A blog about how we can become a better city, WITHOUT losing our livable heritage
Author: Michael Mehaffy
Michael Mehaffy, Ph.D., is Senior Researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Executive Director of Sustasis Foundation in Portland, Oregon, and a strategic development consultant and urban designer with over 20 years of international experience in economic development strategy, urban planning, infrastructure, public involvement and communication, and inter-disciplinary project management. He is on the editorial boards of two international journals of urban design, and he has held seven research and/or teaching appointments in six countries. He has been active in Portland-area planning and building since 1991. Among his most noted projects is Orenco Station, a walkable mixed-use transit-oriented development with 1,800 homes and 600,000 square feet of retail, for which he served as project manager for the master developer. The project successfully introduced compact walkable development to a sprawling area of the Portland suburbs. Michael has also consulted for many area governments, NGOs and private clients. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
“You cannot create an inclusive neighborhood spirit if there’s no neighborhood spirit in the first place.”
The Oregonian newspaper has published a new editorial taking Portland’s Office of Community and Civic Life to task for its handing of the current City code revision proposal governing the neighborhood association system. From the editorial:
As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Gordon Friedman reported, the civic life office is proposing changes to the section of city code that defines what the office does. But in rewriting the code, Eudaly and Rhee want to strip nearly all mention of the office’s existing partnership with Portland’s 95 neighborhood associations, which are the city’s designated organizations for overseeing issues and activities within specific geographic boundaries. The proposal would similarly take out most mentions of district coalitions and business district associations.
…neighborhood associations, as flawed as some might be in representing all voices, provide the services, events and opportunities that connect residents in their communities with one another. These are the groups that organize disaster-response teams, work with city staffers to set up movies in the neighborhood park, advocate for stop signs at dangerous intersections, bring in guest speakers to talk about public transit, set up block watches and work for safe routes for students to get to school. You cannot create an inclusive neighborhood spirit if there’s no neighborhood spirit in the first place.
The proposal only inflames fears and intensifies suspicion among neighborhoods already uncertain about how new density laws will change their communities. The city does not need to give skeptics more reasons to mistrust government or more motivation to put up a fight.
…there’s no reason that the civic life office can’t add more community groups to the list of recognized entities while demanding higher standards from neighborhood associations as well. Some associations have already changed the way they reach out to their community, from where they hold meetings to conducting them in multiple languages. Others are eager for help in attracting more residents and revitalizing their membership – practices that the civic life office should be sharing with neighborhood groups.
…it’s so critical for Portlanders to find the common ground on which to build real solutions and protect it from unnecessary hits like the proposed code change. There’s plenty of time to rework it before going to Council. Eudaly and Rhee should reach out to the longtime volunteers who have powered neighborhood associations for so long to help make that happen.
The current OCCL proposals to address the 2016 audit findings are deeply inadequate at best, and at worst are a frontal assault on Portland’s geographically-based, grass-roots democracy.
Dear Ms. Hull-Caballero,
RE: 2016 Audit, “Community and Neighborhood Involvement: Accountability limited, rules and funding model outdated”
I am Vice-President of Goose Hollow Foothills League, but am writing to you today solely as a Portland citizen, and a researcher in urban development and governance. I would like to preface this letter by noting that in my international work, I frequently meet people who express great admiration for Portland’s urban accomplishments, often singling out its pioneering neighborhood association-based public involvement system for praise. At the same time, I think we all recognize that the system has developed problems and needs improvements, as your office has also found.
Recently I have become aware of proposals by a committee convened by the responsible bureau that would radically transform the system. In my view and that of many others, these proposals would not improve the neighborhood association component of the system, but rather, all but destroy this vital civic asset. I will not address herein the method by which this committee was convened or managed, or the propriety or transparency of its notifications, except to note that I do have major concerns on these issues as well.
In your November 2016 audit, you found a number of shortcomings with the then-named Office of Neighborhood Involvement. In the intervening time, while a number of actions have been taken, personnel have been changed, the office has been re-named and “re-branded” to the Office of Civic and Community Life, and some other specific issues raised by the audit have been addressed, I believe that other crucial issues identified in the audit findings have not only not been resolved, they have been made worse, or will be made worse, under current OCCL management. Given the historic nature of the proposed changes, and the rationales based upon the findings from your own report, I ask you to review these actions and, if appropriate, issue updated findings.
Following is a list of key issues as identified in the report, and responses that have been made or proposed to date.
“The office needs a clear framework defining roles and responsibilities of City and community organizations and a focus on accountability.” The current proposal is not to require new standards of responsibility, accountability and transparency for all groups including outside ones, but rather, to reduce responsibility, accountability and transparency for neighborhood associations. This is moving in exactly the wrong direction from that called for in your audit.
“Emerging issues, such as using email to make board decisions or disclosing potential conflicts of interest, have not been addressed in the standards.” Once again, the City bureau is proposing to dispense with all such requirements for transparent governance. The rationale given is that since neighborhood associations are composed of volunteers, they cannot be held to standards of public officials for transparency, accountability, and conflicts of interest. However, your office found that the members of stakeholder advisory committees, though also volunteers, were in fact required to adhere to the standards of public officials. Such requirements can also be made as conditions of funding. At present, neighborhood associations for the most part do adhere to standards for public meetings and records, open elections, and disclosures of potential conflicts of interest, and in our view these requirements should be formalized, not relaxed.
“Lack of clear structure limits effectiveness;” “Defining the expectations and roles of neighborhood associations and all community groups could help clarify how groups can work together.” The current proposals would further muddle the roles and responsibilities of neighborhood associations vis-à-vis other fundamentally different kinds of organizations, particularly non-geographic entities. Often these other groups are nonprofits with unknown donors, opaque governance processes, and unaccountable sources of influence. This is particularly troubling when it comes to obligations of accountability and transparency. Neighborhood associations are by definition geographically inclusive of all their residents, and can more easily be held – as they should be – to that higher standard of open, transparent and democratic governance.
“Funding is not equitable;” “Office of Neighborhood Involvement grant funding for the district coalition offices is based on a historical formula of unknown origin;” “The East Portland Neighborhood Office is funded at the lowest level of all of the coalitions on a per person basis.” Both funding and coalition decision-making authority remain highly inequitable on a per-person basis at many levels throughout the city. For example, in the Neighbors West-Northwest coalition alone, funding decisions and other matters are voted on by representatives of eleven associations, one of which (according to StatisticalAtlas.com) represents 718 people, while another represents 6,507 people – almost a ten-to-one resident ratio, yet they have exactly the same voting power on the coalition board. The funding that is apportioned to the coalition by the City therefore disproportionately serves the residents of the smaller association – which in this case happens to represent a wealthy West Hills neighborhood. As you noted, the problems with East Portland are even more egregious.
“Residents report decreasing ability to impact public decisions;” “both neighborhood associations and other community groups reported that they felt their opinions were not being heard by City Hall.” Your report rightly noted that neighborhood associations also feel ignored, along with other groups and individuals who have been historically excluded. Yet the bureau’s current proposal seems to draw a false either-or distinction, apparently calculated to further marginalize neighborhood associations, under the claim that they have been getting preferential consideration. This too is moving in exactly the wrongdirection from the findings of your audit.
“Some neighborhood associations and district coalitions are working within the existing neighborhood model, while also expanding outreach to diverse communities.” Many of us who have sought to provide better representation, diversity and inclusion within our own NAs were very glad to see that finding. Our view is that neighborhood associations can and should be valuable (even essential) partners in promoting greater equity and inclusiveness in our city. This geographic representation is particularly important in a city that elects its council at large, and that has had chronic problems with equity and inclusiveness, especially for Eastside and other underserved geographic areas (as your audit also noted).
“In the 1970s, City Council created a system of neighborhood associations as the officially recognized channel for community involvement in City decision-making. Council granted neighborhood associations a formal role determining neighborhood needs, advising the City on budget decisions, and representing neighborhoods’ interests in land use and development decisions.” As your audit noted, this primarily geographic system has been regarded as a national model, and for good reason. It serves no one well to commingle this form of representation with other kinds of non-geographic groups, including business associations, non-profits, communities of identity and others. In fact it was this commingling, and lack of clarity of roles, that produced so many of the dysfunctions of the bureau in the past – again as your audit found.
I think few disagree that major reforms are needed in the system, including the neighborhood association component, again, as your audit found. But in my view, neighborhood associations need to be called on to do more, not less – more inclusiveness, more meaningful representation, more accountability and transparency.
In particular, a recognition must be made of the fundamentally distinct role of neighborhood associations as geographic forms of citizen representation, in marked contrast to other forms of groups and interests. In my own view, this distinction warrants a formal separation between neighborhood association governance and other forms of involvement (including business associations and other special interests). It may well be that separate bureaus are needed for these very different functions.
Finally, we are all aware of the growing divisive atmosphere in governance today. In my view, what is needed is to find more effective, more constructive forms of collaboration, particularly within the democratic, geographically representative structures that we already have. I see no constructive purpose in demonizing neighborhood associations as wealthy retired homeowners (I note that I for one am none of those things) and who are bent on obstructing all development. (I am also a development consultant, but one who works respectfully and in good faith with stakeholders to facilitate better-quality development.) To attack these citizens, to seek to diminish their rights to participate in the governance of the public realm – our urban commons – is only to foment more divisiveness, and further serve the agendas of unaccountable special interests. We must find a better way forward.
Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D.
Author’s post-script: The entire 2016 Auditor’s Report can be downloaded and read at this link:
Readers urged to attend Code Committee meeting Wednesday 6/26/19 at 5PM, White Stag building, and forward this post to other concerned residents
At a time when democracy is under assault and being defended in courageous struggles around the world, one place where it is in retreat seems to be… Portland, Oregon.
We received with alarm the following report from Allen Field, an attorney and member of the Richmond neighborhood association, who has been closely following developments of the OCCL-managed Code Committee, charged with re-writing the legal code that governs the City-recognized neighborhood association system. According to Allen and numerous other informed observers, the new draft language virtually abolishes Portland’s vaunted neighborhood system – a pillar of the city’s grass-roots democracy, responsible for many of its celebrated urban achievements of the last half-century.
From Allen’s report:
This Wednesday, June 26, 2019 5:30-8:00 PM at University of Oregon (Wayne Morse) 70 NW Couch St., Portland, OR 97209, the 3.96 Code Comm mtg will likely have its last meeting. At stake is the existence of the Neighborhood Association program and whether Civic Life tosses the ONI Standards and the Open Meeting rules contained therein.
…Code 3.96 is the authorizing Code language for the NA system and for the ONI Standards and the all-important Open Meeting and Public Record rules under which NA’s have operated since 2005. …The new Code language eliminates all reference to NAs and ONI Standards. Further, the existing Code language that is the foundation of the City’s formal recognition of NAs will be entirely erased. NAs will be erased from the Code language governing Civic Life. (2 weeks ago, Mingus Mapps was fired. He was the only person at Civic Life handling NA issues. Now, no one is doing that.)
If the Open Meeting rules and ONI Standards are eliminated, then there’s nothing to prevent a group of people from taking over a NA and pushing their personal agenda under the guise and facade of representing the community. Without the Open Mtg rules and ONI Standards, there will no longer be any recourse to enforce transparency, providing notice to the community, and accountability.
At the last Code Comm meeting, the questions posed to the Committee were:
1. Should the benefits described in the ONI Standards be available to all community groups? [they voted Yes]
2. Should Civic Life dictate the governance & operations of volunteer community groups around civic engagement (aside from the contracts, grants, etc.)? [They put off this vote since several people didn’t like how it was worded. This is the round-about way how they will vote to ditch the ONI Standards– if they vote Yes, the ONI Standards and Open Meetings and Public Record rules are gone].
The work and direction of the 3.96 Code Committee has been totally ignored by all the media and no notice or invitation to participate has been given to neighborhood associations. Has your NA been invited to give comment or been made aware of what this Committee is doing?
If any of this concerns you, attend Wednesday’s meeting and give comment, and/or send an email with your concerns to the Mayor and Council. Public comment is at the beginning of the meeting. Many of the Committee members have never been to a NA meeting and have a very flawed view and understanding of what NAs are all about. Since the public and media have had zero to little information of the proposed changes to the Code, the Committee has heard very little from the public and NAs and very little comment has been given opposing the proposed changes.
Do you think people living or owning property or businesses in your NA boundaries want their NA to be bound by Open Meeting and Public Records rules, do you think they want rules to ensure transparency and accountability of their NA? The Code Comm has never asked itself or considered these questions.
Council will have the final say on all this, but they are also mostly in the dark about the push to eliminate the NA program and the Open Meeting and Public Records rules governing NAs….
If we as a city are going to destroy one of our core democratic assets, we ought to be more aware of what we are doing (or others are doing in our name). If we believe this is a horrible mistake — or worse — we ought to fight to make others aware of our concerns. Like those in Hong Kong and elsewhere, we ought to have the mettle to defend (and improve) our own local governance. If not, we might well deserve what we get.
From June 17 to 21, 2019, International Making Cities Livable (co-host of this blog) will host its 56th conference at the Sentinel Hotel in Portland, “A Healthy City for ALL.” What does that mean in an age of gentrification, soaring costs, displacement, homelessness, and other surging challenges — for Portland and other cities? What can we learn from other cities, and what lessons can we share, about what has worked and what has not worked?
The conference offers a great lineup of speakers, including George Ferguson, past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects and past mayor of Bristol, UK; Rui Moirera, current mayor of Porto, Portugal; Ted Wheeler, current mayor of Portland; Rukaiyah Adams of the Meyer Memorial Trust and Albina Vision; Sven von Ungern-Sternberg, former mayor of Freiburg, Germany; Jim Brainerd, mayor of Carmel, Indiana; Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia; and many more from the US, the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland offered this welcome to the conference:
We are delighted to welcome delegates to the 56th International Making Cities Livable Conference to Portland, and thrilled by the conference theme, “A Healthy City for ALL.” This is an effort close to the heart of all Portlanders as we introduce strategies to make our neighborhoods healthier places to live, as we expand our programming to continue to produce housing units and to compassionately address homelessness.
These challenges must be resolved through bold measures if we are to slow ever- increasing health inequities that accompany growing economic inequities. We look forward to sharing our efforts to address these issues, and to learning from the outstanding achievements of other cities presenting at this conference.
Lynn Peterson, METRO President, said of the conference:
On behalf of my colleagues at Metro, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the 56th International Making Cities Livable Conference, held here in the Rose City. This year’s theme of “Designing a Healthy City for All” is one that I hold especially dear.
Portland has consistently been noted as one of the most livable cities in our country with its walkable communities, efficient bus, streetcar, and light rail systems, as well as strategic integration of natural spaces in urbanized areas. However, as we experience continued growth, crafting a healthy community requires overcoming a variety of challenges.
Suzanne Crowhurst-Lennard, director of the IMCL, explained the theme of the conference as follows:
We rejoice that many cities now are becoming more healthy, by making great improvements in walkability, bikeability, public transit, and access to community, nature and healthy food. We will hear from some of the best models around the world.
Architecture, planning, urban design and landscape architecture firms are refining designs for achieving these goals in different geographic and cultural contexts. Public health and planning departments are collaborating to develop healthy planning guidelines, health impact assessments, and neighborhood health inventories. We will hear about outstanding models all cities can adopt.
Interdisciplinary researchers will tell us about expanding knowledge of the effects of the built environment on the health of humans and the earth. And scholars and academics will share new ways to teach these principles and practices for healthy cities to the next generation.
The BIG challenge that we all face is that these goals are not reaching the population groups most in need. The poorest neighborhoods suffer the greatest health problems. They are less walkable or bikeable, with insufficient public transit, fewer trees, green spaces, and community spaces, poor access to healthy food, and more exposure to pollutants. The resultant chronic illnesses compromise children’s learning ability, reduce adults’ work capacity, and shorten lives. We will hear from cities that are tackling these problems head on with outstanding programs for equitable, healthy neighborhoods.
Moreover, as real estate becomes increasingly commodified, with housing seen as an investment rather than a home, many cities are facing an unprecedented housing affordability crisis that affects all city residents, but especially people of color and low income groups. In the search for affordability, neighborhoods are being gentrified, forcing displacement, destroying community, and rapidly increasing homelessness. This cannot continue! We will hear from leading cities that are introducing innovative strategies to rein in housing commodification, and end homelessness!
If you want to learn more or register, click below for the conference link:
“The purpose of cities is to bring people together. In the 20th century, we blew them apart.” Why are we still stuck in the bad old Modernist mindset? “The struggle is long and ongoing.”
The latest issue of National Geographic magazine is titled “the cities issue,” and features several articles on hopeful trends in urban development. Thankfully, it’s not all about smart grids and big data, but also about how human beings connect — or don’t — in cities. And how some of the proposed solutions to current challenges are moving in exactly the wrong direction. A few gems:
People living in high-rise towers in a park can be just as disconnected—from their neighbors and from the unwalkable street below—as people living on suburban cul-de-sacs.
Calthorpe said [Portland’s best idea was] “to reinvent the old streetcar suburb, where you had fabulous downtowns and you had walkable suburbs, and they were linked by transit.”
To do all this, in Calthorpe’s view, you don’t really need architectural eye candy or Jetsons technology… You need above all to fix the mistakes and misconceptions of the recent past.
[Gehl said] “There is great confusion about how to show the city of the future. Every time the architects and visionaries try to paint a picture, they end up with something you definitely would not like to go anywhere near.”
[Gehl] opened his laptop and showed me a Ford Motor Company website called the City of Tomorrow. The image showed a landscape of towers and verdant boulevards with scattered humans and no sign of them interacting.
“Look at how fun it is to walk there,” Gehl said dryly. “There are only a few hostages down there among the autonomous cars.”
“Towers in the park,” as New Urbanists call this kind of design, is a legacy of modernist architecture, whose godfather was Le Corbusier. In 1925 he proposed that much of central Paris north of the Seine be razed and replaced with a grid of 18 identical glass office towers…Cars, Le Corbusier thought, had made the streets of Paris, “this sea of lusts and faces,” obsolete.
Like most of Le Corbusier’s ideas, the Plan Voisin was never built. But his influence was nonetheless global…
[Joe DiStefano said] it took us only 50 years to blow up a walkable urban form that had endured millennia; we could undo that in another 50.
“Waking up every morning and knowing that the city is a little bit better than it was yesterday—that’s very nice when you have children,” Gehl said. “Think about that … Your children have a better place to live, and your grandchildren have a better place to grow up than you could when you were young. I think that’s what it should be like.”
Read the full article here — and gaze on the “eye-candy” images with more than a little skepticism…!
Another blow to simplistic “build baby build” (and undemocratic “jam it down their throats”) approaches
Writing in the national real estate trade journal Housing Wire, the Chief Economist for the National Association of Homebuilders, Robert Dietz, says that the causes of housing affordability problems include high building materials costs, new tariffs, a persistent labor shortage, building codes, and lack of financing for both buyers and, especially, developers. Zoning codes were mentioned as only one of a number of regulatory issues, and “NIMBYism” was not mentioned at all.
From the article:
The housing market has a growing affordability problem, and here’s why.
Since 2012, housing affordability conditions for prospective homeowners have declined…. The causes of this situation are complex.
On the new construction side, a persistent labor shortage, building material price volatility and tariffs, and growing regulatory burdens on issues like zoning and building codes have held back housing production in areas with growing population and employment.
Financing issues also are holding back the housing market.
While we typically think of mortgage access issues for buyers as the financing issue of focus within the housing sector, a lack of available financing for acquisition, development and construction (AD&C) debt also is an important factor restraining construction and increasing costs….
Housing stakeholders and policymakers should take notice. Tighter availability of AD&C financing will mean future declines for housing affordability…
Other factors not mentioned in the article are the growing influence of global capital in speculative real estate ownership, and the dynamic complexity of real estate markets. Nonetheless, Dietz does acknowledge — unlike some who promote simplistic and destructive solutions — that “the causes of this situation are complex.”
Perhaps the solutions need to reflect that complexity — not a “silver bullet” but something more like “silver buckshot?” That is, a combination of tools and strategies, based on evidence?
One can only hope that, coming out of the strange current mania for deregulatory upzoning, cooler heads will soon prevail…
Reporters Brad Schmidt and Elliot Njus say “Portland planners publicly overstated by five times the number of new homes they expect a controversial infill plan could create over the next two decades.”
From the article:
City officials boasted that their plan projects “the addition of 24,000 units in triplexes or fourplexes” by the year 2035.
But the city’s own forecasts paint a much different picture.
Planners expect a net of fewer than 4,000 new units to be built in residential neighborhoods citywide under their infill plan, according to numbers obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive and not previously disclosed by the city.
What’s more, the plan isn’t expected to deliver those new homes to the inner eastside neighborhoods as planners have stated, an analysis of those numbers shows. Instead, it would disproportionately steer a majority of new units to poorer neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue, where the risk of displacing residents is high.
Advocates of progressive planning should take a hard look at the interests behind current pro-growth movements in many cities, their mixed motives and doubtful outcomes. In many cases the motives may have more to do with direct financial benefit than an evidence-based approach to affordability, equity or sustainability.
It is a truism that cities change and grow, and that it is better to take a pro-active stance than a reactive one. We surely need to provide new housing for growing cities, even as we promote equity, justice, and sustainable urban development.
On the other hand, cities are immensely complex systems, and we should be wary of “silver bullet” solutions. As Jane Jacobs and others warned, few such approaches are suited to “the kind of problem a city is” – one that is dynamic, interactive among many variables, and prone to unintended consequences.
One of these silver-bullet approaches is what I will call “build baby build” – that is, maximizing the number of housing units that can be built, especially in the cores, with little regard for what may be in the way. The resulting increase in housing will, it is claimed, ease shortages, lower prices, promote equity, and reduce pressure for unsustainable suburban expansion. If a casualty is a significant loss of heritage structures, that is a necessary price of progress. If a casualty is the democratic participation of citizens who are acting too much like NIMBYs, that is their fault and their problem. If a casualty is the rash dismissal of decades of careful planning – for example, of Oregon’s vaunted land use planning system – well, a new day beckons, with new challenges.
Of course, all of this assumes that such a simplistic silver-bullet approach will be effective – a question we should examine very carefully on the evidence. This is particularly true given the dangers of failure and unintended consequences – as I will discuss below.
In order to put this approach into practice, it is typically necessary to radically deregulate existing planning and zoning regulations – by legislative force if necessary. Such deregulatory upzoning might include (and has included in a number of current Portland, OR. proposals) raising height restrictions, expanding allowable volumes, easing parking requirements, and stripping local boards and neighborhoods of power to assess compatibility with existing neighborhood livability and historic character.
This, then, is a radical agenda of “deregulatory upzoning,” risking an unprecedented transformation of the character of our cities, and discarding years or decades of hard-won gains in urban quality and livability, often derived from careful evaluation and refinement over time. We should at the least carefully assess the evidence before moving forward on such a momentous change. In particular we should ask, as they say in law, cui bono?
The term “cui bono” (to whom is the benefit) is used in law to distinguish the parties that benefit from an action or condition, often to establish the responsibility of hidden actors. Of course the answer by most proponents of the “build baby build” approach is that everyone benefits who seeks more affordable housing, especially those who have been dispossessed, displaced, or otherwise subject to environmental injustice. Everyone benefits from the resulting conservation of farmland, and more sustainable forms of urban development.
As I will discuss in more detail below, this idea is lacking in evidence, contradicted by counter-evidence, and theoretically flawed. In fact the most evident benefit is to some promoters with financial interests, who may or may not be genuinely concerned with housing costs or urban equity. It follows that advocates of progressive planning who may be tempted to align with this agenda should go into any such association with open eyes – perhaps more open than at present.
An example of such well-meaning intentions (at least by some) can be seen in the growing movement, or network of movements, variously known as “Yes In My Back Yard” or “YIMBY,”“Up For Growth,” and other similar groups. These activists have pushed to build many more units, especially in the cores of cities like Portland. These and related efforts have resulted in a growing number of adversarial battles, often pitting long-time allies against one another: affordable housing activists against historic preservationists, environmentalists and farmland preservation advocates against long-time neighborhood livability advocates, and others. In some cases the attacks have become quite personal, heated and disparaging. It is fair to say that, at the least, the climate of constructive civic discourse has not been enhanced in these cities.
Let’s consider the evidence on the claims, and the possible motivations for making them. First, is this deregulatory upzoning actually an effective strategy in creating greater affordability, equity or sustainability? And second, if not, are there other explanations for its aggressive promotion today, aside from the naive ideas of well-meaning activists? Specifically, are there financial beneficiaries from the process, whose interests may be less obvious? Again, cui bono?
First, on the evidence, the most charitable thing that can be said of the current deregulatory upzoning campaign is that it exhibits simplistic (if plausible-sounding) thinking.
Let us start with the fundamental problem for any upzoning strategy for affordability, and that is the dynamic and non-linear nature of real estate markets. Adding desirable units in desirable locations (like the core) can actually make a neighborhood or city more desirable on the whole, and therefore more expensive, not less. Second, the fluidity of demand means that lowering prices can result in “induced demand” from adjacent markets, pushing prices back to their former levels, or (if the result is a surging popularity trend) even higher.
Put differently, it is not a simple linear formula of number of units to cost of units. It matters a great deal what we build, and where we build.
An instructive example can be seen in Vancouver, B.C., where both dynamics have been at work in recent years. That city has tried to build its way out of high prices, while also remaining attractive to outside buyers. The result has been an explosion of new real estate developments, including many new tall building projects. But far from lowering costs, the surge of new units has come even as the city has become, by several measures, the most expensive housing market in North America.
Even so, planners in other cities often seek to emulate the “Vancouver model,” especially the attractive urban scene that has been created along the city’s expansive waterfronts. They seem to overlook the fact that Vancouver is blessed with an extraordinary (and unique) location offering miles of waterfront, scenic mountain geography, and historic assets including the markets at Granville Island (itself the narrow heritage survivor of a plan to demolish it to make way for unremarkable condos in the 1970s). The “attractive urban scene” is also populated almost entirely by relatively wealthy urban elites, much like the planners themselves, and not by a diverse, rank-and-file citizenry.
The “tower envy” shared by so many fans of the Vancouver model also fails to account for inherent problems with tall buildings, as much research has shown. When it comes to affordability, tall buildings are unfortunately an inherently more expensive form of construction, due in part to requirements for costly structural stiffening, and in part to the additional space necessary for egress and service cores. Then too there is the rising cost of land, which tends to be priced for highest and best use. Those factors, combined with the views on offer, mean that most tall residential buildings are sold as expensive condominiums for the wealthy. (Occasionally they include a component of affordable housing, but where it occurs at all this is generally a small percentage, on the order of 10%, with a concomitant rise in the cost of the remaining housing to meet pro forma parameters.)
The other impacts from tall buildings are, of course, on their surroundings, including shading, obstruction of views, and wind effects. Taller buildings also magnify the negative impacts of what citizens may regard as unattractive or even ugly, visually degrading designs. In a five-story building, such a design is a problem for the neighbors, but in a fifty-story building, it is a problem for the entire city.
Tall buildings are often justified as a necessary means to achieve higher urban densities, which in turn are considered essential to containing urban sprawl, conserving farmland and natural areas, and providing a more compact and efficient urban form. There are two flaws with this argument. The first is that it is possible to achieve much higher densities than those of most US cities without any tall buildings (a phenomenon that can be readily observed in many other cities, e.g. Paris, Copenhagen et al). This was in fact the finding of a UK House of Commons report on tall buildings: “The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain. They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid or low-rise development and in some cases are a less-efficient use of space than alternatives.”
There are several reasons why tall buildings often don’t achieve the densities expected. One, they are typically set back from one another to allow for views, light and privacy. Two, their floor areas are typically constrained by egress (exiting) requirements, including maximum horizontal distance to stairwells. Three, their chief asset is the views they afford, which are more limited in the “deep plan” layouts that would achieve higher density. And four, tall buildings are often set within landscaped areas – Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park” – which further reduces their effective density. In fact, a careful number-crunching exercise reveals the flaws in human psychology, and the tendency to simplistically associate height with density.
The second flaw with the density argument has to do with the supposed value of density itself, which is not scale-free. While moderately high densities are beneficial for resource efficiency and lower emissions, extremely high densities are not proportionately beneficial: many urban benefits, like transportation efficiency, begin to taper off above about 30 units per acre. This is because a person in a four-story building doesn’t travel that much more than a person in a forty-story building – whereas, say, a person in a one-story building on a large lot likely travels a great deal more. Indeed higher densities can carry their own negative impacts, e.g. “canyon effects” concentrating pollutants, “heat island effect” magnifying urban heating, more limited access to sun, light, and so on.
Not all of the proposals are for tall buildings, of course, and many proposals are for mid-rise and low-rise infill projects. Here the objections often center around compatibility with neighborhood character, particularly in historic inner-city neighborhoods. In some cases the new developments are actually replacing demolished historic structures, which often have weak protections. (This is especially true in Oregon, for example.) This is not only bad for heritage, it is bad for the embodied energy and materials that are first destroyed and then duplicated – and often in trendy new structures that may go out of fashion and be demolished sooner. This is not a sustainable approach!
We must also ask whether the idea that central city infill should be prioritized as a key strategy to control loss of farmland and wilderness, as some have argued. Purely from a numbers analysis, the proposition is dubious. For example, the Portland metropolitan area’s “Urban Growth Boundary” (a good proxy for its buildable area) is about 250,000 acres, while the city itself is 85,000 acres, or only 35% of the total. Similarly, the City of Portland’s population is 648,000 while the Portland metropolitan region (including Vancouver) is 2.39 million – almost four times bigger. The area of the Portland core is even smaller – again, on the order of perhaps ten percent.
With those numbers, it must be concluded that there are many more opportunities for many more units outside the core – typically at a lower cost, often without demolishing existing heritage, and often on existing unbuilt or under-utilized land.
What about the idea that the central core offers better infrastructure, better life opportunities, and a better model of sustainability? That amounts to a “monocentric” model of cities, which fails to address the reality – that most city regions are polycentric, with many more residents in suburban cities and urban sub-centers. In the Portland region, those sub-centers include major cities like Gresham and Hillsboro – in their own right the third- and fourth-largest cities in Oregon – as well as urban centers like Portland’s Gateway and Lents. Many people already live and work in these places; so should they not also have good-quality amenities, transportation and mixed use?
There is a one-size-fits-all fallacy in some sustainability circles, that only the centers are truly sustainable, and sub-centers can never be so. This is largely based on the idea that necessary travel to the center requires more energy and emissions. But it neglects the fact that most travel trips are not to the center, and many trips can be captured locally in “complete communities”. In addition, there are many other factors in urban sustainability besides transportation resources. While there are undoubtedly some increased benefits from living in dense cores, again, those benefits taper off as density goes up – and other factors can be equally important. It is naive to assume that everyone will want to live in dense cores – and certainly a disturbing idea that we should force them.
Of course it is more difficult to improve the more distant sub-centers, and make them more desirable. Their markets are not as hot, and investors are not as keen to finance projects. Then too, there are many barriers to good-quality development there. Regulatory burdens are part of the challenge – but not so much because larger and taller buildings are not allowed, for the market will not support such structures anyway. Rather, the barriers are of a more ordinary kind: bureaucracies adding red tape, not coordinating with one another, requiring expensive methods and components, and causing added delay and risk, on top of other factors. These are the bigger barriers to affordable development in any locale.
But the cores offer a seductive target – and an unhelpful one, in relation to goals of affordability, equity and sustainability. The market is eager to build there, but not eager to build affordable or diverse housing. It is all too easy to see projects built that end up more expensive than existing stock, and to pat ourselves on the back for adding supply – when in fact we have not addressed the real needs. We have, however, financially rewarded the developers to whom we have given such a remarkable opportunity.
In this sense, a reckless supply-side strategy in the cores makes little sense. Indeed, it seems to be a formula for over-heating the cores, and making affordability worse, not better. The gains over more moderate “gentle densification” strategies, as our friend Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia calls them – working with stakeholders, responding to context, protecting heritage – are unimpressive, and the negative impacts (loss of heritage, loss of livability, political divisiveness) are prohibitively high. And again, most important, there is little evidence, apart from simplistic economic ideology, that “build, baby build” will actually succeed in lowering (or even moderating) prices.
So what strategy would be effective, then?
No one can deny that the problems with affordability and displacement in these cities are real. The question centers on whether there are other more effective strategies — and the answer seems to be yes, in abundance. For example, I have already alluded to the larger pool of opportunities in the 90 percent of regions outside the cores; these include declining malls, under-utilized parking lots, excess rights of way, abandoned or disused buildings, and many other candidate sites. These greyfield locations also offer the opportunity to provide attractive new amenities for outer suburban residents, who are no less deserving of walkable destinations, better support of transportation choices, new public spaces, and additional shops and services – all the ingredients of livable neighborhoods. These sites often also have the important advantage of lower final cost, not only because the land is less expensive, but the staging and construction process is generally simpler. The bureaucratic barriers are often lower as well.
This approach to urbanization is not focused at the center, the “top of the pyramid” regionally speaking – trying in vain to make it cheaper, but in the process likely making the entire region more expensive. Instead, it is focused on the broader urban region, and on a “polycentric” approach, creating many livable centers where residents can live, work and play.
To unlock this much larger pool of potential infill sites, jurisdictions are going to have to be more strategic about the barriers and incentives to development. Yes, regulatory simplification is almost always needed – less a question of raising height or volume restrictions, more a question of streamlining the development process, and incentivizing good development where it is needed, while making bad development pay for the costs it generates (like unneeded demolitions, for example, and excess infrastructure in the case of sprawl).
In addition, different kinds of tax policy tools and other strategic approaches can help to keep existing residents in place while minimizing increases to their rents. Other tax policies can help to moderate speculative investment pressure on prices. For example, Vancouver, B.C.’s provincial government recently raised taxes on foreign investments in real estate, seeking to dampen the speculative surge in foreign-owned real estate.
Finally, my own public involvement work over the years for private developers, governments and NGOs has convinced me that local stakeholders are not the enemy — they are our fellow citizens, after all, with democratic rights — and in fact they can become valuable contributors to a more successful development. What matters is a trust-building commitment to a “win-win” outcome, respecting stakeholder concerns and finding optimal outcomes that address them. One must avoid the easy temptation of stiff-arming, tokenism and other forms of marginalization and disrespect. The anger and opposition that ensues is entirely predictable. Blaming these victims for caring about their homes and neighborhoods seems not only churlish, but disturbingly undemocratic. For in a democracy, these citizens are supposed to have a say about their own public realm, their city, and their heritage – even a duty, to help to protect and improve it.
More recently, having been drafted into my own neighborhood association – an educational experience for a development consultant like me – I have seen that my neighbors do support some kinds of new developments, and might well become (and sometimes do become) advocates for them, even as they oppose others. Why not work with them to identify “pre-entitled” forms of development, with expedited review and permitting? (And therefore lower risk, lower time, and lower cost?) We might not think of this kind of approach as YIMBY – the unquestioning acceptance of any development, and build baby build – but we might call it, say, QUIMBY – “Quality In My Back Yard,” the eagerness to work to get better quality development, more amenities, more protection and enhancement of the existing best qualities of a neighborhood. I have seen this approach work, and I know it is possible. And I submit that it is a better, wiser long-term approach to urban improvement.
I began this essay with the question cui bono – to whose benefit is the current wave of reckless regulatory upzoning? One group should be obvious: developers, architects and planners, who stand to earn substantial development income, consulting fees, or secure employment with city departments. (Again I confess here that I am a long-standing member of this community, if a dissident one on this issue.) The motivations of other advocates are not as obvious, but on closer inspection, a connection can often be detected. Although proponents may convince themselves that their own motivations are uncontaminated by self-interest, the facts are often more complicated.
Of course, there is nothing wrong per se with a private entity seeking to make a profit from a real estate development. (Or indeed, supporting whom they please for president.) Of course, private development has produced most of the housing in most parts of the world for a very long time. There is something very wrong, however, with a city or state bending to the siren songs of private interests, adopting a defective growth strategy, sidelining its own well-considered planning systems, and thereby damaging its heritage, its livability, and its democratic processes. Such a reckless, unbalanced approach does not bode well for a better urban future.
The author is a senior researcher in sustainable urban development at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and also manages the small Portland-based urban think tank Sustasis Foundation. He has worked in sustainable building, development and consulting for governments, businesses, homeowners and nonprofits since 1983, and received his PhD. in architecture at Delft University of Technology after studying at UC Berkeley and The Evergreen State College.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?