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.


2 Replies to “A helpful history of Portland’s neighborhood association system”

  1. As oni changes to occl (and rightfully gives voice to traditionally underrepresented groups) we need to keep our eyes on the need to democratize the city. Each neighborhood needs a voice in City Hall. If it’s not through oni or occl then it should be through reform of our representative form of local government. Optionally if each neighborhood is to have a voice and it’s not through our neighborhood associations then we need a sufficient number of district reps. That number should reflect the number of existing neighborhood associations. In other words, we need 90 -100 representatives. As unwieldy as that sounds it will give us a voice that we hypothetically could be losing in the oni/occl transition.

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