Why is the City of Portland destroying a core civic asset?

A campaign of inclusion is being used as an excuse to dismantle a nationally praised neighborhood system.

An Oregonian op-ed.

From The Oregonian:

The City of Portland is rightly proud of its past urban achievements, including revitalized buildings and neighborhoods, parks and squares replacing freeways and parking lots, transit-served, walkable and bike-friendly streets, and livable neighborhoods that are mostly unspoiled by the mega-projects that blight other cities. In all of these achievements, the city’s neighborhood association system has played a central role. Even today, the city’s website crows that “Portland’s neighborhood system and commitment to public participation has been nationally recognized for many years.”

In that context, it’s troubling that the city agency responsible for the neighborhood system has just changed its name, removing the word “neighborhood” and making it clear that more drastic changes are under way to sideline or even dismantle the system altogether.

So what changed?

The city’s most recent actions began in response to a harshly critical 2016 audit of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. The city auditor found inadequate performance measures, lack of accountability, weak neighborhood involvement and empowerment, and failure to address 20 years of funding inequities.

How did the Office of Neighborhood Involvement react? By hiring a marketing company to rebrand and change its name. The new promotional materials for the Office of Community and Civic Life make it clear the new emphasis will be on representing “communities of identity” — not neighborhoods.

The city is certainly right to take affirmative steps to involve populations that have been excluded historically. Too often, they are still excluded. Portland has a shameful legacy of racism, segregation and environmental injustice, and much more needs to be done now.

But the way to do that is not to sideline the grassroots system that has done so much to revitalize the city. In fact, we should demand more of this system, not less. There are fundamental issues of grassroots democracy at stake.

By definition “communities of identity” are not open to all — as neighborhood associations must be — but instead they may inherently exclude others. The non-profits that represent them are often not required to follow open meeting and public records laws, disclose funding sources or establish standards against conflicts of interest. Their lack of transparency means they are prey to relatively easy manipulation by unaccountable vested interests — so-called “astroturfing.” What seems like authentic grass-roots activism may be something else.

By contrast, neighborhood associations are geographically representative of all the residents within their boundaries – a form of representation that could not be more important in a city that elects its council at large, leaving large sections of the city otherwise poorly represented. Neighborhood associations like our own Goose Hollow Foothills League are required to hold open meetings, maintain public records, hold transparent elections and disclose potential conflicts. This is a vital safeguard of transparency and accountability.

No less troubling: Who decides which organizations will be recognized, and on what issues? The bureau’s director has stated that she will. What kind of influence will these participants really have over the process? Whatever the bureau deems suitable, since they control the process.

This is top-down, thumb-on-scales tokenism — the antithesis of the original grassroots system. Worse, by dividing and conquering — fragmenting community voices into warring “communities of identity” — the city can effectively neutralize effective grassroots democracy.

Activists of all kinds should come together to oppose this political Trojan Horse. We do need a revitalized, accountable, neighborhood-based governance system, with better representation of all residents. We do need effective tools to address our shared and growing challenges: displacement, loss of affordability, homelessness and other urgent problems. Other cities show us that there are effective solutions available, if we work together.

It’s time to strengthen civic engagement of diverse populations within the neighborhood association system, as well as with other affirmative policies. It’s time to demand a stronger neighborhood system empowered and supported by a city office, which is held accountable for its support and budgeting.

In a troubling time of divisive assaults on democracy, it’s time for more democracy — not less.

A helpful history of Portland’s neighborhood association system

The pioneering grass roots system is under unprecedented attack with concerted efforts toward marginalization.  Before we let the system be destroyed, we ought to remember what we actually have, and why it’s worth fighting for.

A history of Portland’s urban achievements, including its pioneering neighborhood association system, in a case study section on the “EcoTipping Points” website.

The following excerpts are from the website The EcoTipping Points Project, a series of case studies of successful efforts to promote more livable, sustainable urban development.   The case study of Portland is well worth a careful read. Sometimes it takes the perspective of outsiders to remind us of the value of what we already have — and what we might lose.

The case study documents statewide land use innovations,  urban planning efforts and other achievements.  These excerpts focus on the emergence of neighborhood associations as key grass-roots resources in the revitalization of the city.


[In the 1960s] Portland was falling into a downward spiral of urban decay, sprawl, and the multiple problems stemming from car-centered development. Not wanting to follow the same pattern that characterized most North American cities, Portland has helped to spearhead a movement towards urban livability. With urban growth boundaries, quality public transportation, and broad-based citizen participation in everything from local and regional planning to neighborhood associations, Portland is at the forefront of a movement to create livable urban regions in North America…


Portland’s Neighborhood Associations (NAs) are often cited as an example of the city’s strong tradition of participatory democracy.

NAs emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as loose coalitions which formed usually to in response to some change affecting the neighborhoods in question. For example, in Lair Hill, student renters and Jewish and Italian families opposed the South Auditorium urban renewal project that would have displaced them. In 1966, Northeast Portland applied to participate in the Model Cities program and a citizen’s planning board was appointed to the project. Meanwhile, in Northwest Portland, proposals to expand the Good Samaritan Hospital spurred neighborhoods to organize and became negotiators for plans that saved older, more established residential neighborhoods. In 1971, Southeast Portland neighborhoods were a key part of the movement that eventually stymied plans to build the Mount Hood Freeway.

There were several reasons for the increased involvement among neighborhoods.  Older neighborhoods were reacting to pressure by development interests. A change in political climate in the 1970s meant new city leaders were not tied to old planning practices favored by their old-school, technocratic predecessors.  There were increased requirements for citizen participation in federal/state programs, such as, among other things, Senate Bill 100.

In 1972, then-Mayor Terry Schrunk convened the District Planning Organizational Task Force to explore the idea of a city mechanism for neighborhood and district citizen participation (in other words, to formalize and legitimize neighborhood involvement in the political process). The task force recommended three principles: a two-tiered structure of both Neighborhood Planning Organizations (NPOS) and DPOs (district planning organizations) be established. Both tiers were to be involved in planning for both physical and social issues, and this structure should have some real authority in City Council.

In 1973, voters elected Neil Goldschmidt, who was a strong advocate for increasing the power of neighborhood associations. He proposed a Bureau of Neighborhood Organizations with a budget of 104,000 dollars, and this proposal became an ordinance. The first draft of the ordinance proposed a system of both NPOs and DPOs when issues emerged concerning more than one neighborhood’s jurisdiction. A second draft ordinance addressed those concerns by the ONA (Office of NAs), created to coordinate among the NAs, which were volunteer-run.

In 1974, the city passed a plan to try out district field offices in three areas of the city where federal resources for this purpose were not available. The ordinance was revised again in 1975 to replace the process of the city’s recognition of NAs with the requirement that they meet minimum standards, ie banning discrimination, written grievance/dissent procedures, and NA by-laws be on file with ONA, and that both the ONA and District Office was to support/enhance the NAs’ work.

Under the plan, city agencies were responsible for notifying neighborhood associations 30 days before a decision affecting a NA, including NAs in all planning efforts affecting neighborhood livability, and making sure the plans recommended by NAs would have a public hearing, and any changes had to be sent to the NA. The NA in turn was responsible for notifying city agencies about planning efforts, sharing info and cooperating with city agencies.

In the NA system’s early years, a major achievement was getting neighborhoods involved with the city’s budget process. This meant the bureaus were asked to be accountable if neighborhood input didn’t appear in the bureau’s budget. By 1979, there were 60 active NAs in Portland. There were neighborhood mediation programs offered through the ONA and focused on disputes between neighbors, ie, tenants and landlords (and later, other issues such as crime prevention and safety).

Since these early years, the system has undergone changes and some difficulties. The recession brought public expenditures under increasing scrutiny. By 1984, there were increasing conflicts between the ONA and district coalitions and between districts. The last 13 years has seen a reorganization and re-evaluation of the purpose and future direction of the NA program.

Today there are 95 NAs in Portland city, 90 of which are served by 7 district offices of varying operational structures. They vary widely in terms of number of meetings/projects, issues, communication efforts and attendance. While there are some problems and limitations of the NA system, recommendations on how to address these have been submitted by various grassroots organizations. Their involvement shows that there is a strong interest in sustaining and improving the NA program.