In praise of “Goldilocks urbanism”

Cities like Portland generate benefits from concentrations of talent, but also from “spreading it around.” Getting the balance “just right” (neither too hot nor too cold) is not just about fairness; it turns out to be better for everyone’s bottom line too. Portland could do a lot better.

The goal of urban planning and policy, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, is to promote urban vitality by maintaining an optimum of diversity, in incomes as well as other kinds—neither too many poor in one area, nor too many rich. Drawing by the author.


In recent years, we at Livable Portland have celebrated the power of urbanism: the capacity of cities and towns (like Portland) to create economic dynamism, expanded life choices, opportunities for active living, and healthier, more resource-efficient lifestyles. This power is perhaps most obvious in the dense cores of cities, where people interact with each over across a wide spectrum of private and public spaces that are all connected to that ultimate public space system, the street.

In that celebration we have joined people like Edward Glaeser (author of Triumph of the City) and Richard Florida (author of The Creative Class). In their own works they have described cities as powerful engines of creative social and economic development. They and others acknowledge a debt to the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who championed the humble sidewalk as an arena of human interaction, occasionally producing exchanges of information and “knowledge spillovers” that are surprisingly important for economic as well as social development. “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear,” said Jacobs, “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” We are learning that other kinds of wealth also grow from the network of seemingly-modest interactions in the city’s public spaces.

But along the way to this very necessary “re-urbanism,” it seems that things have gotten terribly out of balance. The story is distressingly similar in many cities around the world. Newly popular city cores are drawing more people, pushing up prices, and driving out small businesses and lower-income residents. City leaders, alarmed at the trends, try to build their way out of the problems, on the theory that more supply will better match demand, and result in lower rents and home prices. But the efforts don’t seem to work— and even seem to exacerbate the problems.

That’s because cities aren’t simple machines, in which we can plug in one thing (say, a higher quantity of housing units) and automatically get out something else (say, lower housing costs). We can’t just “build, baby build” and solve our problems of affordability. Instead, cities are “dynamical systems,” prone to unintended consequences and unexpected feedback effects. By building more units, we might create “induced demand,” meaning that more people are attracted to move to our city from other places – and housing prices don’t go down, they go up.

Unfortunately, we have been treating cities too much like machines, but for an understandable reason. In an industrial age, that has been a profitable approach for many at the top, and over the last half century, it seemed to fuel the middle class too. More recently, we have begun to see very destructive results—creating lopsided cities of winners and losers, and large areas of urban (and rural) decline. Even government programs meant to address the problems have seemed at times like a game of “whack-a-mole”—say, building some social housing in one place, and seeing more affordability problems pop up in another.

In the years after World War II, and especially in the United States, the largest areas of decline were often in the inner cities, leaving the “losers” of the economy behind, while the “winners” (often wealthier whites) fled to the suburbs. But more recently it has been the cores of large cities that have become newly prosperous, attracting the winners of the “knowledge economy”— and displacing the former long-time residents.

Meanwhile, the inner-tier suburban belts and the smaller cities and towns have suffered marked decline, resulting in predictable political backlashes, including the “populist revolt” of the so-called “white working class.” In the larger cities, lower-income and minority populations have been relegated to more peripheral suburban locations, with limited opportunities for economic (and human) development. This gap in opportunity means a gap in the lower-end “rungs of the ladder” that are so essential for immigrants and others to advance.

Like its Postwar counterpart of suburban growth, this more recent pattern of core gentrification and geographic inequality has also been an unintended result of conscious policies. This time we aimed to achieve not suburban expansion, but the urban benefits of knowledge-economy cities, and their capacities as creative engines of economic development. That is indeed a powerful force to harness. Clearly, however, we failed to recognize the need to temper this growth, and maintain a just balance of opportunity.

Florida and Glaeser, to their credit, have both acknowledged some deep problems with their models. In a 2016 interview, Florida confessed, “I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities … I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.” Glaeser also admitted, in a panel discussion with Florida in 2017, that recent years had seen a blowback from this re-urbanization, in the increasing segregation of winners and losers, and the political fallout that has resulted: “Let me agree that we are facing something of a crisis.”

Too much of a good thing?

The problem with the simple formula of densifying urban cores by concentrating the “creative class” can best be understood from the point of view of network theory, and especially, the theory of how people form economic networks in an urban setting. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing—to over-concentrate, and to rely too much on what are known in the theory as “rich club networks.” These are nodes of concentrated connection that are particularly well-connected, and that therefore offer access to concentrated resources—in this case, concentrations of talent and wealth. Just as in everyday life there is a great benefit to “who you know” and being on the inside of exclusive insider networks of knowledge, wealth and opportunity, “rich club networks” capitalize on similar concentrations of access within them. The trouble is, the benefits may not spill over to other areas outside of those networks.

As Luis Bettencourt of the University of Chicago points out, this network inequality can put a drag on the overall urban system, economically and socially. This is not only because of the costs in areas that are excluded, from problems like crime, policing, incarceration, social services and so on. It’s also a more basic effect of the dynamics of social networks, in what is known as “Metcalfe’s Law.” Networks—in cities or in other structures—benefit from the number of overall interconnected nodes, not just the advantages conferred by elite sub-clusters.

As Bettencourt put it, “the view of cities in terms of social networks emphasizes the primary role of expanding connectivity per person and of social inclusion in order for cities to realize their full socioeconomic potential. In fact, cities that for a variety of reasons (violence, segregation, lack of adequate transportation) remain only incipiently connected will typically underperform economically compared to better mixing cities,” he said. “What these results emphasize is the need for social integration in huge metropolitan areas over their largest scales, not only at the local level, such as neighborhoods.”

Put differently, urban equity and environmental justice are not just about fairness—they’re good for everyone’s bottom line.

But the idea that we should concentrate at the top of the pyramid has its counterpart in supply-side economic theory, which holds that if you promote the interests of those at the top who are creating supply (by giving them tax incentives and other forms of stimulus) they will generate wealth that will “trickle down” to everyone else. George Bush Sr. famously criticized this idea as “voodoo economics”—and yet it became a dominant force in the world’s economic development after 1980, including urban development. We can see now from network theory what the problem is. It is not that the network phenomenon isn’t real, but that it can get out of control. Cities do generate powerful benefits from concentrations of talent—but also from “spreading it around,” and we need to strike a balance between the two approaches.

Perhaps the trouble with Glaeser’s triumphant city cores, and Florida’s creative class, was that they were too exclusive, too dependent on an isolated population of elite knowledge workers, and a limited secondary population that would mainly service their needs. We needed more than densification of cores with walkable, well-connected street grids and mixed use—as beneficial as those are; we needed a more “polycentric,” well-connected and diverse kind of city, geographically speaking too.

In many cities today, it seems, we are seeing the consequences of this “voodoo urbanism” play out. It was thought that if we just take care of the creative class, the universities, the technology industries and their knowledge workforces, then the output of all that urban critical mass, like some kind of economic nuclear reactor, will generate immense wealth that will trickle down to all. This idea is so pervasively seductive that it has been embraced by those who might otherwise resist supply-side economic theory (like the officials in my own home town of Portland, Oregon).

But once again we can turn to Jacobs for an early and prescient warning about the dangers of this approach. She warned against “money floods” which were no less destructive of good-quality and equitable urban development than “money droughts.” More fundamentally, she warned against “the self-destruction of diversity,” in any neighborhood that allows itself to tip over into monocultures of any kind—including monocultures of creatives, or Ph.D.s, or any other sort. Diversity of all kinds is an asset to be maintained, with careful tools and strategies—not only as a matter of social justice, but one of economic vitality too. Again, this is good for everyone’s bottom line.

This was Jacobs’ central argument: that the core task of city planning was to ensure the “generators of diversity:” of people and their numbers, of uses and activities, of pathways, of building ages and conditions—and of geographic locations. Instead of over-concentrating in the core, she suggested, we need a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth—and likewise the demand for housing—can be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable. We do have tools available to do that: funding incentives, catalytic tools, taxes to dampen speculation, and many others.

At the same time, it seems more important than ever to provide good urban fabric in the suburbs too, where increasing percentages of the population live (including increasing numbers of the displaced poor). “Good urban fabric” means walkable, mixed, transit-served, with expanding opportunities in older as well as newer buildings. It means the same kind of geographic as well as other kinds of diversity, achieved through conscious strategic actions to dampen, incentivize, catalyze, and use other kinds of tools.

In place of voodoo urbanism, we might call this “Goldilocks urbanism”—curating an urban growth that is not too hot and not too cold, nor not too concentrated in any one place. The former approach has done an effective job of destroying historic fabric, raising prices, fueling gentrification, and leaving our cities less sustainable and less equitable. It has also done an effective job making some people very wealthy in a short period. But we continue to follow their simplistic formulas at our cities’ peril.


This post also ran on CNU Public Square; our thanks to them.  

A year later, no change on West Burnside — the “open car sewer” of central Portland

The westside artery is an embarrassing showcase of poor street design.  Let’s do something about it.

Extremely narrow sidewalks, no bike lanes, fast-moving cars, dangerous crossings – what’s not to hate?

Last year we wrote about West Burnside, calling it the “open car sewer” of Portland, and a cause for national embarrassment given Portland’s claim to leadership in urban design and transportation planning.  Worse, that street has the distinction of including four of the city’s most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, according to PBOT.

Minimal sidewalk widths are even tighter around utility poles and hydrants – right next to fast-moving traffic. (Image by Google Maps.)

Of course there are other streets around the city that are even more dangerous, unpleasant, or just plain ugly.  They should certainly be improved too.  But West Burnside runs through the City’s core, and, especially west of I405, it turns into a painfully visible case of a street over-planned for cars, and under-planned for pedestrians or bicyclists.  Of its 60 foot right-of-way, 44 feet is devoted to vehicles, 16 feet to pedestrians, and none to bicycles.  That’s 74% for cars, and 13% per side for pedestrians.

In some places, West Burnside’s sidewalks are only 6 feet wide; after factoring in light poles and other obstructions, some areas provide only a little over four feet of passage for pedestrians.  Right next to them, cars blaze through in a 25 MPH zone — often driving at 35 miles per hour.

Dystopia at West Burnside and NW 23rd.

Not surprisingly, retail has struggled to succeed on Burnside. Currently both corners at West Burnside and Northwest 23rd — which, further away from West Burnside, is one of the city’s most prosperous shopping streets — feature empty commercial spaces.  One of them is a chronic site of vandalism, creating a remarkable spectacle of dilapidation and urban decline.

Isn’t there a remedy?  Yes, there is.  Currently West Burnside is a remarkably inefficient thoroughfare, even though it has a full four lanes at 11 feet wide each.  The trouble is, cars in the center two lanes frequently stop to turn across traffic at the unsignalized intersections and driveways.  In the outer two lanes, conversely, buses frequently stop traffic behind them.  That means the “level of service” for vehicles — the number that can get through within a given span of time — is remarkably low for the number of lanes.  It also means that drivers are constantly making unsafe lane changes, going around vehicles that may also obscure pedestrians.

With a three-lane configuration, a center lane can be used for turning, allowing smooth travel in the outer two lanes.  Meanwhile, buses can use turnouts so that they don’t block traffic.  When they’re ready to re-enter the street, they can be given the right of way with clever designs of lanes.  Speeding traffic can also be calmed with these and other bends in the roadway path.

An image we showed last year of a similar proposal for a street in La Jolla, California, showing the successful results.

According to former Portland planner Jerry Powell, a three-lane configuration was modeled some years ago, and it performed at least as well as the current four-lane configuration.  So why hasn’t the City made the change?  One reason may be the political clout of residents of the West Hills, who may perceive that a wider street means they’ll get to their downtown or Eastside offices more quickly.   But is that true?  Apparently not.

Isn’t it time to do something about this civic embarrassment?



Resisting the privatization of the public realm

A defeat of a new Apple store that would have occupied part of a park in Stockholm — by vigilant neighborhood activists — shows that some are still willing to fight for public space.

Stockholm’s beautiful Kungsträdgården, a central public space in the city.

From CityLab:

Apple is not coming to Stockholm. At least, it’s not coming to a new location at the Swedish capital’s heart.

Last month, Stockholm announced that it would block plans for a new Apple Store in the city’s center, overturning the agreement of a previous administration following widespread public outcry. As this article in The Guardian notes, the objection wasn’t against Apple as such (the company already has three Swedish stores) but against the site they chose. Had the company’s plan gone through, the electronics giant would have been camped at the end of Stockholm’s oldest, most central park: a lovely oblong oasis of greenery and paving called the Kungsträdgården, or King’s Garden. In doing so, Apple would have also taken over (but not necessarily built on) 375 square meters (4,037 square feet) of the park surrounding its store—a small chunk of the park’s overall footprint, but a sizeable privatization of public space in such a key, pivotal site.

…The sheer force of resistance—a public consultation received not a single petition in Apple’s favor—shows that there’s something more at work here than a simple debate over shopping space. Stockholm’s resistance is powered, it seems, by widespread concern about corporations taking over public spaces.  

Indeed, Apple’s Stockholm plans form part of an international pattern. The tech giant has sought to set itself up in key public areas across the world’s cities, often taking over previously non-commercial spaces such as, in certain cases, former library and museum sites (more of which in a moment). They then present their store facilities as natural extensions of this public space, even as cultural institutions…

It’s not really fair to only blame Apple for this: It’s just a company that, following the imperative encoded in all companies, seeks profit and market position. It has found, one assumes, that promoting itself (erroneously or not) as a sort of neutral custodian of the public sphere ultimately helps its bottom line, which is, and must be, its purpose.

The problem is the ground ceded to Apple and corporations like it by the state, which (partly under corporate pressure) is relinquishing its role as place-maker and ensurer of democratic access to public space. Apple’s ability to plausibly present their stores as new town squares rests on a tacit, erroneous assumption that the old, existing town squares are gone or broken. There’s no consideration, for example, that a new, truly public function for an underused library could be found.

Read the full article here.

Portland rents are coming down – for the wealthy

“Rents have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.” – Quote in Portland Tribune report

After adding 15,000 apartment units since 2015, Portland’s rental market has proven that adding supply does address demand and lower prices — but the question is, for whom.

According to new data from Zillow, Portland prices have dropped 2.7 percent — but that drop is mostly in high-cost housing, which is where most of the units have been added.  From an article in the Portland Tribune:

Portland and many other major cities have been inundated with a glut of luxury housing in the last few years, and local developers are reportedly sweetening their deals with Amazon giftcard giveaways and related gimmicks in order to lure wealthy customers.

This seems to be a nationwide trend, but Portland is leading the way:

Zillow’s experts found declines in annual rental prices in more than half of nation’s 35 largest markets, but the Rose City led the way — with the biggest decrease between September 2017 and September 2018.

The article concludes:

As two freelance journalists recently put it: “Rents in Portland have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.”

Who knew?  This blog, for one: we have been warning for some time that a “build, baby build” approach is dangerous, and likely counter-productive. We have to be much more strategic in how and where we build, and for whom.  Other more thoughtful voices have also been speaking out.

Read the full article:

Lively conversations at the showing of “Citizen Jane”

Film about the iconic activist is followed by a community discussion on Portland’s current challenges.

The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City presented a historical account of Jane Jacobs’ activism in the early 1960s, in parallel with environmental, social justice and women’s movements.

On Friday, October 19th, about 150 people participated in a screening followed by an animated discussion of Portland’s current challenges as they were illuminated by the writings and activism of urban pioneer Jane Jacobs.  The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, screened at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, gave an account of Jacobs’ iconic 1960s battles with development czar Robert Moses, builder of freeways and housing projects, and demolisher of what he termed “slums” — but what Jacobs and others saw as vital places of social capital and city diversity.  The film also delved more deeply into Jacobs’ ideas about cities, presenting an overview of her rich theoretical and philosophical perspective on cities.

Heather Flint Chatto discusses the importance of community collaboration on design, and the experience of the Division Design Initiative.

At the end of the screening, a panel and community discussion moderated by Allan Classen of the Northwest Examiner asked what we can learn today from Jacobs’ ideas and legacy.  He was joined by SE Examiner editor Midge Pierce, former Portland Planning Commission Chair Ric Michaelson,  Division Design Initiative coordinator Heather Flint Chatto, and yours truly, co-host Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis Foundation (and this blog).

In my remarks as co-host, I sought to set the stage for exploring  the parallels between Jacobs’ ideas and the current issues we face in Portland:

Thank you all for coming to this remarkable film about a remarkable person, who played such a key role in Portland’s history and so many others’ too – and a person who still has a lot to say to us today about our current challenges.  And we’ll explore that in the discussion afterwards, so please do stick around for that.

By the way, I’m Michael Mehaffy, I’m executive director of Sustasis Foundation, one of the sponsors of tonight’s event, along with the Northwest Examiner and International Making Cities Livable.

So I’m going to take just a couple of minutes to provide some background setup, including some of the Portland context, so please bear with me and we’ll get to the film monetarily.

So the promotion for this movie describes it as a, quote, “chronicle of activist Jane Jacobs’ battle with developers who threatened to demolish NYC’s most historic neighborhoods, and a lesson in the power of the average person to push back,” unquote.

And yes, that’s part of the story – but only part of it. Because really what Jacobs was talking about was how a city WORKS, and how to make it work better – how to make it more diverse, more equitable, more productive, a place of human development and flourishing.  And why certain strategies are doomed to fail — and not only to fail, but to cause enormous long-term harm to the city and its residents, especially to those who are not wealthy or powerful. 

When Jacobs was writing and working as an activist, we were in the surging era of city modernism and modernization, the 1950s and 60s. It was really gripping the country and the world at that time, as the film shows.  We’ll see what Jacobs fought against – the top-down thinking, the expansion of freeways and superblocks and giant buildings, and everywhere the bulldozing of history and human-scale fabric.  That included appalling cases in minority neighborhoods, and as James Baldwin says in the film, cases of quote, “Negro removal.” As we all know, that happened to a shocking degree here in Portland.  

Of course cities do change and grow, and we do need new housing supply to meet demand – Jacobs never questioned that.  But of course the issue always is, where, and how, is growth occurring – and who is really going to benefit in the end. And what do citizens have to say about that in a democracy. Are we using an even-tempered approach across the region, preserving and building on our assets? Are we working with the dynamics of the city, maintaining and increasing its diversity?  Or are we doing something more reckless, perhaps, for other poorly considered and self-interested reasons?  It may seem like progress, we may convince ourselves it’s something wonderful and progressive – but is it really motivated more by the thrill of novelty and financial self-interest?  Jacobs wants us to ask these hard questions of ourselves, and her own judgment was often harsh.  As she says in the film, “Any city that’s tearing down its buildings just to make money for a development, or just to have novelty, is doing something criminal.”

Well, we learned a lot of painful lessons coming out of that era, as the film relates. Places like Portland were part of the battle to recover the human scale of cities, the small-grained activities of the streets, the livable beauty of our heritage, the mix of uses and ways of getting around – and especially, the diversity of the city.  To get that, we had to fight the corrosive influence of money and power and unresponsive government.  And of course we still do.

Robert Moses, Jacobs’ major nemesis in the film, was active here in Portland too, laying out huge freeway projects that were never built.  They were never built because neighborhood activists here rose up and fought for what they believed, a vision of a better city.  And we are in their debt today, more than we realize. 

We made a lot of progress from that era, although Portland has always been a work in progress, with a mix of successes and many challenges remaining.  We still need to fight bad projects that damage our heritage and our city life, and fight for good projects, that build on the best dynamics of cities.  As the title of tonight’s event suggests, the battle for the city continues. 

And now we find ourselves with a new challenge, I would say a new reactionary if profitable phase of modernization – and the same troubling bulldozing of history, the same troubling command-and-control approach to urban problems, the same troubling wave of sterile large-scale, top-down structures created by developers and designers – with ever weirder and, for some, uglier buildings — leaving human beings with little to really engage with.  And we see similar claims that this is for the best for people, for affordability, for the environment.  And similar attacks on those citizens who dare to question that conventional wisdom. Some of my colleagues in the architecture, planning and development professions seem to think that if they just sprinkle some mixed use and some street cars at the base, the failed old model will work after all.  Well, watch the film, and I think you can see a pretty powerful critique of that kind of thinking.

One of the aspects of Jacobs’ work that is not so much covered in the film is the emphasis on grass-roots governance at many levels, and most importantly down to specific places, specific neighborhoods.  And I quote from her great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“The principal coordination needed comes down to coordination among different services within localized places…  The invention required is not a device for coordination at the generalized top, but in specific and unique localities.”

In Portland we have a fundamental problem with this kind of localized governance.  We have an at-large system of council elections, which leaves many parts of the city unrepresented.  We have a commissioner system of bureau management, which tends to encourage top-down bureaucracy without bottom-up responsiveness and accountability. And we have a neighborhood association system that is therefore all the more important, but – and here I will speak frankly – that is moribund, and in dire need of reform and revitalization.  And yet at this moment, the bureau in charge of it seems to be moving in a very different direction.

The film concludes by observing that the kind of city-making that Jacobs fought against is now growing faster than ever before all around the world – freeways, superblocks, horizontal sprawl, vertical sprawl if you will. One of the speakers calls it “Robert Moses on steroids.” I think we have to face the global consequences of this destructive kind of city-making for the great challenges of the future – for resource depletion, ecological destruction, toxic emissions and climate change.   And I think it’s a systems challenge too, a social challenge, and a governance challenge.  Portland is seen as a leader on these issues for many other cities, for better or worse, and so I think it’s all the more important that we get it right here.  So in that sense, I do think Jacobs and her ideas couldn’t be more relevant for us here today.

So!  We have lots to discuss, and lots to think about!  Thank you, and we hope you enjoy the film.


What does Jane Jacobs still offer to Portland for its current challenges?

A free showing of a new film on Jacobs’ life and ideas will explore the question and its answers (Friday October 19th, 7-10 PM)

The urban champion Jane Jacobs had a special relationship with the City of Portland over its evolution as a more diverse, mixed, walkable place. A frequent advisor to grass-roots activists in the city, Jacobs championed lively, diverse neighborhoods, and she also led citizen activism against powerful special interests.

Jacobs was the author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a landmark work that remains an inspiration for many planners today. Yet in it, she excoriated planners for failing to listen to people, failing to genuinely involve and empower them, and failing to develop effective strategies to promote healthy, equitable urban development.  Not content to criticize, she also explained, in lucid detail and with keen powers of observation, just what was required to remedy those shortcomings.

What does Jacobs say to Portland today?  Quite a lot, it turns out — as documented in the new film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.  The acclaimed film — earning a 94% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes — focuses on Jacobs’ heroic activism in New York City, her victories over bullying planner Robert Moses, and other related struggles, at a time when New York neighborhoods were threatened with destructive new freeways and other out-scale developments.

In Portland a few years later, citizen activists would be inspired by her example to fight bad freeway projects, destructive hospital and shopping mall expansions, and demolition of historic treasures.  Those activist successes laid the foundation for the city’s subsequent urban renaissance,  cementing Portland’s legacy as an icon of urban regeneration and enlightened planning.

But that was then and this is now, we have won those battles, and we have nothing to learn from that past — right?  Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Today we also face a wave of destructive projects,  stiff-arming government officials, the corrosive influence of development money, and counter-productive policies that only exacerbate our problems.  Jacobs’ activism — and moreover, her profound ideas on the nature of cities — still have very much to say to us today.

As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs was not only an activist, but also a deeply insightful scholar and urban scientist, teasing out the workings of cities and the dynamics of urban economies, and offering insights that we could put to work for human benefit.  Her observations on “organized complexity” and a “web way of thinking” marked her as an urban visionary of the first rank.  (And an economist, political theorist and more.) Above all she was a champion of diversity, of the mixing of people, activities, building types and ages, and (most overlooked) geographic locations.

As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs cautioned against “silver bullet” solutions, “rushing monocultures of the new,” and over-building in the cores of cities (including building too high). She eschewed simplistic “whack-a-mole” approaches to our urban problems, instead focusing on a more multi-faceted approach, strategically and geographically. As we wrote previously:

Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth — and likewise the demand for housing — could be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable.


On Friday, October 19th, from 7 to 10PM, the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center (1819 NW Everett Street) will feature a showing of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the acclaimed documentary on Jacobs’ life and ideas.

Come see this remarkable film on her life’s work, followed by a panel discussion on Portland’s current situation, and the still-urgent need for citizen activism. What does Jacobs say to Portlanders, at a time when our fabled neighborhood association system is being deconstructed?

The event is hosted by the Northwest Examiner, the Sustasis Foundation and International Making Cities Livable. Admission is free, but donations to cover expenses are appreciated.  You can sign up here (although you can also just come, if space is available): .  We hope to see you there!

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.


It’s not just Portland that’s “losing the plot”…

Other West Coast cities are also trying to build their way out of unaffordability, with dubious and divisive strategies, and little to show for it 

San Francisco: Maybe if we just build a lot more million-dollar penthouses, we’ll be affordable then?

In a remarkable recent editorial in the New York Times, staff writer Timothy Egan assesses the reaction of governments in San Francisco and Seattle to familiar problems for Portlanders — soaring home prices, displacement, inequality, homelessness — and he finds them wanting.

The article, titled “Down and Out in San Francisco, on $117,000 a Year,” notes that city is now so expensive that a family income of over $100,000 is now considered “below the poverty line.”  Egan questions whether the government there has a handle on the challenge: “Can people accept more crowded neighborhoods, in a city that is already the second most densely populated among big cities in the nation, if they feel that elected leaders do not have a decent plan — or a clue?”

Egan reports that the City of San Francisco spends an eye-popping $250 million a year on a population of 7,500 homeless — translating into about $33,000 per person per year.  To put that in perspective, that’s enough money to purchase a home worth about $400,000 for each homeless person.   Yet the city’s problems persist unabated.

Egan goes on to describe (and criticize) his own home city of Seattle:

In Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city for this decade, the social contract is nearly broken. The city used to be run by creative problem solvers. Now, an ideologically driven City Council dreams up new things to anger residents while seeming to let the homeless have the run of the place.

Portlanders might well marvel at the parallels to their own city, as deep and bitter ideological divisions open up between former allies: environmentalists and preservationists, equity advocates and neighborhood activists.  Meanwhile, developers are having a field day:

An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians. If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.

But surely if Portland follows the same path, we will have different results?  We are reminded of Jane Jacobs’ quip, that planning — or we could substitute here, government policy — “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”

Egan concludes:

We need a new urbanism. For all the grumping about how great the cities facing the Pacific used to be, they can be greater still if the bright minds now trying to “disrupt” a grilled cheese sandwich can focus on the biggest challenge of this generation. We know what doesn’t work. The task is to find a creative mix of solutions that do.

City council votes in “emergency” to re-name ONI, drop “neighborhoods” from name

After repeated and confusing changes to hearing schedules, neighborhood stakeholders show up to protest, are chewed out by Councilmember Eudaly

Kora Kresin, a PSU Graduate Research Assistant, a renter, and the daughter of a Peruvian immigrant, took the Council and ONI to task for the lack of notification and involvement in the name change. “I feel quite powerless… I feel like this decision has already been made.” Kresin is also an Assistant Service Provider, Cedar Counseling Center, and is informally associated with International Making Cities Livable, the co-host of this blog.


In a vote that surprised few people, the Portland City Council ratified the proposed name change of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the bureau famously derided by City Hall insiders as “the island of misfit toys”.

The Northwest Examiner features the story on its first page for this month.  Excerpts from the article:

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is rebranding itself for a social diversity and equity mission while distancing the agency from its roots in the neighborhood association system.

Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Suk Rhee and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly announced in May that the program will be called the Office of Community & Civic Life effective July 1. After discovering that they cannot transform a city bureau by fiat, they got on the July 18 council agenda…

New brochures were printed before Office of Neighborhood Involvement officials knew they needed City Council approval before changing the agency’s name.

Although Rhee has told skeptical Westside neighborhood association activists that “our mission remains the same,” a 16-page brochure rolling out the program mentions the phrase “neighborhood association(s)” only once, and then merely to define the program’s original purpose.

In announcing the changes as fait accompli, ONI violated the most elemental aspect of citizen participation: People must know when decisions affecting their lives will be on the public docket so they can prepare and speak to decision-makers before binding action is taken. Being told a decision is final when it is not is one step worse than no notification at all; it falsely guides citizens to do nothing while they still have the power to act….

On July 2, the agency website noted that the name change will go to council July 18, but no further clarification was given.

Changing the name is one thing, rewriting its purpose is another.

As adopted in current code (3.96.010), the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is responsible for recognizing neighborhood associations, district coalitions and business district associations to “create a framework by which the people of the city of Portland may effectively participate in civic affairs and work to improve the livability and character of their neighborhoods and the city.

Another section of the code (3.96.060) directs ONI to “support and promote public involvement within the neighborhood association framework.”

Making that language jibe with a program now promoting non-geographic communities, immigrants and underrepresented populations may be more complicated than issuing a press release…

At least two local neighborhood associations, the Northwest District Association and Goose Hollow Foothills League, have gone further.

NWDA unanimously approved a letter to council asking for an explanation of the reasons for the changing of ONI’s name and goals. It also asked for direct notification when the matter is put on the council agenda and for the opportunity to provide testimony.

GHFL leveled a broader critique. In a three-page letter unanimously approved by its board last month, the association opposed the removal of neighborhood from the office’s name. The letter also addressed political theory.

“Place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm, and to ignore that would be a serious error,” the GHFL letter stated. “The identity-based organizations are political associations that by their nature exclude others, and, while they should be recognized in the political realm, don’t and can’t provide the same kind of public representation that place-based representation can.

“We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities,” the letter continued. “This is backwards, a reversal of the United Nations-articulated principle of subsidiarity, where it is posited that democracy and social justice work best when decisions are made at the most local level rather than by central authority. The mission should arise from the people, acting through elected representatives. This was the process and the vision at the bureau’s inception.”

The full hearing video, citizen testimony, and Council and staff discussions (including a tongue-lashing of some neighborhood association representatives by Councilmember Eudaly) can be seen at