Five Key Messages for Portland in the New Year

Our takeaways after a challenging year – with more challenges ahead

It’s been a very intense year for the City of Portland, and for the Livable Portland blog.  In the last year, we’ve discussed many difficult issues:   sustainability,  equity,  affordability,  gentrification,  homelessness,   growth management,  development quality, and of course, the broader issue of livability – the focus of the blog as a whole.  Seeking to be constructively challenging, we’ve critiqued a number of aspects of current approaches, including the Central City 2035 plan (in both outcome and process), the atrophy of the neighborhood involvement system, the lack of protection (or even valuation, it would appear) of our built heritage, the growing uglification of architecture, and other (interrelated) issues.

We’ve also pointed to resources that are available, including new tools and approaches that are emerging in other cities, and we’ve encouraged the city to work harder to identify, develop and share these lessons, using a more progressive, evidence-based, peer-to-peer approach.  But these recommendations can be lost amid the criticisms, and the sometimes defensive and heated reactions they invoke.  So to begin the New Year on a constructive note, we summarize recommendations  to the City in five “key messages:”

  1. Think more polycentrically.  Stop over-concentrating on the city core, which is already over-heated and in danger of being “killed with kindness”. Recognize that most of the people in the Portland region – and therefore, most of the human and ecological needs – are in the vast majority of the area outside the central city core.  Most of these people do not live in the core and never will.  Instead of imagining that social justice demands that we jam anyone who wants to come into the core, re-focus on making the other parts of the region equally high-quality, sustainable, livable, and just — along with the core.  Revitalize the multi-modal “centers and corridors” approach throughout the region – not just in the central city. (I immodestly point to our project of Orenco Station as a partially successful transformation of that kind offering very useful lessons – but much more is needed.)
  2. Develop and apply more aggressive economic and regulatory tools. At the same time, recognize that better tools are needed to keep people in their existing neighborhoods if they choose to remain, to make better-quality development more economically feasible, and to promote diversity and equity across all parts of the city. There is certainly a place for subsidized affordable housing (as we have at Orenco Station, by two different developers).   There is also a place for supply to meet demand in more affordable locations.  But to avoid sprawl, we need to identify and implement a new generation of better economic and regulatory tools.  We need to improve the incentives for more livable, compact growth, and remove the significant barriers that remain – what we might think of as the “operating system for growth” that currently rewards sprawl.  In the past year this blog has discussed land value tax, regulatory streamlining and fast-tracking, other changes to tax policies, and other approaches.
  3. Build on past successes. Portland does offer remarkably positive examples for livable neighborhoods and cities – including the beautiful livable streetcar neighborhoods of the early 20th Century, and the urban renaissance of the late 20th   The city needs to build on these successes (as it did in the late 20th Century renaissance).  It needs to show a healthier skepticism to the siren songs of current fashionable (and profitable, for some) thinking, including “build baby build,” “voodoo urbanism,” and other follies.  Recognize too, that as important as green technologies are, the most important “green” aspect of cities is the inherent sustainability of a walkable, livable, beautiful, enduring neighborhood.
  4. Resist “silver bullets.” This is a dangerous time for urban development, and Portland is far from immune to the dangers.  Enormous economic pressures, including increasingly global real estate capital, are causing over-heating of our city cores, resulting in terrible problems of gentrification, loss of affordability, displacement, growing inequality, and loss of diversity.  This trend is especially shameful for Portland, with its overtly racist history.  At the same time, we need to resist “silver bullet” solutions that produce only tokenistic benefits, while exacerbating the underlying dynamics.  One of the worst is the self-serving mythology that has arisen around tall buildings – the ultimate silver bullets, or “silver skyscrapers.”  This is in spite of what the evidence actually shows, and what thoughtful observers like the ULI’s Ed McMahon have told us.  There is no replacement for a well-connected, accessible, polycentric city.
  5. Be more transparent, accountable, peer-to-peer, and evidence-based. Over the last year we’ve covered many disturbing stories about less than transparent and accountable government activities, including apparent conflicts of interest, insider dealings, and what can only be described as a complacent, defensive culture of self-congratulation.  This is far from a sound position from which to successfully meet our growing urban challenges.  At the same time, a “divide-and-conquer” mentality has overtaken the city, with growing divisions between different constituencies with different “identity politics”.  In this environment, it’s crucial that the City work in a cooperative, peer-to-peer mode, sharing evidence and working together to identify “win-win” strategies to address problems.  There is much to learn from other cities around the US and the world, and much to share with them too about our successes and failures.  (And the “New Urban Agenda” offers an enormous opportunity for improvement of urban quality, with significant opportunities for Portland to lead and to learn.) We need to embrace a healthier culture of self-challenge, learning and growth.

Over the last year we’ve seen disturbing signs that Portland may be “losing the plot,” as the expression goes.  We’re losing our commitment to grass-roots energy and activism, to building on our urban heritage, to protecting the fundamental framework of a livable, open, accessible city – the things that have made us successful in the past.  We may be losing the entire neighborhood involvement system, or any effective version of it — re-branded and re-named into oblivion.

We’re becoming much too credulous about simplistic, tokenistic and self-serving approaches that demonize and divide residents, while empowering those whose interests are not those of the city as a whole.  We’re letting ourselves be lulled into believing professionally dubious ideas that have more to do with the early 20th Century than the early 21st.  But they are profitable, and therein lies the danger – as always, money is a potentially corrupting motivation.

The best thing we can do in the New Year, I suggest, is to re-connect with our strengths, with our urban heritage and our legacy of grassroots activism.  Resist fads, “flavors of the month,” siren songs that take us in the wrong direction.  Recognize the enormous asset that we do have, in our urban pattern, our mixed use fabric, our increasingly diverse transportation choices, and our splendid built legacy.  With these assets and the new generation of tools and resources that are now emerging, we have what we need to build a better city.