Portland blogger Iain Mackenzie gets some facts wrong – and cheerleads for a troubling new divisiveness in city politics
In my Twitter feed this morning, I had some nice reactions to our post yesterday on Ada Louise Huxtable’s famous criticism of Portland’s formulaic architecture, which echoes in our time with renewed relevance. One response was from my friend Loretta Lees, an expert on gentrification and its remedies at the University of Leicester in the UK.
Her work reminds us that we certainly have a huge challenge in Portland with gentrification, equity and affordability — as so many cities do around the world. In this challenge, we need vigorous debate, incisive critique (like Huxtable’s and others’) and sharing of lessons nationally and internationally. (That is something we often evangelize for on this blog.) We also need to be more joined-up with international initiatives, like the historic New Urban Agenda — a new framework international agreement that embraces “cities for all” and the ways we can achieve them. (This author has been involved in developing and now implementing this framework agreement.)
One Tweet stood out from this narrative, however. Iain Mackenzie, blogger at architecture fanzine Next Portland, attacked me personally as an “anti-housing activist,” noting that my friend Sherry Salomon had given testimony at City Hall that echoed our blog post from yesterday. (That part is true — I had a client meeting and couldn’t attend, so I asked Sherry to give my testimony for me.)
But what is ludicrously false is the charge that I am an “anti-housing activist,” since my “day job” is — to plan and build housing. And to do so in a joined-up way, with commercial and civic uses, in walkable, mixed, complete communities, that are more sustainable and more equitable. Among my clients are three of Portland’s best-known affordable housing non-profits, as well as other developers, NGOs and governments, in the US and internationally (including UN-Habitat, for the aforementioned New Urban Agenda.)
I have also been more active in Portland of late, trying to encourage my fellow citizens in my own back yard to think more deeply about the nature of our challenges, and the tools and strategies we will actually need to use to meet them. (Hint: simple-minded approaches like “build baby build” will not cut it.) That’s one of my goals in working on this blog, with my great friend Suzanne Lennard, director of International Making Cities Livable (as the name suggests, hers is very much an international effort, but looking at and sharing successes and lessons from Portland too).
For the same reason, not long ago I accepted an invitation to join the board of my neighborhood association — to practice what I preach in my own back yard. What I have found in that role is rather shocking. There is an ugly new mood in this city — and it is pushed by people like Mackenzie. If you don’t see things the way he does — every new building is a good and necessary one, justified by all things correct and righteous — then you are a NIMBY, an opponent of diversity, perhaps even a racist. At best you are an “anti-housing activist.”
Nowhere does there seem to be scope and nuance to discuss what is a good building or a bad building, what is damaging to the public realm or not, or what is an effective strategy and what is magical thinking, fueled by divisive and toxic “identity politics.” (As we have noted, that kind of divisiveness serves some narrow financial interests well, and it has sadly come to dominate national politics — but can’t Portland chart a more enlightened way?)
Sadly, Mackenzie is not alone in fomenting this divisive new tone, and framing old-time neighborhood activists and historic preservation advocates as NIMBYs or worse. It appears to this author that the City’s own Office of Neighborhood Involvement is also preparing to throw neighborhoods under the bus, responding to a misguided call to service “identity politics.” As we have written, inclusiveness, equity and a “city for all” are absolutely essential goals — and good for everyone’s bottom line too, by the way — and we must absolutely not make a hash of it by confusing geographic representation with inclusive policy. We must not fuel the very dynamics that are causing our problems, with a misguided approach to “voodoo urbanism.”
But sadly, that is exactly what is happening now in Portland — and the city will be damaged for generations.
Meanwhile, at the state level, some land use and housing activists (who should know better) also seem to have bought into this simplistic “build baby build” mentality, and its corollary, the penchant to attack existing neighborhoods who dare to oppose any new project, good or bad — reflected in last year’s divisive anti-historic preservation bill HB 2007. This was in spite of the blistering pace of residential demolitions, and the evidence that many of these houses were more affordable than the ones that replaced them. In addition to our critiques of these misguided efforts, we also proposed alternatives.
As we have written frequently, the Portland region absolutely does need more housing units. But we also need a more joined-up regional strategy, not a tunnel-visioned “jam them into the core” mentality. Most people don’t live in the core, and most of the new residents are not moving to the core. We need to think more regionally, and more polycentrically. And to be blunt, less foolishly.
More fundamentally, we need to decide what kind of city Portland will become — that’s in our hands, as it was in 1970, and always has been. Will we become a playground for architects and their self-serving fantasies? (And other narrow financial interests?) Will we become a sad shell of our own past, mired in failed divisive approaches and magical thinking, rewarding only a few in the end? Or will we actually work together to find common ground, and make Portland a truly livable “city for all?”