shade play areas and upgrade classrooms, she said.

Kids “want and deserve shade, engaging play spaces and a reasonable temperature range that supports learning so they can get a great start on a bright future,” Studer-Spevak said. “To me, this partnership illustrates the power of PCEF to reach across lines and reverse historic inequities rooted in redlining and underinvestment.”

Learn more about PCEF’s Climate Friendly School initiative.

Portland’s urban forest could get $100 million boost

Portland trees have been working overtime in the past few years providing benefits to the residents of Portland, people, and animals alike. From storm water remediation to providing shade during heat waves, Portland’s trees continue to keep our city livable. With the increase in invasive pests and diseases, our city trees need our support more than ever.  

A new dawn: $100 million investment for urban forest care

But help is on the way. A new five-year, $100 million investment recommended by the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF) Committee will enable the City to take over the planting, establishment, pruning, removal, and other needed care of Portland street trees—generally, those planted on the strip between the road and sidewalk. If approved as expected during city budgeting this spring, the plan opens a tremendous opportunity to repair and expand the city’s tree canopy in ways that help residents cope with climate change.

PCEF Green Infrastructure Lead David Grandfield has spent almost a decade in roles that help the city improve its connection to nature. “The tree canopy can create microclimates that reduce temperatures by 15 to 20 degrees. The investments we’re making and the species we’re selecting will help Portlanders in the future survive these heat events.”

And by choosing appropriate trees and caring for them correctly, the city can prepare the revitalized urban forest to better survive harsh winter storms, Grandfield said.

The science of trees: natural solutions to climate change

Science has demonstrated many reasons trees are essential to human and environmental health. Tiny pores on their foliage, called stomata, help filter air, removing pollutants that harm our health. Tree roots purify stormwater and help recharge groundwater. And when it comes to fighting climate change, trees are champions. They store carbon in their roots, trunks, and limbs as they grow. 

During each warm season, new leaves pull more carbon from the atmosphere. National Geographic described the foliage on the earth’strillions of trees as an “unimaginably vast planetary breathing system – a giant green machine that pulls enormous quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air, especially in the warmer months.”

Disparities in tree canopy: addressing inequity

On the ground, trees planted in the right spots can cool the area around them by shading surfaces, deflecting radiation from the sun, and releasing moisture. But in Portland, as in other parts of the country, trees tend to be concentrated in wealthier areas. A Portland State University study showed households with the top 20% of incomes had 20% more tree canopy than those with the lowest 20%– which also tended to be neighborhoods inhabited by immigrants, refugees, and communities of color. On Portland’s west side, canopy cover is 46%, excluding Forest Park. On the east side, canopy cover is only 22%.

In poorer neighborhoods, fewer trees and more buildings and pavement can drive heat wave temperatures to unbearable levels. During the June 2021 heat dome that killed at least 69 people in Multnomah County, 42 occurred in neighborhoods known to experience heat islands.

Funding green futures: the role of the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund

PCEF exists to help Portlanders deal with climate change. A tax on large retailers provides a consistent, long-term funding source for the City’s climate goals, ensuring that all Portlanders – especially people with low incomes and communities of color – can cope. About 10-15% of the fund goes toward green infrastructure and regenerative agriculture, Grandfield said. Expanding and strengthening Portland’s tree canopy for intense weather is a natural fit. 

Under the PCEF Committee recommendation, Portland's more than 250,000 existing street trees and street trees planted in the future would be cared for by Portland Parks & Recreation, Urban Forestry Division. Every street tree will be placed in a routine management cycle of inspection, structural pruning, hazard abatement, removal, and replacement. Several aspects of Portland’s program will set these trees up for long-term success, Grandfield said. They include:

  • Caring for and maintaining trees.  Routine care by skilled providers will reduce public safety hazards, maximize the services trees provide such as lower summer temperatures and improved air quality, and help trees have longer productive lifespans.
  • Choosing diverse and appropriate trees to plant, focusing on high-need areas to enhance survival against pests, pathogens, and extreme weather. They will diversify Portland’s street tree species to include more types. 
  • Searching out the highest quality plants, Grandfield said. An array of nurseries will supply saplings, and workers will scrutinize young trees to ensure they are hardy, with unscarred trunks and healthy branch and root structures. Since a tree’s long-term health depends significantly on the skilled planting, pruning, watering, and mulching it receives in its first five years, the new program pays for that care. 
  • Fostering a connection between residents and urban trees through volunteer opportunities, outreach, and education on tree care, benefits, and identification. The program educates Portlanders on how to care for trees in their neighborhood, including avoiding trunks when mowing and managing the spread of invasive species like Tree of Heaven.

After facing winter storms, heat domes, and invasive species, PCEF’s $100 million investment in Portland’s tree canopy marks a proactive shift from climate adversity to resilience. By revitalizing its urban canopy, Portland will craft a tomorrow where green spaces curb climate impacts, bridge social divides, and enhance urban living. If the City Council approves PCEF’s plan this spring, it can even serve as a blueprint for cities worldwide to follow, demonstrating that investing in nature is investing in the future. 

Learn about grantees and their projects from the first grant cycle: RFP #1 Project Descriptions

Learn about grantees and their projects from the second grant cycle: RFP #2 Project Descriptions