First Advisor

Nathan McClintock

Date of Publication

Spring 6-7-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Urban Studies


Urban Studies and Planning




Green movement -- Oregon -- North Portland Harbor, Community development -- Oregon -- North Portland Harbor, Environmentalism -- Oregon -- North Portland Harbor -- Citizen participation, Environmental justice



Physical Description

1 online resource (xi, 274 pages)


How does progressive change happen in so-called sustainable cities? In this dissertation, I present findings from a three year-long ethnographic investigation of grassroots organizing in Portland, Oregon, a city at the leading edge of the green urbanism movement. This research centered on an extended case study of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC). PHCC is an alliance of grassroots groups working to ensure that cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site benefits those who have been most impacted by pollution. In this dissertation, I develop three main empirical findings. First, despite depoliticized (sustainability) discourse permeating the harbor cleanup planning process, which excluded impacted communities from and minimized disparate impacts resulting from contamination and cleanup, there has not necessarily been a green growth machine operating in the way that we would expect. Instead, a classic status quo growth machine has indirectly pushed depoliticized sustainability discourse, and benefited from it at the expense of vulnerable residents -- even in a paradigmatic sustainable city. Second, in contrast to the "just green enough" strategies put forth in previous research, there are, in fact, grassroots groups who are demanding robust environmental improvements as part of broader social and environmental justice outcomes. PHCC takes an "oppositional community development" approach in attempting to transcend the green development-displacement dialectic. This approach has entailed being strategically confrontational some of the time, and engaging through more established participation channels at other times. Third, individual and collective historicized learning has played a key role in PHCC's efforts to re-politicize the cleanup planning process in three ways: it helped coalition members connect their personal experiences to the harbor; it helped coalition members build a political analysis of the cumulative and inter-generational ways that harbor pollution has impacted different groups; and a collectively produced historical narrative ultimately contributed to the coalition's moderate success in pushing public agencies to be more responsive to impacted communities.

More broadly, this research draws attention to the historical contingencies, organizing approaches, challenges, and transformations experienced by ordinary people coming together to fight for a more just sustainability. It suggests that in order to develop a fuller understanding of urban socio-ecological change processes--and to make meaningful contributions to change in an era of environmental crisis, extreme housing instability, racial violence, and other forms of oppression--scholars must pay attention to those working on the front lines of change, themselves, in broader historical context.


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