The ugly side of Portland’s housing debate (and getting uglier)

Portland blogger Iain Mackenzie gets some facts wrong – and cheerleads for a troubling new divisiveness in city politics

A recent Twitter feed, in which blogger Iain Mackenzie calls this author an “anti-housing activist” – ludicrously false, but also revealing a more disturbing trend of divisive 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?”

Stay tuned.


Ada Louise Huxtable to Portland: “Lose the ‘Anywhere USA’ towers and bunkers”

Tough words from 48 years ago – and sadly becoming all too relevant again.

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.” Taller building heights in the new Central City 2035 plan will block a number of iconic views, including this one from Vista Bridge — part of the Portlandia TV show opening sequence, and part of Portland’s urban commons. Who benefits from the privatization of our common urban assets?

In 1970, the famous New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable came to Portland, and she didn’t like what she saw. Writing in the Times, she heaped scorn on the Rose City for accepting a generation of bland corporate “towers and bunkers” that spoiled the unique natural and built heritage of the city.

Portland, she said, had “a better-than-average assortment of Anywhere U.S.A. products, with their interchangeable towers and plazas multiplying a slick, redundant formula… In style, scale and impact it will be alien corn, in every sense of the word.”

She also reminded us of what we do have, and need to protect, including “small scaled, comfortably pedestrian streets.” The trouble is, she warned, “this is a dreamworld urbanism; a city blessed by nature and by man. It is so lovely that Portlanders are lulled into a kind of false security about its urban health.”

Aren’t we ever.

About the big new buildings of that age she said, “No one has stopped looking at the tops of these buildings long enough to see what is happening on the ground. Each one is contributing to the devitalization of the city.”

Two years later, Portland adopted the landmark 1972 Plan, and the city committed to preserving and building on its walkable urban heritage. In that era of reforms, we got the preservation of the Skidmore Fountain area, the new Pioneer Square, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and the revival of many other great old neighborhoods — often under the threat of demolition. Many of those successes came only after long fights by neighborhood activists.

How ironic that we now seem to be sliding back into the same bland, ugly formulas, driven by questionable logic and faulty reasoning – and attacks on the same neighborhood activism that helped trigger our urban renaissance.  Now they’re not grassroots champions, but “NIMBYs,” “racists,” “opponents of affordability,” and more.

Sheer nonsense.

What is also nonsense is the idea that expensive high rises are the ticket to affordability, that demolition of existing affordable housing stock is somehow the path to promoting diversity, and that we save farmland by building a few hundred more units atop tall buildings in the core.   No, we save farmland by building more walkable compact mixed use in the suburbs, where 80 percent of the region lives.  We keep the best of what we already have, including the best inner-city neighborhoods.  We become a better city by repairing and improving our worst places, not by destroying our best ones.

Perhaps the worst myth of all?  That Portland won’t be a “real city” until it joins all the other wannabe cities and builds a crop of shiny new towers.   That it’s time to put on our “big boy pants.”  (That statement — expressed by a senior member of the city planning hierarchy — is just as childish as it sounds.)

Thanks to that same hierarchy, just this month, Portland’s city council voted to approve building heights that will block many of Portland’s most iconic views, including the view of Mt. Hood from Vista Bridge (the image of innumerable post cards, and the opening shot of the Portlandia TV show).  In the wake of that decision, Ms. Huxtable’s words have special poignancy:

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.”

Read the article about Ada Louise Huxtable’s visit in Portland Architecture:

Report from the World Urban Forum… “Anatomy of Density: Why Tall Buildings Can’t Solve the Problem of Urban Growth”

Global leaders in urban sustainability gather in Kuala Lumpur — and challenge conventional wisdom and “business as usual”

Michael Mehaffy moderates a session at the World Urban Forum on “Public Space in the New Urban Agenda: Research Into Implementation.” Introducing Setha Low, an eminent scholar on public space at the City University of New York.

KUALA LUMPUR: This week I am at the World Urban Forum, with a focus on implementing the New Urban Agenda — the landmark document on sustainable urban development agreed to by all 193 member states of the United Nations.  There is a heavy focus here on evidence-based approaches, and on research into action by leading universities.  We are here as part of our research unit, the Centre for the Future of Places at KTH Royal Institute of Technology (where one of us is a senior researcher, and another has been a visiting scholar).  We have been involved in a partnership with UN-Habitat to develop language on the importance of public space, which is now secured in the New Urban Agenda — but now the emphasis is on implementation.

One of the key challenges is in thinking through current assumptions and beliefs, and assessing which are sound and which are not.  Given the recent debates in Portland, we were struck by the session below (which occurs tomorrow as we write this).   We have also seen other work challenging much of the current conventional wisdom about urban sustainability and livability (as we have written about in this blog).  Surely we need to examine our own assumptions in the light of evidence, and be open to debate and challenge. Surely we need to be more willing to learn from others around the world, and share our own lessons learned  as well?

A more extensive report from the World Urban Forum will follow soon!  Meanwhile, here is the listing for the session that caught our eye:

Anatomy of Density: Why Tall Buildings Can’t Solve the Problem of Urban Growth
Monday 12 February 2018, 17:00 – 18:00

Organization: NYU Stern Urbanization Project

This session will focus on several exciting new developments in the study of density. Much effort has been made to establish the importance of density in addressing a range of ills, from long commutes to climate change to the obesity epidemic. By comparison, relatively little effort has gone into the study of the components of density, the factors that affect it, and the steps that can be taken to increase it. Moving beyond the simple assumption that cities need infill, growth controls, and higher buildings, this session explores three primary factors that make up the density of a city – Floor Area Occupancy, Building Height, and Residential coverage – and shows that density is, in fact, the result of seven components, each of which can be affected by regulatory changes or infrastructure investments. These components will soon be measured in the full United Nations sample of 200 cities, but the simple explication of this new understanding of density can help point the way toward the creation of more compact, inclusive, and sustainable cities.

One of many sessions at the World Urban Forum.  Michael Mehaffy moderates at right.

Guardian: London has a growing problem with “ghost towers”

The expensive skyscrapers represent “the wrong properties Londoners don’t need.”  Is Portland headed down the same path?

This… is London – including The Shard (center), the tallest building in the UK. The Guardian reports that “All 10 of the apartments at the top of the Shard – priced at up to £50m each – remain unsold” five years after completion.

More cautionary news is on offer for Portland’s “irrationally exuberant” fans of new tall buildings in the core.  Simply adding units is not an effective strategy for affordability: it matters where the units are,  how much they cost to build, and what are the dynamics of global real estate markets.  Word to the wise?

The Guardian newspaper reports this week that “half of new-build luxury London flats fail to sell” and “developers have 420 towers in pipeline despite up to 15,000 high-end flats still on the market.”

The article continues,

The swanky flats, complete with private gyms, swimming pools and cinema rooms, are lying empty as hundreds of thousands of would-be first-time buyers struggle to find an affordable home.

The total number of unsold luxury new-build homes, which are rarely advertised at less than £1m, has now hit a record high of 3,000 units…

Builders started work last year on 1,900 apartments priced at more than £1,500 per sq ft, but only 900 have sold, according to property data experts Molior London. A typical high-end three-bedroom apartment consists of around 2,000 sq ft, which works out at a sale price of £3m.

There are an extra 14,000 unsold apartments on the market for between £1,000-£1,500 per sq ft. The average price per sq ft across the UK is £211.

Molior says it would take at least three years to sell the glut of ultra-luxury flats if sales continue at their current rate and if no further new-builds are started.

However, ambitious property developers have a further 420 residential towers (each at least 20 storeys high) in the pipeline, says New London Architecture and GL Hearn.

Henry Pryor, a property buying agent, says the London luxury new-build market is “already overstuffed but we’re just building more of them”…

Some developers have delayed construction of projects, while others have taken properties off the market. All 10 of the apartments at the top of the Shard – priced at up to £50m each – remain unsold more than five years after the Duke of York and the former prime minister of Qatar officially opened “Europe’s first vertical city”.

“We’re going to have loads of empty and part-built posh ghost towers,” he says. “They were built as gambling chips for rich overseas investors, but they are no longer interested in the London casino and have moved on.”

Steven Herd, founder and chief executive of MyLondonHome, an agency that specialises in new-build homes for investment, says his firm is struggling under the weight of overseas investors who bought in the last couple of years and are desperate to sell.

He says hundreds of Asian investors who had bought London developments off-plan in 2015-16 in the hope of making a quick profit by selling apartments on closer to completion have instead lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. “They intended to flip [buy and sell on] the apartments and make big profits, but it hasn’t worked out like that, and now they are trying to get out at the smallest possible loss.”

He adds that in one case a Russian investor bought an off-plan property in 2014 for £3.1m, but couldn’t afford to complete and sold it for £2.55m.

Herd says the [developments are] “the wrong properties that Londoners don’t need”.

“We’d be much better off with decent quality but lower-spec homes built for actual Londoners. What’s the point in having private cinema rooms that sit empty and resident’s swimming pools with no one swimming in them; it just seems wrong.”

Read the full article:


How to survive an earthquake (of hysteria)

“The big one” will certainly be very bad.  Our actions beforehand could be worse.

A modern building whose upper floors “pancaked” in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Historic “unreinforced masonry” buildings are hardly the only ones at risk from a major seismic event.

Something terrible is going to happen in the Northwest, including Portland.  FEMA estimates that some thirteen thousand people could die – many more than the two thousand in Hurricane Katrina.  The aftermath could leave our region similarly stranded and transformed beyond recognition.

This event — a major earthquake — could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in 400 years, or at any point beforehand.  Prudence suggests that we take reasonable steps to be prepared.

For some, that means demolishing — or performing huge expensive seismic upgrades — to thousands of buildings, many of them low-rise historic structures.  If they are demolished, they will have to be replaced with new buildings.

It’s enough to make some architects salivate.

But for just about everyone else, it’s hysteria of the worst sort.   Of course deliberate steps need to be taken — especially around preparedness.  What should people do before, during and after the event?  What is the safest place to be during the event, and the safest way out of a building after the event?  How can the worst effects of such an event be mitigated?  What are the most dangerous structures – typically unreinforced mid-rise buildings, or buildings with poorly reinforced  concrete roofs and floors that are likely to “pancake” — and how can we take steps to retrofit them?

We need to understand the risks, just as we understand any risk in life.  We buy life insurance, and companies are willing to sell it to us, because it’s possible to accurately quantify the risk of a person dying in any one year.  Many people pay perhaps hundreds of dollars a year each into a pool, from which a few people are paid millions of dollars much less frequently — and the companies are able to accurately quantify the risks and stay in business.

What’s the probability of “the big one” in the next 50 years?  A recent study put the maximum at as much as 20% — meaning there is an 80% probability that it will NOT happen in the next 50 years.

By contrast, at current levels we already kill about one person per day on Oregon roads.  At that rate, in the same 50 years we WILL kill over 18,000 — in other words, more than “the big one,” whose probability of occurrence in the same time interval is much lower.

Yet we don’t stop people from driving.  We take all reasonable measures — traffic safety, air bags, and so on — and we accept the risk.   We see it as a price we pay for the benefits of mobility.

Right now we have many thousands of beautiful, historic, affordable homes, apartments and other buildings, many of which are low-rise.  (They include the classic “courtyard apartments” where many Portland residents live, including this author’s own residence.)  These buildings often have wood-frame cores and exterior masonry walls.  The exteriors could indeed slough off, but the entire structures are unlikely to collapse.  Those who take shelter in their central hallways, and then exit as soon as practical and safe, will likely survive.

Should we require all of the owners of these buildings to perform very expensive seismic upgrades in a short period of time?  Will we trigger a wave of demolitions of some of our most affordable, beautiful, enduring — sustainable —  structures, replaced by many more and (let’s face it) uglier buildings?  (Sorry, architects – but our professional win-loss score nowadays is there for all to see.)

Is that smart?  Well, it’s profitable for some — and that’s a dangerous distortional force on good judgment, and the best interests of our city.

For more on this, the Northwest Examiner has an extensive article this month:

Crash course


Is it past time for West Burnside to go on a “road diet”?

Paradoxically, sometimes reducing lanes means better traffic flow — AND better livability and more transportation choices

A successful “road diet” on La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

Portland planners like to show off the city’s many progressive achievements.  But one place they don’t show off is West Burnside, especially the segment west of I405.  We’ve heard some folks refer to this stretch of dirty, dangerous, ugly road as an “open car sewer.”  That seems about right.

Ironically, this stretch is not even particularly efficient at handling traffic through movement.  That’s because periodic left turns at unsignalized intersections obstruct through movement in the left-hand lanes, and frequent bus stops obstruct through movement in the right-hand lanes, causing significant congestion.   Pedestrians also have the right of way at the many unsignalized intersections, stopping traffic in all lanes — and putting the pedestrians in considerable danger from careless motorists.

West Burnside today. It’s dirty, dangerous and ugly — but at least the traffic doesn’t flow well anyway.

West Burnside handles a fair amount of traffic, but not as much as one might think.   The City’s own traffic counts show about 7,000 cars during the morning and afternoon peak periods.  (The City doesn’t have an average daily total volume for West Burnside on its website, for some reason. See

The issue has been considered before.  Over a decade ago, the City studied alternatives and developed a plan for a “couplet” system.  West Burnside would become a one-way eastbound street, and West Couch would take the remaining westbound traffic (similar to what happens now just east of the river).  Because of the tendency of traffic to move fast on these one-ways, the plan also included a new streetcar line on both streets.

But that plan is now on indefinite hold.  And in any case, the couplet was never intended to extend west of 16th Avenue, so the stretch in the photos above would remain more or less the same.  (You can read the 2006 report here.)

So what else can be done, then?  We can certainly take a lesson from other cities that have adopted progressive reforms.  One street that seems to have around the same traffic as Burnside (22,000 cars per day) is La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.  A project there known as a “road diet” kept the same capacity of vehicles, but cut down crashes by 90 percent, and did other very good things.

Before and after at La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

It sounded a lot like the problems we have on West Burnside today:

The project was designed to transform a wide, automobile-oriented thoroughfare to a pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood center…. [There was a] lack of comfortable public spaces, and financial stagnation of area businesses, notes “The wide, heavily trafficked road functioned as a barrier that divided the neighborhood physically and psychologically’…

So the plan was actually to remove lanes, and make the remaining lanes work just as well or better — as well as providing more attractive sidewalks and public spaces, and better ability to handle walking, biking, buses, and other ways of getting around:

The traffic count remained approximately the same (23,000 vehicles per day before, 22,000 after), but walking, bicycling, transit use, on-street parking and retail sales all climbed to much higher levels, the city reports. Retail sales rose 30 percent and noise levels dropped 77 percent…

That all sounds good — but how is it possible that removing lanes won’t result is massive traffic delays?  Our friend Dan Burden, consultant on the project, explains:

“Motorists,” Burden reported in The San Diego Union- Tribune in February 2017, “understandably dreaded this change before it was made. But they found that instead of waiting 24 seconds for a pedestrian to cross 70 feet of road, they now only wait 3–4 seconds, or don’t have to wait at all. Businesses that feared the loss of customers arriving in cars actually improved their trade. … Today motorists are getting to their destinations in less time, because they aren’t stopping.”

Read the full story:


ONI is changing its name… (ONO!)

Some fear that Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement may be preparing to take the final symbolic step in eviscerating its pioneering system of geographic representation by neighborhoods

The announcement  that came from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement  earlier this week seemed innocent – a harmless bit of re-branding, perhaps.  But given the troubled history of that city agency — a scathing audit that found a “trifecta” of problems, and the Mayor’s declaration last year that ONI was “most in need of reform”  — the new message seemed oddly cosmetic.

“ONI’s name is changing to better reflect our work and the people and place we serve now and for subsequent generations. We’d like you to participate in the renaming! ONI, like Portland, has changed and grown over the years…”

Portland has indeed grown — and so have its challenges, of course.

But a half-century ago, the city also saw many of the same kinds of challenges.  Today, as then, the city is seeing pressures of rapid in-migration and  population growth, demolition of historic fabric, lack of equitable opportunity for many residents,  disruptive new development,  and treatment of some neighborhoods as “expendable” — creating shocking patterns of displacement in favor of “urban renewal” to make way for an influx of often wealthier new residents.

In those days it was the grass-roots neighborhood activists who championed a better path for the city — preserving and building on our urban heritage, limiting destructive new development, protecting and revitalizing existing neighborhoods, modulating (but not stopping) growth, and preserving and revitalizing the existing affordable homes and small businesses.  Those efforts helped usher in a remarkable urban renaissance, making Portland the envy of many other cities.  We all enjoy the legacy of that era today.

That spirit of purpose and unity needs to be rekindled.

For today, an ugly new tone of divisiveness has entered the city — and neighborhoods and their associations are increasingly attacked, not as allies and defenders of Portland’s best urban qualities, but as old, rich, NIMBY, and worse.  That’s far from fair — or wise.

Of course everyone in the city must do more to right the injustices of the past, and every neighborhood association should do more to be more inclusive, representative and transparent.  But it appears to this observer that the City wants to go far beyond that. It wants to throw neighborhoods under the bus.

In fact, this re-branding campaign may be revealing something even deeper and more disturbing — that the City has outgrown its support of the neighborhood involvement system itself.  It has allowed well-meaning but muddled thinking to cripple its “nationally recognized neighborhood involvement system,” as the City’s website proudly refers to it.

Perhaps the pride is not so great any more.  As we wrote on this blog last May, the City seems to have decided that it’s time to marginalize neighborhood associations, rather than to improve and strengthen them.

Allan Classen, publisher of the Northwest Examiner newspaper, has been closely following the developments at ONI, and he isn’t reassured by the new proposals:
“ONI is creating its own ‘shadow structure’ that replaces or diminishes the role of neighborhood associations. Because ONI controls funding, they can give their designated ‘inclusionary’ entities as much power as they choose. Any neighborhood association that squawks can be labeled racist or selfish.  The best defense is to identify this subterfuge for what it is, and get that message out so broadly that neighborhood associations across the city will grasp what’s happening to them.”

The principal tool of marginalization is called a “non-geographic community.”  As we wrote, under ONI’s new approach,

…“non-geographic communities” [will] be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry….

At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all?  In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all?

We suggest that citizens ask the new director, Suk Rhee, to carefully consider  the following four points before going ahead with any plans for changes — to names, or to missions:

  1. Portland’s geographic-based neighborhood association system is pioneering and important within our city culture, and needs to be strengthened and streamlined, not weakened and marginalized. But this is what has happened, and still seems to be happening.  What can be done to reverse this trend?
  2. We appreciate Suk Rhee’s efforts effort to put ONI’s affairs in order. However, given an audit that revealed systemic problems, we always have to ask ourselves if we’re “re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.”  Is ONI a dysfunctional bureau that is still failing to serve and empower neighborhoods?  What deeper reforms are still needed?
  3. We certainly agree with the goal of more inclusion and diversity — but not parallel to (and competing with) geographic representation by neighborhoods. This would be tokenism, and that would be bad for those communities — and bad for neighborhoods. Instead, inclusion and empowerment must happen at the neighborhood level.
  4. How can we strengthen the principle of “subsidiarity”?  Under that principle, the city is supposed to be subsidiary to its constituents, including the neighborhoods — not the other way around. But today the City acts too much like a supervisor of the neighborhoods, using the coalition system as a kind of leash.  How can this inversion of the subsidiarity principle be fixed?

In the interest of offering constructive alternatives, I’d like to suggest a new model.  Perhaps it’s time now to consider a binary system of two entirely separate City entities.

One entity might be an office of citizen involvement, commissioned to perform outreach and participation from the widest possible constituency of citizens.  It would be charged with empowerment — not just tokenistic representation — for formerly excluded people, and challenging policies that perpetrate the injustices of the City’s shameful past. (And sometimes, present.)

The other entity might be a “council of neighborhoods” that has a more formal voice in city affairs. Its members, the neighborhood associations, could be directly funded through participatory budgeting, with support services chosen by the neighborhoods from a pool of city-vetted contractors.  There are good international models for this kind of “subsidiarity” in action, and Portland could draw from them — and once again assert its own leadership in this area.

One thing is for sure — more than a name change is needed.  Yet the name change may be revealing of the true nature of the problem.  Not many people remember now that ONI’s first name was the “Office of Neighborhood Associations,” or ONA.  Then it became the “Office of Neighborhood Involvement,” reflecting a more diluted relationship with the associations.  We will soon see whether the word “neighborhood” is dropped altogether.

Without deeper reforms, it might be more accurate to simply re-name the agency “ONO” — short for the “Office of Neighborhood Oblivion.”

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.

What role can Portland play in the historic “New Urban Agenda”?

One year later, we assess the road to implementation of this watershed agreement, and our own challenges and opportunities ahead.

The “New Urban Agenda” is approved in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016, and two months later adopted by consensus by 193 countries at the General Assembly in New York.

On December 23, we will pass the one-year anniversary of the historic passage — adopted by acclamation by 193 countries — of the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the global Habitat III conference last year. This agreement was a major watershed in international urban development policy — placing human life, health, equity and well-being at the top of urban priorities, and establishing a “new paradigm,” in the words of Secretary-General Joan Clos, in our ways of thinking about, and acting on, cities, towns, and other settlements, for the benefit of all.

A central emphasis in the New Urban Agenda is on livability and quality of life — goals that Portland has been pursuing for many years.  Like Portland, the NUA places great emphasis on a well-connected polycentric region; on great walkable streets and public spaces; on transportation choice, including walking, biking, transit and yes, the car (though eliminating car dependency); on sustainable use of energy and resources; on leveraging heritage to build on the beauty of the city, and add to its livability; and on equitable access and expansion of life opportunities for all.

This is what great cities do best — as Jane Jacobs described, it is what a city like New York can do by taking penniless immigrants from Italy or Poland or Ireland, and turning many of them into prosperous middle-class shopkeepers and entrepreneurs and professionals, or, perhaps later, great scientists or artists.

Now, however, we are all aware of the failures of cities — for at least some of their residents, and as the evidence shows, ultimately for all of their residents — to provide equitable opportunity for advancement and enjoyment of the city’s multiple benefits.   This is a threat for all, because as Luis Bettencourt and others have demonstrated, cities are economic and social networks that get their strength from the number of connections; the more “plugged in” everyone is, the better.  But conversely, the more some people and parts of the city are excluded, fragmented, degraded, then the more the city as a whole is dragged down, ultimately spiraling into a  condition of economic stagnation and decline — a “dark age ahead” as Jane Jacobs put it.

Portland is struggling with these lessons as much as any city.  As we have written about frequently on this blog, there are strategies that can reverse this kind of decline, and catalyze in cities what Jane Jacobs called “the seeds of their own regeneration.”   At the same time, there are many dangers in our recent ways of thinking and acting too — as we have also written about — that focus too much on simplistic,”silver bullet” solutions and self-interested “supply-side” thinking.

Yet Portland is clearly a leader in some important areas of the New Urban Agenda, at least by US standards — in coordinated regional planning, integrated transportation and “mixed-modes”, walkable human scale, preserving and building on our own history, and — more an accident of history, perhaps — exhibiting an excellent example of well-connected, walkable urban forms and types.

In that sense, Portland can be an important “test bed” for the New Urban Agenda, as all eyes turn to implementation.   How can we share our lessons with other cities, and learn from them as they learn from us?  What are our mistakes, and what can we learn from them? What are the tools and strategies that show promise, what have we learned from them, and how can we share them?  How can we manage the corrosive forces of global economics and the urban “tragedy of the commons”?

Here is where the biggest challenges remain. How can we change “business as usual” — destructive patterns of inequality, fragmentation, and unsustainable development? How can we create new feedback loops, as Jane Jacobs also advised, to factor in “externalities” like ecological destruction and social exclusion, and provide more financial incentives for creating and sustaining good-quality settlements?  How can we reform the current failing “operating system for growth,” by reforming the codes, models, laws, standards, financial incentives and disincentives, and all the other elements that make up our urbanization systems?

And especially, how can we use, and share, our existing knowledge base to do so?

Portland is already operating one of the most helpful laboratories in meeting these global challenges — especially so since practices in the United States are, for better or worse, frequently copied in other parts of the world. We should surely continue to act locally, as we think, and share, more globally. The more connected we are with the efforts of others, the more we can help, and be helped.

See also:

The author’s video address at the Habitat III plenary:

ULI Senior Fellow Ed McMahon on “Density Without High Rises”

The distinguished planner and educator argues that skyscrapers are not necessary for density, affordability or sustainability, and better alternatives ARE available.

Ed McMahon giving a talk on “the power of uniqueness” in 2015.

Ed McMahon the is Charles E. Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy at the Urban Land Institute.  He recently spoke in Portland on the dangers of current fashionable thinking in planning, especially the growing mania for tall buildings.   This article originally ran on CitiWire and was later discussed — and praised — by urbanist Richard Florida on the CityLab website.  

By Ed McMahon

When it comes to land development, Americans famously dislike two things: too much sprawl and too much density. Over the past 50 years, the pendulum swung sharply in the direction of spread-out, single use, drive everywhere for everything, low density development.

Now the pendulum is swinging back. High energy prices, smart growth,
transit oriented development, new urbanism, infill development,
sustainability concerns: are all coalescing to foster more compact, walkable, mixed use and higher density development.

The pendulum swing is both necessary and long overdue. Additionally, there is a growing demand for higher density housing because of demographic and lifestyle preference changes among boomers and young adults. The problem is that many developers and urban planners have decided that density requires high rises: the taller, the better. To oppose a high-rise building is to run the risk of being labeled a NIMBY, a dumb growth advocate, a Luddite — or worse.

Buildings 20, 40, 60 even 100 stories tall are being proposed and built in low and mid-rise neighborhoods all over the world. All of these projects are justified with the explanation that if density is good, even more density is better. Washington, D.C. is just the latest low- or mid-rise city to face demands for taller buildings.

Yet Washington is one of the world’s most singularly beautiful cities for several big reasons: first, the abundance of parks and open spaces, second, the relative lack of outdoor advertising (which has over commercialized so many other cities), and third a limit on the height of new buildings.

I will acknowledge that the “Buck Rogers”-like skylines of cities like Shanghai and Dubai can be thrilling — at a distance. But at street level they are often dreadful. The glass and steel towers may be functional, but they seldom move the soul or the traffic as well as more human scale, fine-grained neighborhoods.

Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities. But no, we do not need to build thousands of look-a-like glass and steel skyscrapers to accomplish the goals of smart growth or sustainable development.

In truth, many of America’s finest and most valuable neighborhoods achieve density without high rises. Georgetown in Washington, Park Slope in Brooklyn, the Fan in Richmond, and the French Quarter in New Orleans are all compact, walkable, charming — and low rise. Yet, they are also dense: the French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre.

Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean’s book Visualizing Density vividly illustrates that we can achieve tremendous density without high-rises. They point out that before elevators were invented, two- to four- story “walk-ups” were common in cities and towns throughout America. Constructing a block of these type of buildings could achieve a density of anywhere from 20 to 80 units an acre.

Mid-rise buildings ranging from 5 to 12 stories can create even higher density neighborhoods in urban settings, where buildings cover most of the block. Campoli and McLean point to Seattle where mid-rise buildings achieve densities ranging from 50 to 100 units per acre, extraordinarily high by U.S. standards.

Today, density is being pursued as an end in itself, rather than as one means to building better cities. According to research by the Preservation Green Lab, fine grained urban fabric -– for example of a type found on Washington’s Capitol Hill, the U Street Corridor, NOMA and similar neighborhoods — is much more likely to foster local entrepreneurship and the creative economy than monolithic office blocks and apartment towers. Perhaps cities like Washington, should consider measuring density differently. Instead of looking at just the quantity of space, they should also consider the 24/7 intensity of use. By this measure, one block of an older neighborhood might include a community theatre, a coffee shop, an art gallery, two restaurants, a bicycle shop, 10 music rehearsal studios, a church, 20 apartments and a couple of bars, and all with much more 24/7 activity and intensity of use than one block of (much taller) office buildings on K Street.

In addition to Washington, St Petersburg, Russia; Basel, Switzerland; Edinburgh, Scotland and Paris, France are just a few of the hundreds of cities around the world where giant out-of-scale skyscrapers have been recently proposed in formerly low or mid-rise historic settings.

The issue of tall buildings in historic cities is not a small one. City after city has seen fights between those who want to preserve neighborhood integrity and those who want Trump towers and “starchitect” skyscrapers. Prince Charles, for example recently criticized the “high-rise free for all” in London which he said has left the city with a “pockmarked skyline and a degraded public realm.” Today, skyscrapers called the “Shard” and the “Gherkin” loom over the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other famous landmarks.

Whatever one thinks of Prince Charles, there’s no question that he has raised some important issues about the future of the built environment. These include:

  1. Does density always require high rises?
  2. Are historic neighborhoods adequately protected from incompatible new construction?
  3. What is more important — the ability of tall buildings to make an architectural statement, or the need for new buildings to fit into existing neighborhoods?
  4. Should new development shape the character of our cities — or should the character of our cities shape the new development?

I love the skylines of New York, Chicago and many other high-rise cities. But I also love the skylines of Washington, Charleston, Savannah, Prague, Edinburgh, Rome and other historic mid- and low-rise cities. It would be a tragedy to turn all of these remarkable places into tower cities. Density does not always demand high-rises. Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Once a low rise city or town succumbs to high-rise mania, many more towers will follow, until the city becomes a carbon-copy of every other city in a “geography of nowhere.”