City of Portland hearings for its comprehensive plan update have in recent weeks been contentious affairs, with residents objecting to changes in the zoning code that could add even more construction to their neighborhoods.

City Commissioner Steve Novick says a crucial voice is missing from those hearings: environmental activists, who he says are failing to make the case that bigger and more dense housing can reduce car use.

"It's not that they don't agree," Novick says. "It's that it doesn't seem like they can generate the kind of passion to talk to their own friends and neighbors as they can to rail against big out-of-state companies. It's important to do both."

Novick says increasing density—that usually means building more apartment units, closer together—can make an environmental difference.

"If enough people live within walking distance of each other, a grocery store will spring up to serve them—a grocery store that people can walk to, rather than drive to," Novick says. "And greater density makes transit more viable: the New York subway system only makes economic sense because there are a lot of people per stop."

Environmental activists tell WW they may not agree with Novick on density.

Adam Brunelle says his environmental group, 350PDX, has banded together with housing advocates to demand the comprehensive plan include a response to gentrification. "We don't want a gentrified Portland that is very sustainable but that no one can afford to live in," Brunelle says.