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