New rankings beg question: what makes Portland sustainable?

Portland-based Sustainable Business Oregon reported yesterday that Stumptown once again won silver in Site Selection Magazine's Rankings of the nation's most sustainable metropolitan communities.

Once again coming in second to the Bay Area (Site Selection's lede about San Francisco's ban on unsolicited Yellow Pages was cornily fantastic), Portland ranked high alongside Oregon, which came in third on the list of "Top Sustainable States." Congratulations!

But is praise premature? Subjectively, we're probably not going out on a limb to gauge Portland and its neighbors among the nation's most sustainable communities. There exists here an unquantifiable, do-it-yourself, simple approach I like to call Portland's "Pot-luck" culture, where many groups bring their diverse skills and resources to the table. We're all now quite well aware of the bike culture and transportation alternatives and ecoroofs and every other bright green badge of pride we wear. Meanwhile, as I detailed in the May, 2011 issue of Biocycle (Subscription Required) Portland has many more concrete sustainable projects in food scraps composting, urban gardening and new, private efforts like the upcoming June Key Delta Community Center (which was featured in a sidebar with the Biocycle story).

Nevertheless, are we measuring sustainability properly here, or anywhere? To rank the top metro areas, Site Selection used the number and per capita rate of LEED Certified green building projects, the extent of green incentives and amount of manufacturing and other facilities involved in renewables and green industry. Can our ability to live healthily, prosperously and durably over multiple generations (my rough definition of sustainability) be gauged by simply totaling up new construction and how many gizmos it features, dollars spent, and the new kilowatt-hour reducing technology we build? Or should our analysis be a little more complex? Should we explore our actual behaviors, i.e., the actual effectiveness of the programs we incent, the way our buildings - LEED or not - get used and the type of demands we place on our power grid? Wouldn't that be the real measure of sustainability?

My un-scientific, un-journalistic assumption is that Portland would probably end up pretty far ahead on that sort of scale as well, but we -- everyone, but particularly journalists reporting on the environment -- might be well served by asking these sort of questions.

What do you think? Are we measuring sustainability properly? Is Portland "Green?" What do you think is the most sustainable community?

Let me know in the comments