What role can Portland play in the historic “New Urban Agenda”?

One year later, we assess the road to implementation of this watershed agreement, and our own challenges and opportunities ahead.

The “New Urban Agenda” is approved in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016, and two months later adopted by consensus by 193 countries at the General Assembly in New York.

On December 23, we will pass the one-year anniversary of the historic passage — adopted by acclamation by 193 countries — of the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the global Habitat III conference last year. This agreement was a major watershed in international urban development policy — placing human life, health, equity and well-being at the top of urban priorities, and establishing a “new paradigm,” in the words of Secretary-General Joan Clos, in our ways of thinking about, and acting on, cities, towns, and other settlements, for the benefit of all.

A central emphasis in the New Urban Agenda is on livability and quality of life — goals that Portland has been pursuing for many years.  Like Portland, the NUA places great emphasis on a well-connected polycentric region; on great walkable streets and public spaces; on transportation choice, including walking, biking, transit and yes, the car (though eliminating car dependency); on sustainable use of energy and resources; on leveraging heritage to build on the beauty of the city, and add to its livability; and on equitable access and expansion of life opportunities for all.

This is what great cities do best — as Jane Jacobs described, it is what a city like New York can do by taking penniless immigrants from Italy or Poland or Ireland, and turning many of them into prosperous middle-class shopkeepers and entrepreneurs and professionals, or, perhaps later, great scientists or artists.

Now, however, we are all aware of the failures of cities — for at least some of their residents, and as the evidence shows, ultimately for all of their residents — to provide equitable opportunity for advancement and enjoyment of the city’s multiple benefits.   This is a threat for all, because as Luis Bettencourt and others have demonstrated, cities are economic and social networks that get their strength from the number of connections; the more “plugged in” everyone is, the better.  But conversely, the more some people and parts of the city are excluded, fragmented, degraded, then the more the city as a whole is dragged down, ultimately spiraling into a  condition of economic stagnation and decline — a “dark age ahead” as Jane Jacobs put it.

Portland is struggling with these lessons as much as any city.  As we have written about frequently on this blog, there are strategies that can reverse this kind of decline, and catalyze in cities what Jane Jacobs called “the seeds of their own regeneration.”   At the same time, there are many dangers in our recent ways of thinking and acting too — as we have also written about — that focus too much on simplistic,”silver bullet” solutions and self-interested “supply-side” thinking.

Yet Portland is clearly a leader in some important areas of the New Urban Agenda, at least by US standards — in coordinated regional planning, integrated transportation and “mixed-modes”, walkable human scale, preserving and building on our own history, and — more an accident of history, perhaps — exhibiting an excellent example of well-connected, walkable urban forms and types.

In that sense, Portland can be an important “test bed” for the New Urban Agenda, as all eyes turn to implementation.   How can we share our lessons with other cities, and learn from them as they learn from us?  What are our mistakes, and what can we learn from them? What are the tools and strategies that show promise, what have we learned from them, and how can we share them?  How can we manage the corrosive forces of global economics and the urban “tragedy of the commons”?

Here is where the biggest challenges remain. How can we change “business as usual” — destructive patterns of inequality, fragmentation, and unsustainable development? How can we create new feedback loops, as Jane Jacobs also advised, to factor in “externalities” like ecological destruction and social exclusion, and provide more financial incentives for creating and sustaining good-quality settlements?  How can we reform the current failing “operating system for growth,” by reforming the codes, models, laws, standards, financial incentives and disincentives, and all the other elements that make up our urbanization systems?

And especially, how can we use, and share, our existing knowledge base to do so?

Portland is already operating one of the most helpful laboratories in meeting these global challenges — especially so since practices in the United States are, for better or worse, frequently copied in other parts of the world. We should surely continue to act locally, as we think, and share, more globally. The more connected we are with the efforts of others, the more we can help, and be helped.

See also:


The author’s video address at the Habitat III plenary:

One Reply to “What role can Portland play in the historic “New Urban Agenda”?”

  1. Thank you for highlightIng Portland’s potential as a test bed for urban solutions. We have an awesome opportunity to hold our ejected leaders to their vision of creating a new Portland neighborhood that works for all Portlanders, and not just the elite class. The Broadway Corridor Development Project is asking for input on how to develop the neighborhood around the USPS site. Can we use our imagination and come up with a place that combines our stories and uses systems to support our stories? What stories do we need to hear? A link to the development opportunity: http://prosperportland.us/portfolio-items/broadway-corridor-framework-plan/?portfolioCats=235

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