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.
Portland has a reputation for being progressive and socially just. But are we really so different from other cities that favor winners (mostly in the core) over losers (mostly away from the core)? Is our current wave of runaway growth, displacement and homelessness showing up our deeper failures?
Other cities justify this kind of “trickle down” approach under the pervasive economic theory that it’s ultimately best for everyone’s bottom line to favor society’s winners. Are we in Portland perhaps unconsciously accepting this theory too, and merely making tokenistic gestures towards greater equity — as if to say “it’s a nice ideal up to a point, but… business is business?”
But what if the theory is actually wrong? The urban economist Jane Jacobs made a strong case that sustainable economic growth comes not by favoring winners, but by maintaining creative diversity and opportunity across the fabric of a well-connected city. Indeed, she warned in her last prophetic book that, if we don’t recognize the inevitable failures of our current approach, we may be hurtling into a “dark age ahead”…
Responding to a wave of soaring rents, displacement and homelessness, the City of Portland has recently enacted its first inclusionary zoning law. Under the law, new developments over a certain size must provide a percentage of “affordable” units. The need is urgent and real – but will it work?
Some warn of unintended consequences. They join the urban economist Jane Jacobs, who advised a deeper look at the dynamics of price and place. Don’t sprawl, of course, she said — but conversely, don’t kill your centers with kindness. Instead, build more great urban places that are all part of the well-connected, diverse fabric of the larger city. Build serious, community-supported, win-win approaches to getting more homes, within more and better-quality urban places. She cautioned against “bolt-on” approaches that fail to address the underlying dynamic, and that can even accelerate negative trends.