A blog about how we can become a better city, WITHOUT losing our livable heritage
Author: Michael Mehaffy
Michael Mehaffy, Ph.D., is Senior Researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Executive Director of Sustasis Foundation in Portland, Oregon, and a strategic development consultant and urban designer with over 20 years of international experience in economic development strategy, urban planning, infrastructure, public involvement and communication, and inter-disciplinary project management. He is on the editorial boards of two international journals of urban design, and he has held seven research and/or teaching appointments in six countries. He has been active in Portland-area planning and building since 1991. Among his most noted projects is Orenco Station, a walkable mixed-use transit-oriented development with 1,800 homes and 600,000 square feet of retail, for which he served as project manager for the master developer. The project successfully introduced compact walkable development to a sprawling area of the Portland suburbs. Michael has also consulted for many area governments, NGOs and private clients. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
It seems the architecture and design community has forgotten a painful lesson. All through the 1960s and 1970s, the world saw a brilliant set of critiques of the colossal failures of modernism in architecture — Peter Blake’s Form Follows Fiasco, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, and many more. We also saw the beautiful historic cores of cities demolished to make way for ugly outscale boxes, meant as much to market the shiny new corporate world as anything else. “New! Improved!”
Out in the sprawling suburbs this new orthodoxy also brought in giant boxy department store malls and wide Le Corbusier-style freeways lined with slab-tower offices. The houses, superficially traditional, were also exceedingly modernized too — stripped of ornament, full of blank panels and crude window proportions. But it was all so… modern!
Of course these structures were incredibly profitable for the companies involved. Of course they all left us immeasurably poorer, in the environmental disaster of suburbia, in the civic life and the public spaces of the profoundly damaged cities.
In those heady activist days, Portland seemed to learn its lessons, and a wave of revival swept into the city: new traditional structures around Pioneer Square, historic renovations in Old Town, revitalizations in the historic neighborhoods, and revival of “old-fashioned” planning ideas like transit and walkability.
But now the fashion has shifted, and what was new and then old is now new again. A generation that forgot its lessons about human scale and public-space delights — or never learned them — is now profiting from the latest op-art fashions. It will be all right this time, they tell us. This time we will jam them together and put propellers on them!
It’s not like no one knew. All along, the critics have been very articulate about the problems of modernism, even up to the present day. All along we have witnessed the complicity with environmental disaster — which won’t be mitigated with a few bolt-on gadgets. Here is the world-famous “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, speaking much more recently:
Modernism’s alchemistic promise – to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition – has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn’t work. Its ideas, aesthetics, strategies are finished. Together, all attempts to make a new beginning have only discredited the idea of a new beginning. A collective shame in the wake of this fiasco has left a massive crater in our understanding of modernity and modernization.
Where is the “collective shame” in Portland? It has been forestalled for a time — until the latest crop of failures catches up to us yet again. And then we will wonder, as we did a half century ago, how we let so much of our livable heritage be destroyed.
The level of anger among Portland neighborhoods is palpable. The promise of Portland’s neighborhood involvement system, a noble creation of activists of the 1970s and 1980s, is now in doubt. Instead of focusing on the core agenda of empowering grass-roots democracy and participation, too much of the focus seems to be on “turf protection,” “damage control,” blaming “NIMBYs” and suppressing “troublemakers.” Too many competing agendas – many of them unaccountable special interests – are acting to suppress healthy democratic debate and grass-roots problem-solving.
What are the key issues? We see four main areas of concern:
– Funding equity. Surely each citizen should receive, through their local neighborhood association, an equitable share of the support provided by the City for neighborhood involvement and participatory budgeting. At present, funding disparity is an unacceptable condition for many East Portland neighborhoods, and for neighborhoods with significant minority populations. More broadly, it is an issue for all neighborhoods, whose democratic participation and financial equity are diluted and filtered by coalition bureaucracies, and by misguided attempts to insert competing “non-geographic communities” in a heavy-handed, hodge-podge fashion. – Direct and meaningful democratic representation.All neighborhood associations should be free to form coalitions and caucuses so as to magnify their influence on issues of common concern. However, the current non-profit coalition system, which was created and imposed by the City, has produced significant problems. Most seriously, it introduces an extraneous, essentially unaccountable unit of governance (i.e. a State-recognized non-profit corporation, which is a legal person outside of City governance). This structure causes interference with democratic representation, by introducing a discontinuous layer of administrative bureaucracy. Because it is a separate corporate person, it does not and cannot operate effectively within the accountable system of City governance. This extraneous layer must be reformed. – Efficiency, transparency and accountability of support. Funding and other forms of support should be leveraged to provide maximum impact with maximum transparency and accountability. All actions should focus on direct citizen participation, participatory budgeting and capacity to act within their own neighborhoods. However, as noted previously, the current coalition system inserts a series of bureaucratic layers, inefficiencies, and competing (sometimes unaccountable) agendas. – Subsidiarity and meaningful participation.The principle of “subsidiary governance” relies upon the recognition that ultimately, “all politics is local.” It follows that all other levels of government are subsidiary and should be in the business of empowering the most local units. While other non-geographic communities can and should be recognized, they should not be placed into competition with the neighborhoods and their associations, or within the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. Geographic representation is a fundamental principle of American governance, and therefore, the focus must be on maximizing participation by excluded communities within the neighborhood associations themselves – not by placing the City’s “thumb on the scale” and diluting the authentic democratic participation of neighborhoods and their citizens with City-selected “non-geographic” entities.
Portland has an internationally celebrated neighborhood involvement system — but the evidence is that it has become complacent, stagnant and dysfunctional. Both the new mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Eudaly have been elected with a mandate for reform. The moment of opportunity is present, but limited. The time for reform has arrived.
In the last decade or so, a new fashion has come to dominate Portland’s architecture and planning circles. We might think of it as “Little Vancouver” – aggressively modern buildings, often tall or bulky, surrounding well-manicured landscapes of public space. The buildings are often extravagant, artfully expressive, and sometimes darlings of architecture critics.
In Vancouver BC, former planner Larry Beasley referred to that city’s approach as a version of New Urbanism. But we might also regard them as a modestly more urban reincarnation of the “Towers in the Park” formula of the 1930s utopian architect Le Corbusier, or other varieties of the same modernist movement he championed. Some of the elements of New Urbanism are tacked on — some mixed use, some transit, some green features.
The trouble is, Le Corbusier’s modernist utopia — embraced enthusiastically by the likes of General Motors and the freeway-building Robert Moses — did not quite work out as planned. Around the world, it ended in dystopian landscapes of functionally segregated, resource-guzzling proto-sprawl. This was the regime eviscerated by critics like Jane Jacobs – herself a darling of Portland planners of a generation ago.
So it’s curious that many Portland architects and planners now seem persuaded that this new-retro approach is a wonderful thing. This time around, we will get more density as a result of these buildings, and that adds to sustainability. Even better, we will be able to install wonderful new “green” technologies on and around these buildings. The buildings will be stylish canvases for our contemporary artistic expressions. And we can use the high profits from these buildings (and their increasingly wealthy buyers) to set aside affordable housing, save some historic buildings, and even create some new public space (Director Park is a proudly cited example). This is a good industry for the city, fueling jobs and improving its attractiveness.
So why is it that our architecture colleagues — a community to which the two founders of this blog belong, we should note — seem so credulous and so immune to the evidence, not only of research but of ordinary experience? Why is the gulf so big between what architects and planners judge to be good buildings, and what pretty much everybody else thinks?
More pointedly, why, on the best evidence, are we slowly but persistently destroying the livable quality and heritage of Portland, with the best of apparent intentions?
It turns out that there is good research on this question too. Environmental psychologists have documented a number of cognitive and professional biases at work within the architectural and planning communities. For example, Gifford et al. (2002) surveyed other research and noted that “architects did not merely disagree with laypersons about the aesthetic qualities of buildings, they were unable to predict how laypersons would assess buildings, even when they were explicitly asked to do so.” The researchers traced this aesthetic blindness to well-known cognitive differences in the two populations: “Evidence that certain cognitive properties are related to building preference [was] found.”
A similar cognitive bias is explained by what is known as “construal level theory.” Architects and planners, having a psychological distance from the actual lives and experiences of people within their buildings and landscapes, must “construe” the criteria that they deem to be of value. Often these criteria are at odds with the values and concerns of actual citizens and residents, and the architects often focus instead on the more exotic and precious concerns of other architects — formal manipulations, witty professional references and the like. But these issues bear little relation to the actual quality of life of citizens — and in that there is a troubling question of professional ethics. In short, what is the purpose of architecture, beyond its capacity to please architects and their connoisseurs?
Another factor is more prosaic — the role of architects as marketers for large-scale industrial developments. In effect we become packagers of a product, and our irresistible “packaging” is our art, combined with the expert allure of our universities. You might like the result because it’s shiny and new. If you don’t like it, you are a “philistine,” who doesn’t appreciate good art, or expert intelligence.
This we shut down debate by imposing our expertise, and spurning more robust traditional alternatives as “pastiche,” “kitsch,” and similar architectural curse words. But in such an economically dependent condition, it is hard for us to look critically at the source of our own livelihoods, and more tempting to continue the apologist narratives, helping to explain (to others and to ourselves) how benevolent it all really is.
As the writer Upton Sinclair famously said, “it is difficult to get someone to understand something, when their salary depends on their not understanding it.”
“The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing,” said the architect Rem Koolhaas, “to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value.” Perhaps that’s because, in our effort to create something marketably exciting and new, we have lost the coherence and beauty of good human environments with robust natural qualities, of the kind we can see all around us — including in Portland’s own history.
Well, whatever we do, we mustn’t copy the past, according to the most egregious self-serving tenet of the faithful. Yet our ancestors practiced just such a revivalism repeatedly — in the Arts and Crafts, the Renaissance, Georgian London, 19th Century Paris, and thousands of other periods and places — and it produced some of the most successful, most loved, most long-lasting and sustainable places in human history. But whatever we do, we must never, ever build anything like them again? Instead, we are told, we need buildings “of our time.” It seems we deserve to be punished with crappy environments – but at least they are “modern”.
Thankfully, the research evidence clearly points out such cognitive follies, which are the results of systematic errors of thinking. We can see these biases and illusions at work in the fascinating research of psychologists like Daniel Kahneman (the subject of a new book by Michael Lewis) and the “bounded rationality” described by Herbert Simon and others. This rich and growing field offers us much to think about.
The question is, can we use these insights to break open our own illusions, and begin to see more clearly how Portland can be a truly better city?
“Portlanders will vote in May whether to strengthen the independence of the elected auditor who oversees Portland’s Independent Police Review Division and evaluates the performance of the city’s bureaus.
“The Portland City Council voted unanimously Wednesday (Feb 1) to put before voters changes to the city’s charter that would give the auditor greater independence over spending, hiring and legal decisions.
“Mayor Ted Wheeler called the unanimous decision “historic” and noted that Portland City Council needs to give the public confidence in a time when “government accountability is under siege.”
City Commissioner Dan Saltzman introduced an amendment that would greatly weaken the Auditor’s proposal, placing the Ombudsman’s role in City code instead of the City Charter. That amendment failed 4-1.
The Ombudsman earlier found undisclosed potential conflicts of interest in a key City of Portland Stakeholder Advisory Committee. That committee, the West Quadrant Plan SAC, was advising the City on real estate development deregulation, as part of the Central City 2035 Plan. The Ombudsman found that members of the SAC are public officials under ethics laws, and that the City erred in not requiring such disclosures. The Saltzman family is also known to have a number of development interests around the city.
The Portland Chronicle has listed the 376 homes that were demolished last year, many in close-in neighborhoods with historic fabric. The Chronicle also notes that the year before, 326 homes were demolished. That is a pace of about 3,500 homes per decade.
Is this destruction needed to accommodate new growth, as some claim? The evidence is not there. According to a housing supply background study done for the Portland Plan in 2010, infill without demolition could accommodate large numbers: “Construction on underutilized lots alone could add more than 120,000 units. ” An informal survey of the large number of parking lots and under-utilized sites across the city seems to confirm that enormous untapped capacity.
In related news, five adjacent historic homes in Goose Hollow were slated for demolition as the result of a preliminary proposal for redevelopment of a condominium tower at SW 18th and Madison. The plans were disclosed in a pre-application meeting at the City of Portland on December 16. There were later reports that the proposal is temporarily on hold, but the ultimate fate of the buildings does not appear positive:
Ironically, the homes are immediately adjacent to an empty parking lot. There are no known plans for development for that site.
Portland’s model of neighborhood involvement is often held up as a standard of political participation for other cities. But recent revelations of problems within the Office Neighborhood Involvement (including the City Auditor’s recent review that found a “trifecta” of problems) call into question whether the city’s heyday of political activism – stopping freeways, building parks and plazas and the like — has given rise to another, more cynical era of cronyism and tokenistic representation (a question we have explored elsewhere in this blog).
Such a condition doesn’t require malevolent intent. It only requires that people become complacent, resting perhaps too much on their past laurels. It requires that City officials allow those with strong self-interests to seize their opportunities, and rationalize to the rest of us how their actions will create jobs, or build sustainability, or generate funding to do other things. But these claims get scant examination for their validity.
Worse, when those claims or their consequences get challenged with grassroots dissent, there is a temptation to characterize this activism as a form of intolerable NIMBYism, and those who speak out are characterized as cranks, or small vocal elements of a political fringe, or “retirees with too much time on their hands.” Sometimes, those who speak out do indeed feel frustrated and marginalized, and sometimes that frustration manifests in angry expressions.
But of course, this dissent is what democratic citizenship is all about, and it is what grass-roots activism is all about. People are passionate, and sometimes vocal, and sometimes, yes, angry — especially when they feel they are not being heard or respected. Welcoming this activism, this dissent, should be what the Portland neighborhood involvement system is all about too, surely.
Of course, those who once wanted to build very destructive freeways, and demolish treasured buildings, and displace entire neighborhoods of minorities (as they indeed did in Portland’s unhappy past) did not greet the citizen activists of the 1970s with welcome arms. Those activists were disparaged and marginalized then.
So it is a rich irony, and a troubling one, that we seem to have returned to the days when neighborhood representatives are now regularly disparaged and marginalized by representatives of developer interests, sometimes sadly joined by representatives of the City, and sometimes, their sympathetic allies within the neighborhood involvement system itself. Worse, they are subject to political pressure and control, using funding mechanisms, insurance regulations, and other subtle ways of putting neighborhoods under the thumb of City Hall.
This is not a sign of healthy democratic neighborhood involvement, but rather, a symptom of a broken system.
The principle of subsidiarity is an important one to invoke at this point. Subsidiarity is widely discussed in many countries today, and within United Nations proceedings. It is regarded by many as a precondition for healthy democratic participation and political justice. It boils down to the familiar idea that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and from their informed participation at many levels, including the grass roots. The “higher” levels of government are in fact subsidiary to the lower levels, and to the people themselves. (There is a relation to the idea of “polycentric governance” proposed by Elinor Ostrom, Jane Jacobs and others.)
Under Portland’s current neighborhood involvement system, that principle has, somehow, become inverted. The neighborhood associations have become administrative subjects of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and of the coalition system by which ONI administers its services. The money, insurance protection, websites and other benefits inevitably, intentionally or not, come with strings attached. There are subtle, and sometimes not subtle, exercises of political pressure and restraint on behavior from above. For a grass-roots democratic organization, this amounts to a subversion of democratic autonomy and free expression.
It is true that the neighborhood associations need more accountability, more transparency, and more participation from a fuller representative cross-section of their neighborhoods. But it is equally true that the entire neighborhood involvement system needs this and other reforms, from top to bottom. It is not helpful to suppose that the problem is that certain citizens are choosing to become active in issues they care about, and not helpful to disparage these same people. That is a symptom of a system that is in an advanced state of dysfunction.
It would seem that the new Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Eudaly, both with agendas of greater transparency and accountability, bring with them an opportunity to examine the neighborhood involvement system, and explore the range of needed reforms. We hope they will start with the principle of subsidiarity, and work with the goal of a more constructive and more subsidiary relationship between citizens and their City.
Portland City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero believes there is a problem with the current structure of City government. The Auditor’s office, which is charged with reviewing the actions of other Executive Branch bureaus, is not sufficiently independent of those same bureaus, she says. This too-cozy relationship subjects the Auditor to potential political pressure and funding restrictions, in conflict with Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards. The result, she says, is a lack of ethical transparency and accountability in City affairs — not incidentally, a key campaign issue for the two newest members of the Council, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
At a January 10th workshop, Hull Caballero presented concrete proposals to re-organize the position of the Auditor and make other reforms, which would require an amendment to the City Charter. That amendment would have to be approved by the voters in a May 16th election. The City Council will take up the question at a hearing on January 25th at 2pm at City Council, 1221 SW 4th Avenue. Citizens are invited to testify in person, or by email to Commissioners, the City Clerk, and the Auditor.
The hearing should be telling. Mayor Ted Wheeler criticized the City heavily for a lack of transparency and accountability in government as a candidate, and this would seem an opportune time to make good on his campaign pledges for reform. Chloe Eudaly, also just elected as Commissioner, has indicated she strongly supported the proposals. Commissioners Fish and Saltzman are less clear in their positions (Saltzman was absent from the January 10th workshop) while Commissioner Fritz was openly opposed. (It should be noted that Commissioner Fritz until recently headed the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the subject of a “scathing” report by the Auditor. She was removed from that position against her wishes by Mayor Wheeler.)
Three guest speakers strongly supported the Auditor’s proposals at the workshop: Gary Blackmer, past Portland City auditor for many years, and later Director of Secretary of State’s Audits Division for many years. Craig Kenton, Dallas City Auditor, who recently led a similar review in Dallas; and Kristen Chambers, attorney, National Lawyers Guild member, stakeholder on other accountability stakeholder committees.
The 2011 Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (also referred to as the “Yellow Book”) specifically requires Auditors to address threats to their independence. This is what the Auditor hopes to accomplish with these charter changes.
The Auditor’s three proposals are:
An ability to hire independent legal counsel.
Current structure requires legal support to come from the City Attorney, who is hired and reports directly to City Council. Being required to use them as legal counsel for internal investigations is an obvious conflict of interest. The Auditor is both watchdog and “the watched.”
The right to present the Auditor’s budget directly to City Council.
The current structure requires the Auditor’s budget to be processed first by the Budget Office, which is hired and reports directly to City Council. The Charter change would ensure the Auditor’s Office is autonomous, appropriately funded and insulated from political interference. The City of Dallas Auditor reported that that City recently went through a similar revision, and he recommended the budget solution now used by the City: a standing percentage of the annual city budget is given to the City Auditor’s office.
The right to make personnel, management, and procurement decisions independently for the Auditor’s Office.
The proposal would ensure the Auditor’s Office is autonomous from the Office of Management and Finance and other bureaus. The Auditor will periodically procure or conduct internal quality control reviews and report the results to the public.
Portland’s new Mayor Ted Wheeler made it clear during the campaign that he thinks Portland has a significant problem with ethical transparency, notably in its planning processes. “We need a city government committed at all levels to increased transparency and accountability in governing, and it appears this is an area where they have fallen short,” he told the Northwest Examiner during the campaign.
Then-candidate Wheeler was speaking about the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and their West Quadrant Plan Stakeholder Advisory Committee, part of the Central City 2035 plan that is now moving through review. The City Auditor had just found that members of the Committee had not disclosed potential conflicts of interest, including some with significant development interests in the area. “The public deserves confidence that city decisions aren’t being made with undisclosed interests influencing the process,” said Wheeler.
Now that he is in office, many people wonder how the new Mayor will handle the issue.
From the Northwest Examiner last year:
“Portland city officials have not been overly concerned about possible conflicts of interest among citizens who advise them on policy matters… This casual attitude toward citizen advisers may be ending as a result of an Oct. 21  report by Ombudsman Margie Sollinger of the City Auditor’s Office.
“Sollinger supported the essence of an anonymous complaint filed with her office in June. The complaint charged that property owners, builders, developers, architects and others with a financial stake in development filled 24 of the 33 seats on the West Quadrant Stakeholders Advisory Committee. [Advising on elements of the Central City 2035 Plan, including increased building heights and other potential developer benefits.]
“Furthermore, all but one of the 17 members who voted to increase building height limits and relax development restrictions had real or potential conflicts of interest, the complaint asserted.
“Members of the committee were not asked to disclose their property interests at any point in a two-year process during which they met 16 times and produced a plan later approved by City Council.
“I have concluded that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability did not properly train SAC members about their legal obligations,” Sollinger wrote. “I have also concluded that it appears likely that individual SAC members did not comply with their obligations to disclose potential conflicts of interest.
““As a remedy, I have recommended that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability call for SAC members to publicly disclose any potential conflicts before the Planning and Sustainability Commission or the City Council adopts a final plan in 2016,” [Sollinger said.]
“I commend the citizen activists who brought this to the auditor’s attention and her push to require transparency from all appointees to advisory committees about potential conflicts of interest,” [said then-Mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler.]
UPDATE: The City Attorney did direct the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to request the disclosure statements from SAC members after the fact. Five of the 33 members of the West Quadrant SAC did not comply, including several prominent developers with holdings in the area:
As we’re assessing what we in Portland need to do to build on our livable heritage, and how we can exchange lessons with other cities, it’s worth stopping occasionally to look at the powerful assets we do have. One of our most important assets is surely our famously walkable street grid – a holdover from the 19th Century streetcar city design, based in turn on the Continental Land Survey with its 1-mile grid system.
Here’s an article from a while back celebrating this treasure, and pointing out the important lessons it has to offer to other cities. Those are lessons we can still learn too, as we look to re-connect and revitalize sprawling parts of the city, and the region.
The current issue of Portland’s Willamette Week has a “pop quiz” for the newly inaugurated Mayor Wheeler, who starts his position today. One of the eyebrow-raising questions concerned the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, or ONI: “True or false: ONI is the city bureau most in need of reform.”
His response: “It’s tied for first place.” (With the Police Bureau, we later learned.
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is a feature of pride for a city that has a reputation for citizen activism and strong neighborhood representation in government affairs. But recent developments have exposed deep problems in the department, and perhaps in the City’s wider culture of stakeholder representation. The Mayor’s comments come less than two months after a scathing article in The Oregonian:
“City auditors have found a trifecta of problems inside Portland’s office promoting neighborhoods and civic engagement, including poor oversight, unequal funding and unfinished plans.”
Among other issues, the Oregonian article described unequal funding for citizens in different parts of the city, with notably higher funding in the core than in the periphery:
“In the last fiscal year, officials doled out $2.1 million to the seven district coalitions that serve as umbrella groups for various neighborhood associations. Of that, the East Portland Neighborhood Office and the Central Northeast group each received nearly the same amount of money — just under $300,000. But the east office represents nearly 150,000 people, three times as many residents as Central Northeast, meaning it received about $2 for every person in its dominion compared to about $6 for the other group.”