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.”