As we’re assessing what we in Portland need to do to build on our livable heritage, and how we can exchange lessons with other cities, it’s worth stopping occasionally to look at the powerful assets we do have. One of our most important assets is surely our famously walkable street grid – a holdover from the 19th Century streetcar city design, based in turn on the Continental Land Survey with its 1-mile grid system.
Here’s an article from a while back celebrating this treasure, and pointing out the important lessons it has to offer to other cities. Those are lessons we can still learn too, as we look to re-connect and revitalize sprawling parts of the city, and the region.
The current issue of Portland’s Willamette Week has a “pop quiz” for the newly inaugurated Mayor Wheeler, who starts his position today. One of the eyebrow-raising questions concerned the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, or ONI: “True or false: ONI is the city bureau most in need of reform.”
His response: “It’s tied for first place.” (With the Police Bureau, we later learned.
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is a feature of pride for a city that has a reputation for citizen activism and strong neighborhood representation in government affairs. But recent developments have exposed deep problems in the department, and perhaps in the City’s wider culture of stakeholder representation. The Mayor’s comments come less than two months after a scathing article in The Oregonian:
“City auditors have found a trifecta of problems inside Portland’s office promoting neighborhoods and civic engagement, including poor oversight, unequal funding and unfinished plans.”
Among other issues, the Oregonian article described unequal funding for citizens in different parts of the city, with notably higher funding in the core than in the periphery:
“In the last fiscal year, officials doled out $2.1 million to the seven district coalitions that serve as umbrella groups for various neighborhood associations. Of that, the East Portland Neighborhood Office and the Central Northeast group each received nearly the same amount of money — just under $300,000. But the east office represents nearly 150,000 people, three times as many residents as Central Northeast, meaning it received about $2 for every person in its dominion compared to about $6 for the other group.”
Increasingly, the forefront of innovation and economic growth is occurring at the level of cities and their regions, and less so at the level of national governments. Cities are also interacting more directly with each other, and learning from one another’s successes — and mistakes. To play our part in facilitating that kind of “peer to peer exchange” with Portland, we will pass along timely discussions from other cities about issues similar to those we face.
We start with an article from the UK’s Building Design magazine from last year, on the explosive growth of tall buildings in London — a phenomenon occurring in many cities around the world. (And beginning to be a significant phenomenon in Portland too, notably because of increased allowable building heights under the new 2035 Comprehensive Plan.)
Is this trend, fueled by increasingly global real estate capital, a source of “manna from heaven” to do progressive things, as some in Portland seem to think? Will it help with housing affordability, by creating more supply to meet demand? Will it create a more sustainable city? This author, Ike Ijeh, looks at other cities like Paris and St. Petersburg — and concludes that the boosterish claims are problematic, to say the least. (As we have also argued, citing research evidence.)
From Ijeh’s article:
“And in the background to all this, consternation persists about the profusion of foreign investor-backed luxury residential towers sprouting across the city while thousands of Londoners are in the grip of an affordable housing crisis, a situation that has pressed the mayor of Hackney to call for the rejection of fiercely criticised skyscraper plans for Bishopsgate Goodsyard within his own borough. And in an unprecedented move, even a City of London councillor yesterday voiced serious concerns about the “uncontrolled” extent of high-rise development within the City….This chaotic convergence of events once again underlines how London’s approach to tall buildings is in disarray.”
Ijeh compares London to Frankfurt. Here, he argues, the City had no historic, human-scale core left to speak of; so they frankly embraced tall buildings within a coherent but limited area. Whether or not you agree with him that this monocultural district of corporate offices was a good idea (we don’t) we hope you will find his article thought-provoking.
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.