Resisting the privatization of the public realm

A defeat of a new Apple store that would have occupied part of a park in Stockholm — by vigilant neighborhood activists — shows that some are still willing to fight for public space.

Stockholm’s beautiful Kungsträdgården, a central public space in the city.

From CityLab:

Apple is not coming to Stockholm. At least, it’s not coming to a new location at the Swedish capital’s heart.

Last month, Stockholm announced that it would block plans for a new Apple Store in the city’s center, overturning the agreement of a previous administration following widespread public outcry. As this article in The Guardian notes, the objection wasn’t against Apple as such (the company already has three Swedish stores) but against the site they chose. Had the company’s plan gone through, the electronics giant would have been camped at the end of Stockholm’s oldest, most central park: a lovely oblong oasis of greenery and paving called the Kungsträdgården, or King’s Garden. In doing so, Apple would have also taken over (but not necessarily built on) 375 square meters (4,037 square feet) of the park surrounding its store—a small chunk of the park’s overall footprint, but a sizeable privatization of public space in such a key, pivotal site.

…The sheer force of resistance—a public consultation received not a single petition in Apple’s favor—shows that there’s something more at work here than a simple debate over shopping space. Stockholm’s resistance is powered, it seems, by widespread concern about corporations taking over public spaces.  

Indeed, Apple’s Stockholm plans form part of an international pattern. The tech giant has sought to set itself up in key public areas across the world’s cities, often taking over previously non-commercial spaces such as, in certain cases, former library and museum sites (more of which in a moment). They then present their store facilities as natural extensions of this public space, even as cultural institutions…

It’s not really fair to only blame Apple for this: It’s just a company that, following the imperative encoded in all companies, seeks profit and market position. It has found, one assumes, that promoting itself (erroneously or not) as a sort of neutral custodian of the public sphere ultimately helps its bottom line, which is, and must be, its purpose.

The problem is the ground ceded to Apple and corporations like it by the state, which (partly under corporate pressure) is relinquishing its role as place-maker and ensurer of democratic access to public space. Apple’s ability to plausibly present their stores as new town squares rests on a tacit, erroneous assumption that the old, existing town squares are gone or broken. There’s no consideration, for example, that a new, truly public function for an underused library could be found.

Read the full article here.

Portland rents are coming down – for the wealthy

“Rents have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.” – Quote in Portland Tribune report

After adding 15,000 apartment units since 2015, Portland’s rental market has proven that adding supply does address demand and lower prices — but the question is, for whom.

According to new data from Zillow, Portland prices have dropped 2.7 percent — but that drop is mostly in high-cost housing, which is where most of the units have been added.  From an article in the Portland Tribune:

Portland and many other major cities have been inundated with a glut of luxury housing in the last few years, and local developers are reportedly sweetening their deals with Amazon giftcard giveaways and related gimmicks in order to lure wealthy customers.

This seems to be a nationwide trend, but Portland is leading the way:

Zillow’s experts found declines in annual rental prices in more than half of nation’s 35 largest markets, but the Rose City led the way — with the biggest decrease between September 2017 and September 2018.

The article concludes:

As two freelance journalists recently put it: “Rents in Portland have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.”

Who knew?  This blog, for one: we have been warning for some time that a “build, baby build” approach is dangerous, and likely counter-productive. We have to be much more strategic in how and where we build, and for whom.  Other more thoughtful voices have also been speaking out.

Read the full article:

Lively conversations at the showing of “Citizen Jane”

Film about the iconic activist is followed by a community discussion on Portland’s current challenges.

The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City presented a historical account of Jane Jacobs’ activism in the early 1960s, in parallel with environmental, social justice and women’s movements.

On Friday, October 19th, about 150 people participated in a screening followed by an animated discussion of Portland’s current challenges as they were illuminated by the writings and activism of urban pioneer Jane Jacobs.  The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, screened at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, gave an account of Jacobs’ iconic 1960s battles with development czar Robert Moses, builder of freeways and housing projects, and demolisher of what he termed “slums” — but what Jacobs and others saw as vital places of social capital and city diversity.  The film also delved more deeply into Jacobs’ ideas about cities, presenting an overview of her rich theoretical and philosophical perspective on cities.

Heather Flint Chatto discusses the importance of community collaboration on design, and the experience of the Division Design Initiative.

At the end of the screening, a panel and community discussion moderated by Allan Classen of the Northwest Examiner asked what we can learn today from Jacobs’ ideas and legacy.  He was joined by SE Examiner editor Midge Pierce, former Portland Planning Commission Chair Ric Michaelson,  Division Design Initiative coordinator Heather Flint Chatto, and yours truly, co-host Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis Foundation (and this blog).

In my remarks as co-host, I sought to set the stage for exploring  the parallels between Jacobs’ ideas and the current issues we face in Portland:

Thank you all for coming to this remarkable film about a remarkable person, who played such a key role in Portland’s history and so many others’ too – and a person who still has a lot to say to us today about our current challenges.  And we’ll explore that in the discussion afterwards, so please do stick around for that.

By the way, I’m Michael Mehaffy, I’m executive director of Sustasis Foundation, one of the sponsors of tonight’s event, along with the Northwest Examiner and International Making Cities Livable.

So I’m going to take just a couple of minutes to provide some background setup, including some of the Portland context, so please bear with me and we’ll get to the film monetarily.

So the promotion for this movie describes it as a, quote, “chronicle of activist Jane Jacobs’ battle with developers who threatened to demolish NYC’s most historic neighborhoods, and a lesson in the power of the average person to push back,” unquote.

And yes, that’s part of the story – but only part of it. Because really what Jacobs was talking about was how a city WORKS, and how to make it work better – how to make it more diverse, more equitable, more productive, a place of human development and flourishing.  And why certain strategies are doomed to fail — and not only to fail, but to cause enormous long-term harm to the city and its residents, especially to those who are not wealthy or powerful. 

When Jacobs was writing and working as an activist, we were in the surging era of city modernism and modernization, the 1950s and 60s. It was really gripping the country and the world at that time, as the film shows.  We’ll see what Jacobs fought against – the top-down thinking, the expansion of freeways and superblocks and giant buildings, and everywhere the bulldozing of history and human-scale fabric.  That included appalling cases in minority neighborhoods, and as James Baldwin says in the film, cases of quote, “Negro removal.” As we all know, that happened to a shocking degree here in Portland.  

Of course cities do change and grow, and we do need new housing supply to meet demand – Jacobs never questioned that.  But of course the issue always is, where, and how, is growth occurring – and who is really going to benefit in the end. And what do citizens have to say about that in a democracy. Are we using an even-tempered approach across the region, preserving and building on our assets? Are we working with the dynamics of the city, maintaining and increasing its diversity?  Or are we doing something more reckless, perhaps, for other poorly considered and self-interested reasons?  It may seem like progress, we may convince ourselves it’s something wonderful and progressive – but is it really motivated more by the thrill of novelty and financial self-interest?  Jacobs wants us to ask these hard questions of ourselves, and her own judgment was often harsh.  As she says in the film, “Any city that’s tearing down its buildings just to make money for a development, or just to have novelty, is doing something criminal.”

Well, we learned a lot of painful lessons coming out of that era, as the film relates. Places like Portland were part of the battle to recover the human scale of cities, the small-grained activities of the streets, the livable beauty of our heritage, the mix of uses and ways of getting around – and especially, the diversity of the city.  To get that, we had to fight the corrosive influence of money and power and unresponsive government.  And of course we still do.

Robert Moses, Jacobs’ major nemesis in the film, was active here in Portland too, laying out huge freeway projects that were never built.  They were never built because neighborhood activists here rose up and fought for what they believed, a vision of a better city.  And we are in their debt today, more than we realize. 

We made a lot of progress from that era, although Portland has always been a work in progress, with a mix of successes and many challenges remaining.  We still need to fight bad projects that damage our heritage and our city life, and fight for good projects, that build on the best dynamics of cities.  As the title of tonight’s event suggests, the battle for the city continues. 

And now we find ourselves with a new challenge, I would say a new reactionary if profitable phase of modernization – and the same troubling bulldozing of history, the same troubling command-and-control approach to urban problems, the same troubling wave of sterile large-scale, top-down structures created by developers and designers – with ever weirder and, for some, uglier buildings — leaving human beings with little to really engage with.  And we see similar claims that this is for the best for people, for affordability, for the environment.  And similar attacks on those citizens who dare to question that conventional wisdom. Some of my colleagues in the architecture, planning and development professions seem to think that if they just sprinkle some mixed use and some street cars at the base, the failed old model will work after all.  Well, watch the film, and I think you can see a pretty powerful critique of that kind of thinking.

One of the aspects of Jacobs’ work that is not so much covered in the film is the emphasis on grass-roots governance at many levels, and most importantly down to specific places, specific neighborhoods.  And I quote from her great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“The principal coordination needed comes down to coordination among different services within localized places…  The invention required is not a device for coordination at the generalized top, but in specific and unique localities.”

In Portland we have a fundamental problem with this kind of localized governance.  We have an at-large system of council elections, which leaves many parts of the city unrepresented.  We have a commissioner system of bureau management, which tends to encourage top-down bureaucracy without bottom-up responsiveness and accountability. And we have a neighborhood association system that is therefore all the more important, but – and here I will speak frankly – that is moribund, and in dire need of reform and revitalization.  And yet at this moment, the bureau in charge of it seems to be moving in a very different direction.

The film concludes by observing that the kind of city-making that Jacobs fought against is now growing faster than ever before all around the world – freeways, superblocks, horizontal sprawl, vertical sprawl if you will. One of the speakers calls it “Robert Moses on steroids.” I think we have to face the global consequences of this destructive kind of city-making for the great challenges of the future – for resource depletion, ecological destruction, toxic emissions and climate change.   And I think it’s a systems challenge too, a social challenge, and a governance challenge.  Portland is seen as a leader on these issues for many other cities, for better or worse, and so I think it’s all the more important that we get it right here.  So in that sense, I do think Jacobs and her ideas couldn’t be more relevant for us here today.

So!  We have lots to discuss, and lots to think about!  Thank you, and we hope you enjoy the film.


What does Jane Jacobs still offer to Portland for its current challenges?

A free showing of a new film on Jacobs’ life and ideas will explore the question and its answers (Friday October 19th, 7-10 PM)

The urban champion Jane Jacobs had a special relationship with the City of Portland over its evolution as a more diverse, mixed, walkable place. A frequent advisor to grass-roots activists in the city, Jacobs championed lively, diverse neighborhoods, and she also led citizen activism against powerful special interests.

Jacobs was the author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a landmark work that remains an inspiration for many planners today. Yet in it, she excoriated planners for failing to listen to people, failing to genuinely involve and empower them, and failing to develop effective strategies to promote healthy, equitable urban development.  Not content to criticize, she also explained, in lucid detail and with keen powers of observation, just what was required to remedy those shortcomings.

What does Jacobs say to Portland today?  Quite a lot, it turns out — as documented in the new film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.  The acclaimed film — earning a 94% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes — focuses on Jacobs’ heroic activism in New York City, her victories over bullying planner Robert Moses, and other related struggles, at a time when New York neighborhoods were threatened with destructive new freeways and other out-scale developments.

In Portland a few years later, citizen activists would be inspired by her example to fight bad freeway projects, destructive hospital and shopping mall expansions, and demolition of historic treasures.  Those activist successes laid the foundation for the city’s subsequent urban renaissance,  cementing Portland’s legacy as an icon of urban regeneration and enlightened planning.

But that was then and this is now, we have won those battles, and we have nothing to learn from that past — right?  Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Today we also face a wave of destructive projects,  stiff-arming government officials, the corrosive influence of development money, and counter-productive policies that only exacerbate our problems.  Jacobs’ activism — and moreover, her profound ideas on the nature of cities — still have very much to say to us today.

As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs was not only an activist, but also a deeply insightful scholar and urban scientist, teasing out the workings of cities and the dynamics of urban economies, and offering insights that we could put to work for human benefit.  Her observations on “organized complexity” and a “web way of thinking” marked her as an urban visionary of the first rank.  (And an economist, political theorist and more.) Above all she was a champion of diversity, of the mixing of people, activities, building types and ages, and (most overlooked) geographic locations.

As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs cautioned against “silver bullet” solutions, “rushing monocultures of the new,” and over-building in the cores of cities (including building too high). She eschewed simplistic “whack-a-mole” approaches to our urban problems, instead focusing on a more multi-faceted approach, strategically and geographically. As we wrote previously:

Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth — and likewise the demand for housing — could be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable.


On Friday, October 19th, from 7 to 10PM, the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center (1819 NW Everett Street) will feature a showing of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the acclaimed documentary on Jacobs’ life and ideas.

Come see this remarkable film on her life’s work, followed by a panel discussion on Portland’s current situation, and the still-urgent need for citizen activism. What does Jacobs say to Portlanders, at a time when our fabled neighborhood association system is being deconstructed?

The event is hosted by the Northwest Examiner, the Sustasis Foundation and International Making Cities Livable. Admission is free, but donations to cover expenses are appreciated.  You can sign up here (although you can also just come, if space is available): .  We hope to see you there!

Why is the City of Portland destroying a core civic asset?

A campaign of inclusion is being used as an excuse to dismantle a nationally praised neighborhood system.

An Oregonian op-ed.

From The Oregonian:

The City of Portland is rightly proud of its past urban achievements, including revitalized buildings and neighborhoods, parks and squares replacing freeways and parking lots, transit-served, walkable and bike-friendly streets, and livable neighborhoods that are mostly unspoiled by the mega-projects that blight other cities. In all of these achievements, the city’s neighborhood association system has played a central role. Even today, the city’s website crows that “Portland’s neighborhood system and commitment to public participation has been nationally recognized for many years.”

In that context, it’s troubling that the city agency responsible for the neighborhood system has just changed its name, removing the word “neighborhood” and making it clear that more drastic changes are under way to sideline or even dismantle the system altogether.

So what changed?

The city’s most recent actions began in response to a harshly critical 2016 audit of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. The city auditor found inadequate performance measures, lack of accountability, weak neighborhood involvement and empowerment, and failure to address 20 years of funding inequities.

How did the Office of Neighborhood Involvement react? By hiring a marketing company to rebrand and change its name. The new promotional materials for the Office of Community and Civic Life make it clear the new emphasis will be on representing “communities of identity” — not neighborhoods.

The city is certainly right to take affirmative steps to involve populations that have been excluded historically. Too often, they are still excluded. Portland has a shameful legacy of racism, segregation and environmental injustice, and much more needs to be done now.

But the way to do that is not to sideline the grassroots system that has done so much to revitalize the city. In fact, we should demand more of this system, not less. There are fundamental issues of grassroots democracy at stake.

By definition “communities of identity” are not open to all — as neighborhood associations must be — but instead they may inherently exclude others. The non-profits that represent them are often not required to follow open meeting and public records laws, disclose funding sources or establish standards against conflicts of interest. Their lack of transparency means they are prey to relatively easy manipulation by unaccountable vested interests — so-called “astroturfing.” What seems like authentic grass-roots activism may be something else.

By contrast, neighborhood associations are geographically representative of all the residents within their boundaries – a form of representation that could not be more important in a city that elects its council at large, leaving large sections of the city otherwise poorly represented. Neighborhood associations like our own Goose Hollow Foothills League are required to hold open meetings, maintain public records, hold transparent elections and disclose potential conflicts. This is a vital safeguard of transparency and accountability.

No less troubling: Who decides which organizations will be recognized, and on what issues? The bureau’s director has stated that she will. What kind of influence will these participants really have over the process? Whatever the bureau deems suitable, since they control the process.

This is top-down, thumb-on-scales tokenism — the antithesis of the original grassroots system. Worse, by dividing and conquering — fragmenting community voices into warring “communities of identity” — the city can effectively neutralize effective grassroots democracy.

Activists of all kinds should come together to oppose this political Trojan Horse. We do need a revitalized, accountable, neighborhood-based governance system, with better representation of all residents. We do need effective tools to address our shared and growing challenges: displacement, loss of affordability, homelessness and other urgent problems. Other cities show us that there are effective solutions available, if we work together.

It’s time to strengthen civic engagement of diverse populations within the neighborhood association system, as well as with other affirmative policies. It’s time to demand a stronger neighborhood system empowered and supported by a city office, which is held accountable for its support and budgeting.

In a troubling time of divisive assaults on democracy, it’s time for more democracy — not less.

A helpful history of Portland’s neighborhood association system

The pioneering grass roots system is under unprecedented attack with concerted efforts toward marginalization.  Before we let the system be destroyed, we ought to remember what we actually have, and why it’s worth fighting for.

A history of Portland’s urban achievements, including its pioneering neighborhood association system, in a case study section on the “EcoTipping Points” website.

The following excerpts are from the website The EcoTipping Points Project, a series of case studies of successful efforts to promote more livable, sustainable urban development.   The case study of Portland is well worth a careful read. Sometimes it takes the perspective of outsiders to remind us of the value of what we already have — and what we might lose.

The case study documents statewide land use innovations,  urban planning efforts and other achievements.  These excerpts focus on the emergence of neighborhood associations as key grass-roots resources in the revitalization of the city.


[In the 1960s] Portland was falling into a downward spiral of urban decay, sprawl, and the multiple problems stemming from car-centered development. Not wanting to follow the same pattern that characterized most North American cities, Portland has helped to spearhead a movement towards urban livability. With urban growth boundaries, quality public transportation, and broad-based citizen participation in everything from local and regional planning to neighborhood associations, Portland is at the forefront of a movement to create livable urban regions in North America…


Portland’s Neighborhood Associations (NAs) are often cited as an example of the city’s strong tradition of participatory democracy.

NAs emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as loose coalitions which formed usually to in response to some change affecting the neighborhoods in question. For example, in Lair Hill, student renters and Jewish and Italian families opposed the South Auditorium urban renewal project that would have displaced them. In 1966, Northeast Portland applied to participate in the Model Cities program and a citizen’s planning board was appointed to the project. Meanwhile, in Northwest Portland, proposals to expand the Good Samaritan Hospital spurred neighborhoods to organize and became negotiators for plans that saved older, more established residential neighborhoods. In 1971, Southeast Portland neighborhoods were a key part of the movement that eventually stymied plans to build the Mount Hood Freeway.

There were several reasons for the increased involvement among neighborhoods.  Older neighborhoods were reacting to pressure by development interests. A change in political climate in the 1970s meant new city leaders were not tied to old planning practices favored by their old-school, technocratic predecessors.  There were increased requirements for citizen participation in federal/state programs, such as, among other things, Senate Bill 100.

In 1972, then-Mayor Terry Schrunk convened the District Planning Organizational Task Force to explore the idea of a city mechanism for neighborhood and district citizen participation (in other words, to formalize and legitimize neighborhood involvement in the political process). The task force recommended three principles: a two-tiered structure of both Neighborhood Planning Organizations (NPOS) and DPOs (district planning organizations) be established. Both tiers were to be involved in planning for both physical and social issues, and this structure should have some real authority in City Council.

In 1973, voters elected Neil Goldschmidt, who was a strong advocate for increasing the power of neighborhood associations. He proposed a Bureau of Neighborhood Organizations with a budget of 104,000 dollars, and this proposal became an ordinance. The first draft of the ordinance proposed a system of both NPOs and DPOs when issues emerged concerning more than one neighborhood’s jurisdiction. A second draft ordinance addressed those concerns by the ONA (Office of NAs), created to coordinate among the NAs, which were volunteer-run.

In 1974, the city passed a plan to try out district field offices in three areas of the city where federal resources for this purpose were not available. The ordinance was revised again in 1975 to replace the process of the city’s recognition of NAs with the requirement that they meet minimum standards, ie banning discrimination, written grievance/dissent procedures, and NA by-laws be on file with ONA, and that both the ONA and District Office was to support/enhance the NAs’ work.

Under the plan, city agencies were responsible for notifying neighborhood associations 30 days before a decision affecting a NA, including NAs in all planning efforts affecting neighborhood livability, and making sure the plans recommended by NAs would have a public hearing, and any changes had to be sent to the NA. The NA in turn was responsible for notifying city agencies about planning efforts, sharing info and cooperating with city agencies.

In the NA system’s early years, a major achievement was getting neighborhoods involved with the city’s budget process. This meant the bureaus were asked to be accountable if neighborhood input didn’t appear in the bureau’s budget. By 1979, there were 60 active NAs in Portland. There were neighborhood mediation programs offered through the ONA and focused on disputes between neighbors, ie, tenants and landlords (and later, other issues such as crime prevention and safety).

Since these early years, the system has undergone changes and some difficulties. The recession brought public expenditures under increasing scrutiny. By 1984, there were increasing conflicts between the ONA and district coalitions and between districts. The last 13 years has seen a reorganization and re-evaluation of the purpose and future direction of the NA program.

Today there are 95 NAs in Portland city, 90 of which are served by 7 district offices of varying operational structures. They vary widely in terms of number of meetings/projects, issues, communication efforts and attendance. While there are some problems and limitations of the NA system, recommendations on how to address these have been submitted by various grassroots organizations. Their involvement shows that there is a strong interest in sustaining and improving the NA program.


It’s not just Portland that’s “losing the plot”…

Other West Coast cities are also trying to build their way out of unaffordability, with dubious and divisive strategies, and little to show for it 

San Francisco: Maybe if we just build a lot more million-dollar penthouses, we’ll be affordable then?

In a remarkable recent editorial in the New York Times, staff writer Timothy Egan assesses the reaction of governments in San Francisco and Seattle to familiar problems for Portlanders — soaring home prices, displacement, inequality, homelessness — and he finds them wanting.

The article, titled “Down and Out in San Francisco, on $117,000 a Year,” notes that city is now so expensive that a family income of over $100,000 is now considered “below the poverty line.”  Egan questions whether the government there has a handle on the challenge: “Can people accept more crowded neighborhoods, in a city that is already the second most densely populated among big cities in the nation, if they feel that elected leaders do not have a decent plan — or a clue?”

Egan reports that the City of San Francisco spends an eye-popping $250 million a year on a population of 7,500 homeless — translating into about $33,000 per person per year.  To put that in perspective, that’s enough money to purchase a home worth about $400,000 for each homeless person.   Yet the city’s problems persist unabated.

Egan goes on to describe (and criticize) his own home city of Seattle:

In Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city for this decade, the social contract is nearly broken. The city used to be run by creative problem solvers. Now, an ideologically driven City Council dreams up new things to anger residents while seeming to let the homeless have the run of the place.

Portlanders might well marvel at the parallels to their own city, as deep and bitter ideological divisions open up between former allies: environmentalists and preservationists, equity advocates and neighborhood activists.  Meanwhile, developers are having a field day:

An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians. If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.

But surely if Portland follows the same path, we will have different results?  We are reminded of Jane Jacobs’ quip, that planning — or we could substitute here, government policy — “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”

Egan concludes:

We need a new urbanism. For all the grumping about how great the cities facing the Pacific used to be, they can be greater still if the bright minds now trying to “disrupt” a grilled cheese sandwich can focus on the biggest challenge of this generation. We know what doesn’t work. The task is to find a creative mix of solutions that do.

City council votes in “emergency” to re-name ONI, drop “neighborhoods” from name

After repeated and confusing changes to hearing schedules, neighborhood stakeholders show up to protest, are chewed out by Councilmember Eudaly

Kora Kresin, a PSU Graduate Research Assistant, a renter, and the daughter of a Peruvian immigrant, took the Council and ONI to task for the lack of notification and involvement in the name change. “I feel quite powerless… I feel like this decision has already been made.” Kresin is also an Assistant Service Provider, Cedar Counseling Center, and is informally associated with International Making Cities Livable, the co-host of this blog.


In a vote that surprised few people, the Portland City Council ratified the proposed name change of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the bureau famously derided by City Hall insiders as “the island of misfit toys”.

The Northwest Examiner features the story on its first page for this month.  Excerpts from the article:

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is rebranding itself for a social diversity and equity mission while distancing the agency from its roots in the neighborhood association system.

Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Suk Rhee and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly announced in May that the program will be called the Office of Community & Civic Life effective July 1. After discovering that they cannot transform a city bureau by fiat, they got on the July 18 council agenda…

New brochures were printed before Office of Neighborhood Involvement officials knew they needed City Council approval before changing the agency’s name.

Although Rhee has told skeptical Westside neighborhood association activists that “our mission remains the same,” a 16-page brochure rolling out the program mentions the phrase “neighborhood association(s)” only once, and then merely to define the program’s original purpose.

In announcing the changes as fait accompli, ONI violated the most elemental aspect of citizen participation: People must know when decisions affecting their lives will be on the public docket so they can prepare and speak to decision-makers before binding action is taken. Being told a decision is final when it is not is one step worse than no notification at all; it falsely guides citizens to do nothing while they still have the power to act….

On July 2, the agency website noted that the name change will go to council July 18, but no further clarification was given.

Changing the name is one thing, rewriting its purpose is another.

As adopted in current code (3.96.010), the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is responsible for recognizing neighborhood associations, district coalitions and business district associations to “create a framework by which the people of the city of Portland may effectively participate in civic affairs and work to improve the livability and character of their neighborhoods and the city.

Another section of the code (3.96.060) directs ONI to “support and promote public involvement within the neighborhood association framework.”

Making that language jibe with a program now promoting non-geographic communities, immigrants and underrepresented populations may be more complicated than issuing a press release…

At least two local neighborhood associations, the Northwest District Association and Goose Hollow Foothills League, have gone further.

NWDA unanimously approved a letter to council asking for an explanation of the reasons for the changing of ONI’s name and goals. It also asked for direct notification when the matter is put on the council agenda and for the opportunity to provide testimony.

GHFL leveled a broader critique. In a three-page letter unanimously approved by its board last month, the association opposed the removal of neighborhood from the office’s name. The letter also addressed political theory.

“Place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm, and to ignore that would be a serious error,” the GHFL letter stated. “The identity-based organizations are political associations that by their nature exclude others, and, while they should be recognized in the political realm, don’t and can’t provide the same kind of public representation that place-based representation can.

“We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities,” the letter continued. “This is backwards, a reversal of the United Nations-articulated principle of subsidiarity, where it is posited that democracy and social justice work best when decisions are made at the most local level rather than by central authority. The mission should arise from the people, acting through elected representatives. This was the process and the vision at the bureau’s inception.”

The full hearing video, citizen testimony, and Council and staff discussions (including a tongue-lashing of some neighborhood association representatives by Councilmember Eudaly) can be seen at

Update to post on Council hearing for ONI name change

We received this late-breaking news from Karla Moore-Love, Council Clerk, regarding a motion by Commissioner Eudaly to change the ONI name, as we discussed in a blog post several days ago.  Testimony  WILL be heard on this motion, according to Karla:

The Commissioner will make her motion after the morning Time Certains which should be around 11:00. Her motion will be to hear the ONI name change ordinance to the end of the regular morning agenda which should be around 12:00-12:20 if we’re running on time.

Karla Moore-Love |Council Clerk
Office of the City Auditor |City Hall Rm 130

How can we actually make “cities for all”?

A Stockholm conference by that title explores issues of gentrification, displacement and loss of home affordability — and potential solutions 

Journalist Peter Moskowitz discussing his book, How to Kill a City, at the “Cities for All” conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

A conference in Stockholm, Sweden has concluded that gentrification and spiraling housing costs are the direct end result of “supply-side” government and industry policies — not a selfish citizenry.

Speakers noted that cities around the world are facing a destructive wave of spiraling home prices, displacement, and toxic forms of gentrification and segregation. Portland (the home city of this blog) is experiencing these same trends, although its challenges are, so far, more modest than those of Vancouver BC, Manhattan, San Francisco, or many other cities. At the same time, these other cities offer us a clear warning of what may lie ahead, if we don’t act effectively.

Peter Moskowitz, a New York-based journalist and author of the book How to Kill a City, has documented the processes of gentrification in four US cities, and researched its causes and remedies more broadly, interviewing researchers and examining case studies. He concludes, “Gentrification is not a fluke or an accident. Gentrification is a system that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.”

Moskowitz spoke at the “Cities for All” conference in Stockholm earlier this year, sponsored by KTH Royal Institute of Technology and other partners. (This author is Senior Researcher there and was a co-organizer of the conference.) Moskowitz pointed out that gentrification is not just bad for those who are immediately affected, but for the entire city. It is the path to stagnation and decline, as Jane Jacobs and other critics have argued.

Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, a senior fellow with the Project for Public Spaces and founding director of London’s Living Space project, pointed out that “gentrification” can be a misleading term.    Improving a deprived area and increasing diversity can be a good thing — up to the point that people are displaced, and diversity gives way to another monoculture.

London’s Maria Adebowale-Schwarte with the author, discussing gentrification with the audience at the Cities for All conference.

This was also a point made by the urbanist Jane Jacobs in her discussion of “the self-destruction of diversity.”  In effect, there is a “Goldilocks” point of maximum diversity and opportunity for all.  This zone lies between the extremes of a monoculture of poverty, and a monoculture of wealth.  The job of government is to maintain a dynamic balance within this zone, using a range of tools and strategies.

However, Moskowitz says, government is too often seduced by the profitable processes of gentrification.  (We have also written previously about this “trickle-down” theory of urbanism, which we termed “voodoo urbanism.“)

It is not the selfishness of people who patronize new coffee shops, or seek to preserve and enhance the livability of their neighborhoods that is primarily to blame, Moskowitz says. It is the policies and processes initiated by governments and their development allies:

In every gentrifying city there are always events, usually hidden from public view, that precede street-level changes. The policies that cause cities to gentrify are crafted in the offices of real estate moguls and in the halls of city government. The coffee shop is the tip of the iceberg.

When we think of gentrification as some mysterious process, we accept its consequences: the displacement of countless thousands of families, the destruction of cultures, the decreased affordability of life for everyone…

[But gentrification happens] not because of the wishes of a million gentrifiers but because of the wishes of just a few hundred public intellectuals, politicians, planners, and heads of corporations.

This grouo includes the professional communities of planning, development, urban design and architecture — of which this author is a self-critical member — forming  what we might think of as the “architectural-industrial complex”.   Our professions might have very good intentions, but the question is whether our “solutions” are actually perpetrating the same systemic dynamics, rewarding us financially and culturally, while we delude ourselves with simplistic but ineffective solution and other-blaming.

But Moskowitz argues that effective solutions are available:

I hope to make clear that gentrification is not inevitable, that it is perhaps even stoppable, or at the very least manageable.

Moskowitz concludes his book with six positive recommendations:

Expand, protect and make accessible public lands. Rising private land prices are a big part of the affordability problem, and leaving them subject to the forces of markets and speculation will likely have predictable results. More work is needed on sites that are already public (including wasted low-density sites, rights of way and other properties) and more land is needed in public and non-profit trusts.

Give people an actual say in what happens in their city. This isn’t an invitation to “NIMBYism,” but to a real civic engagement, and a conversation to find win-win strategies. The answer is not to deny people their democratic voice, or to shout down opponents, but to engage in a healthier process of civic problem-solving.

Heavily regulate housing. When we treat housing as a speculative commodity with limited regulations, we can expect speculative surges in prices. A number of promising steps have been taken recently to tamp down speculative increases, including the foreign investment tax in Vancouver, B.C.

Implement a new New Deal. Find creative new sources of revenue to provide basic rights — among them shelter.  Be strategic about funding, not simply “buying time” with temporary subsidies and other protections that will soon expire, causing only a delayed surge in prices.

End protectionism, and add infrastructure.  It’s true that more supply is needed to meet demand — but that supply needs to be in diverse locations, accessible by good-quality infrastructure.  At present, protectionism rewards expensive centrally-located developments, expertly developed by companies that have learned to become insiders in the complex process of entitlement and spot zoning.  This “gaming the system” only fuels gentrification and more expensive (and more profitable) projects.

Raise taxes, raise wages, and spend on the poor.  This is not a matter of wasting taxpayer money, but of finding cost-effective returns on investments.  Do we want to pay more for policing and prisons?  Do we want to live in a degraded, even stagnating city?  That is ultimately what is at stake.  A more equitable, more diversified city is not only a matter of justice — in the end it’s also good for everyone’s bottom line.

Gentrification, displacement, loss of affordability, homeless,  and related urban ills, are complex and dynamic processes, signaling deep dysfunctions in our urban systems.  But they are not beyond our ability to manage.  Indeed, they have arisen precisely as the result of management choices made by those acting in their own short-term benefit — and very much for the long-term detriment of all, whether intended or not.  The question is whether we will be clear-eyed and willing to work together to find the effective strategic responses that are needed — or whether we will descend into bitter acrimony and divisiveness, touting simplistic solutions that don’t work, while the city grows ever more expensive, degraded, and unsustainable.