LSE researchers conclude: “Build baby build” is no answer

High rise construction“Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations.”

As this blog has long argued, the challenges of affordability, equity and sustainability are complex, and require a comprehensive approach, including economic tools, “polycentric” regional planning, and other strategic interventions.  These challenges are not likely to be addressed with simplistic “silver bullets.”  Case in point: the idea that just building more supply (especially in the cores) will automatically result in lower prices, more opportunities for formerly excluded populations, or more sustainable urban types.  (What some have called a “build baby build” approach.)

In recent research discussed on the CityLab blog, LSE economists Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Michael Storper found that “Upzoning expensive cities is no match for the deep divides within—and especially between—cities, and is wholly insufficient to remedy them.”

The research by LSE is hardly the first to point out this problem with “build baby build”.  As the CityLab article points out, “Economist Tyler Cowen agrees that the ultimate beneficiaries from zoning and building deregulation are landlords and developers. As he puts it, “the gains from removing taxes/restrictions on building largely will be captured by landowners … More stuff will be built, urban output will expand, land still will be the scarce factor, and by the end of the process rents still will be high.”And a recent study by Yonah Freemark found that upzoning in Chicago led to higher, not lower, housing prices, while having no discernible impact on local housing supply.”

The author of the CityLab article, Richard Florida,  expressed dismay at the barrage of derogatory criticism that he and the LSE economists received from defenders of the “build baby build” approach.  “That makes little sense,” said Florida. “The paper is an important cautionary tale. The authors are not saying that we should not build more housing. They are simply saying that doing so won’t magically solve economic and spatial inequality, because both are deeply rooted in the very nature of the geographically clustered and concentrated knowledge economy.”

But perhaps the effects of financial and other self-interests are far more seductive than the calm and reasoned approaches that are called for.  Perhaps the lesson here is the one famously offered by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Excerpts from the CityLab article are below, and the entire article can be read here.

new paper by two leading economic geographers suggests this argument is simply too good to be true. Titled “Housing, Urban Growth and Inequalities” and forthcoming in the journal Urban Studies, it’s written by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Michael Storper, who divides his time among the LSE, UCLA, and Sciences Po in Paris. According to Storper and Rodríguez-Pose, the notion that an insufficient supply of housing is a main cause of urban economic problems is based on a number of faulty premises. They say the effect of supply has been blown far out of proportion.

They agree that housing is part of the problem: “Housing market failures can imperil local economic growth and generate problems such as segregation, long commute times, deteriorating quality of life, homelessness, and barriers to social mobility for certain populations,” they write. But housing policy, and zoning restrictions in particular, are certainly not the be-all and end-all of urban problems. Upzoning expensive cities is no match for the deep divides within—and especially between—cities, and is wholly insufficient to remedy them.

“Housing is an area where the law of unintended consequences is most powerful,” Storper recently told Planning Report. “The idea that upzoning will cause housing affordability to trickle down within our metropolis, while also setting up Los Angeles and San Francisco as the new golden land for people in less prosperous regions, is just a lot to promise—and it’s based on a narrative of housing as opportunity that is deeply flawed.” And as Rodríguez-Pose told me via email: “Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations.”

Rodríguez-Pose and Storper question several pieces of evidence that stand at the heart of this market-urbanist view, a perspective they dub “housing as opportunity.” Whereas some urban economists suggest a close relationship between housing supply and prices (with places that add supply having lower prices), Rodríguez-Pose and Storper find the relationship to be weak.

Likewise, some market urbanists point to an association between city population size and/or density and economic growth. But Rodríguez-Pose and Storper argue that this too falls away under close scrutiny—the link between city population in 2000 and subsequent economic growth from 2000 to 2016 is weak to “non-existent,” on their analysis.For Storper and Rodríguez-Pose, the rising spatial inequality between cities and metro areas stems from different kinds of economies that distinguish different kinds of cities, not from differences in housing costs. Or as they put it, “the basic motors of all these features of the economy are the current geography of employment, wages and skills.” 

The economies and talent bases of cities have diverged over time. Expensive cities have much larger clusters of leading-edge tech and knowledge industries and of highly educated, skilled talent. It’s this, rather than differences in housing prices, that is behind growing spatial inequality.

“The affordability crisis within major urban areas is real,” they write, “but it is due less to over-regulation of housing markets than to the underlying wage and income inequalities, and a sharp increase in the value of central locations within metro areas, as employment and amenities concentrate in these places.”

A key factor here is the growing divide between highly-paid techies and knowledge workers and much lower-paid people who work in routine service jobs. These service workers end up getting the short end of the stick, spending much more of their income on housing in expensive cities. “Under these circumstances moving to big cities provides no immediate benefits for workers without college education,” Rodríguez-Pose and Storper write.

Upzoning does little to change this fundamental imbalance. Because land in superstar cities and tech hubs is so expensive to begin with, upzoning tends to create even more expensive condominium towers. “While building more affordable housing in core agglomerations would accommodate more people,” the authors note, “the collapse of the urban wage premium for less-educated workers means that the extra housing would mostly attract additional skilled workers.”

Opportunities for improved wages in core areas have stagnated, and the “ladder has shrunk.” Therefore, the decline in interregional migration can be attributed to many factors, including the new geography of skills and wages. But housing restrictions in prosperous areas wouldn’t top the list. And upzoning ends up fueling, not relieving, economic and spatial inequality. As Rodríguez-Pose told me: “Income inequality is greater within our cities than across our regions. Upzoning will only exacerbate this.”

“Planning deregulation and housing costs are neither going to solve the problem of areas lagging behind, nor are they likely to have an impact on the economic development of dynamic cities,” Rodríguez-Pose and Storper write. Worse, they caution, “an excessive focus on these issues at the expense of serious and sustainable development strategies, can fuel economic, social and political distress and anger in declining and lagging areas that can threaten the very foundations on which economic activity, both in less developed and more prosperous areas, has been erected in recent decades.”

This last point deserves special consideration.  By focusing on a kind of “voodoo urbanism” approach — by concentrating too much on the urban cores, including new building there, and hoping the benefits will trickle down to everyone else — we are not only not improving the affordability and equity issues, we are actually fueling a spiraling dynamic of “left-behind places.” These  include the suburbs, and also, importantly, the smaller towns and rural areas where much of the so-called “populist revolt” is occurring (in both the US and other countries).  Rodríguez-Pose in particular has argued for a more evenly distributed, “polycentric” approach to economic and human development, within city regions as well as national regions. 
For Portland, this would  suggest de-emphasizing the “build baby build” approach, and the “shove density down their throats” approach — which are both likely to fail, and to produce unhelpful political backlash — and instead, focusing on a more even-tempered and polycentric approach to development across the region —  exactly as was advocated in the Metro “Centers and Corridors” report, fulfilling the Metro 2040 plan’s vision of a polycentric network of walkable, compact, transit-served places across the region.  It would also suggest the kind of “Goldilocks” or “QUIMBY” approach we have advocated before on this blog.  

Suzanne Lennard’s legacy, and the “International Making Cities Livable” conferences, will continue

Home page for the conference website to be held in Carmel, Indiana in June 2020.

Friends and colleagues of Suzanne Lennard, director of the acclaimed conference series International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) based in Portland, are celebrating her life and legacy following her death last month.  (Suzanne was also co-author of this blog.)

Before she died, Suzanne made plans for the 2020 conference to be held in Carmel, Indiana.  That conference will continue, and will include a celebration of her life and legacy.  In fact, it will be an occasion to celebrate the new “Suzanne C. and Henry L. Lennard Institute for Livable Cities,” which will continue to operate the conferences. This author (Michael Mehaffy) will serve as the new director, at Suzanne’s request before her passing.

Suzanne’s lifelong passion was to promote livable, equitable and sustainable cities and towns for ALL, and to share the lessons of what works and doesn’t work in reaching that goal.  One of the biggest obstacles is the phenomenon of sprawl — the growth of fragmented, segregated, car-dependent suburbs that work passably well for the wealthy,  but much less effectively for the poor, for the elderly, for the infirm, for migrants, for caregivers and stay-at-home parents — in short, for far too many people.  Thats why the theme of the 2020 conference will be “From Sprawl to Neighborhoods: Livable Cities (and Suburbs) For ALL.”

As a venue for this topic, the conference will be located in the ideal town of Carmel, Indiana, which, as the conference website says, offers

…a fascinating case study of a remarkable transformation from a sprawling bedroom suburb of Indianapolis into a thriving, livable community. We’ll share concrete examples of what has worked in this and other suburbs, where such a high percentage of the population now lives – either by choice, or too often because they have been unwillingly displaced from gentrifying city cores. We’ll examine tools and strategies that are effective in building a new generation of walkable, equitable, livable cities – AND suburbs – for all.

 This and other examples remind us that most people in the United States live in suburbs, as do increasing numbers of people in other countries.  It is not enough to densify the cores of cities – which often causes profound rebound effects, as we have discussed before – but it is necessary to create many good places to live, within so-called “polycentric” regions, consisting of a range of neighborhood types and densities.  (The Portland region is supposed to be planned that way as well – a point that many people seem to forget.)

As Jane Jacobs reminded us, diversity is an essential attribute of great cities — and geographic diversity must be part of the mix.

Remembering Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of our dear friend and collaborator Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard, at 3:15 AM on September 17, after a relatively short illness.  The cause of livable and humane cities has lost a champion — but her work and legacy will go on, including the International Making Cities Livable conference series begun by her with her late husband Henry Lennard.  The next conference will be in Carmel, Indiana June 2-6, 2020. (Dr. Crowhurst Lennard was also co-editor of this blog.)

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard and her husband co-founded the International Making Cities Livable conferences in 1985. Since that time, she directed the organization of these conferences that have been acclaimed as “…the best conference on cities” (Mayor Joseph P. Riley), and “the most important continuous conference dialogue on making the world’s cities and towns more livable for all of their inhabitants” (Governor Dr. Sven von Ungern-Sternberg).

Since 1985 Dr. Crowhurst Lennard was dedicated to fostering this international interdisciplinary dialogue among outstanding international practitioners, scholars and city officials on strategies and tools for increasing the livability of our cities. The IMCL Conferences have drawn architects, urban designers, planners, city officials, public health scientists, social scientists, artists, urban geographers, transportation planners and community representatives to share expertise and experience on such issues as “Reviving the Heart of the City”, “Planning Healthy Communities for All”, “Creating Community through Urban Design”, “Reshaping Suburbia into Healthy Communities”, and, for the Carmel conference next year, “From Suburb to City: A Livable City for ALL.”

Much of her work focused on the design and functioning of public urban places. The purpose of this work was to understand how public places (particularly urban squares, plazas and market places) can generate social life, community and participatory self-government, and contribute to social equity and health. This work combined the study of social interaction patterns, history of the square and of democracy, building use analysis, effects of the architectural frame, influence of the surrounding built urban fabric, transportation planning, streetscape and seating design, influence of public art, and management issues such as scheduled weekly events (farmers markets), street entertainment and community festivals in the space.

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard’s work concerned the social, cultural and psychological aspects of architecture, urban design and city-making, clarifying how the built environment affects social interaction, health and quality of everyday life. Her studies encompassed making cities “livable” for children, youth and the elderly; relationship between physical health, social health and the built environment; walkability, bikeability and transit; small footprint mixed use urban fabric as essential for a livable city; the mixed use square as the “heart” of the city; the DNA of the city; city identity through regional architecture; balanced transportation planning to enhance health, social life and community.

Through intensive case studies of numerous European cities that since the 1970s have been implementing innovative approaches to land use planning, transportation planning, housing, architecture, urban space design and sustainability, she identified strategies and successful solutions that contributed most to creating livable cities.

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard co-authored the following books that summarize this work: Genius of the European Square (2008); The Forgotten Child (2000); Livable Cities Observed (1994); Livable Cities, People and Places (1987); and co-edited The Wisdom of Cities (2005); and Making Cities Livable (1997). She also published numerous articles in professional journals, including Planning, Urban Land, The Mayor, Western City, Environment & Behavior and other journals for professionals and city officials.

Dr. Crowhurst Lennard received her professional degree in architecture, B.Arch.(Hons.) from Bristol University, England (1968); and an M.Arch. and Ph.D.(Arch.) in “Human Aspects of Architecture and Urban Design” from the University of California, Berkeley (1974). She later held professorships and other academic positions at the University of California, Berkeley; Oxford Brookes University; Harvard University (Summer School); and the Universities of Ulm, Germany and Venice, Italy.

Betraying our city’s legacy of public involvement, and our values in grass-roots democracy

An editorial

A Portland City Council meeting from September 2018.

Those of us who work professionally in public involvement (including this author) know that people can be a real pain in the rear.  They can be selfish, short-sighted, unreasonable, even hostile.  We can react to them in one of two ways.  We can stiff-arm them, marginalize them, attack them for their behavior, and replace them with more pliant tokens of representation.

Or we can treat them as fellow citizens.

For that is what they are – citizens, with democratic rights to participate in the shaping of their public realm, their neighborhood, and their city.

We can remind them civilly too of their responsibilities, to engage pro-actively and not just reactively, to consider other points of view, and to participate in a constructive conversation and a civic process.  We can also do our own level best to maintain such a process, and engage them in it. We might all then learn something from one another, and accomplish something together. That would be democracy at its best.

But democracy at its worst is still democracy – still “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Disturbingly, some people in Portland have made it pretty clear recently that they don’t have much stomach for democracy.  They’d rather impose their own ideas about social justice and how to achieve it, for example. Their methods include shouting down their opponents, bullying, threatening and suing.  They seem only too happy to become little dictators of their own opinions, and to hell with the rights of other citizens in this city – others who might happen to disagree with them.

Incredibly, some of these people are in government – and today they are engaged in the systematic dismantling of Portland’s vaunted public involvement system, based in neighborhood-scale, grass-roots democracy.

Take Jamey Duhamel, policy director for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.  After recent citizen testimony by members of southwest neighborhood associations who were upset about the City’s unilateral change of their addresses, she expressed her true attitude to public involvement in text messages obtained by The Oregonian newspaper.

It is especially notable that Eudaly is the commissioner in charge of the City’s public involvement system, and her office has long denied that it is hostile to neighborhood associations.  But Duhamel’s emails reveal a different story.

“Why is this taking so long, ffs? Like WE GET IT ALREADY!! Who are they trying to convince?” she texted to Mustafa Washington, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s operations manager.

“How you like that ‘high income, high caliber’ bullshit. This is why we need our neighborhood associations in their place. They get too much power and voice….they are white and ‘high caliber’ soooooooo … any inconvenience is a big deal to their cozy lives. HOW DARE WE STRESS THEM OUT!!!… So. Much. Privilege.”

But is it privilege for citizens to complain to government about unilateral actions that affect those citizens’ lives?  Or is it the responsibility of government to listen to citizens, whatever their backgrounds or identities (certainly non-white but also white), and try to involve them respectfully in decision-making?  The City of Portland claims that is the case – but its actions here and elsewhere betray those claims.

It is a common narrative that neighborhood association members are white, wealthy, exclusionary, even oppressors of minority voices. It is a broad brush and often flat out untrue.  Worse, it is a pretense to deny an entire class of citizens their democratic rights – no less offensive than denials to other classes of citizens, in a democratic society in which all are supposed to be equal under the law. Injustice spread around is not justice.

Let’s be more specific. This narrative is also too often a mere cover story, providing the convenient pretext by which to bully citizens into submission in order to get pet projects through city approvals.  This is straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook, formerly as a developer, and now, as president: attack, insult, divide. Launch Twitter tirades. Harass, bully, and file lawsuits.

It is not a coincidence – though it is certainly an irony – that one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters in the Northwest is allied with some of these same aggressors, these same promoters of pet projects. This Trump supporter is himself a major developer, so his own interests are obvious.  The interests of other allies who act like Trump, but fly the flag of social justice in order to promote a “build, baby build’ agenda, is more confused — to put it mildly.  What they have in common with Trump is an apparent disdain for democracy.  (Trumpism in a blue flavor, perhaps?)

What is going on? At best they are being manipulated, encouraged to be divisive, and playing into the hands of those who have the real power — those who are smiling all the way to the bank.  This is certainly not promoting constructive engagement and problem-solving, which is the public sector’s primary responsibility. Nor is it promoting real social justice — or real affordability, or real sustainability. It is simply allowing the city to be divided and conquered – and in some cases, doing it from City Hall.

The hostile reaction of neighborhood activists to such stiff-arming, tokenism and demonization is all too predictable. For those of us who work in public involvement, it’s a familiar reaction.

But in Portland’s case, we have fallen so far from what we were, and claim to be, as a healthy grass-roots democracy. The good news is that there are already signs of a new awareness — a new willingness to look hard at ourselves, to pick up the pieces of our legacy, and to revive and strengthen a moribund system. It’s high time.

Oregonian: “Eudaly, staffers bungled efforts to change Portland neighborhood association rules”

Eudaly policy director Jamey Duhamiel quoted as saying “we need our neighborhood associations in their place.. any inconvenience is a big deal to their cozy lives.”

Emails and texts obtained by The Oregonian newspaper show an extraordinary “bungled” attack on Portland’s neighborhood associations by self-confessed anti-neighborhood activists — including some of the very officials charged with managing the City’s storied neighborhood involvement system.

While Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Civic Life bureau Director Suk Rhee deny the current code change effort has been intended as an attack on the system and is only an effort to broaden inclusion, the emails and texts tell a different story.

From the article:

Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has acknowledged a bureau under her control badly mishandled efforts to change the rules regarding neighborhood associations by failing to consult and involve the groups, newly released emails and text messages show.

The files reveal that the bungled undertaking led to intense pushback from neighborhood leaders and a lack of support by the City Council. That in turn has led Eudaly to delay the change and launch a damage-control campaign.

…the plan has backfired spectacularly, the emails and texts help to show. The communications were released to The Oregonian/OregonLive in response to a public records request.

…Text messages released by Eudaly’s office also show [Jamey] Duhamel, the commissioner’s policy director, expressing open disdain for neighborhood associations.

Duhamel sent those texts to Mustafa Washington, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s operations manager, during a May 2018 City Council meeting at which many addresses in Southwest Portland were changed to new South Portland ones to make the city 911 system more effective.

Though the change was thought to be non-controversial, about a dozen people gave testimony on it at the meeting, which frustrated Duhamel.

…“Why is this taking so long, ffs? Like WE GET IT ALREADY!! Who are they trying to convince?” she said in a message to Washington, using an acronym that includes profanity.

…“How you like that ‘high income, high caliber’ bull—,” Duhamel texted to Washington. “This is why we need our neighborhood associations in their place. They get too much power and voice.”

Washington responded, “I never thought this would be this big of a deal.”

Duhamel: “Well they are white and ‘high caliber’ soooooooo … any inconvenience is a big deal to their cozy lives. HOW DARE WE STRESS THEM OUT!!!”

Washington: “LOL, there are definitely more important issues than this.”

Duhamel: “So. Much. Privilege.”

In an interview, Duhamel said she regretted her words…

Read the entire article here.

West Burnside Car Sewer – Continued

When will PBOT become embarrassed enough at this national disgrace of regressive transportation to take action?

The West Burnside “car sewer,” alive and well in August 2019. Note the extra width of traffic lanes and the tight clearance for pedestrians.

The situation at West Burnside continues to be a model of what NOT to do in transportation planning.  In spite of progressive projects to add pedestrian improvements and bike lanes on SW/NW 18th and 19th, the main passageway of West Burnside continues to be a national embarrassment. Visitors to our urban models of Washington Park, the Japanese Garden, and NW 23rd retail district, might expect to see additional examples of innovative national leadership. Instead they are greeted with a dismal textbook example of regressive transportation policy.   Perhaps they will see it as one more sad piece of evidence that Portland has lost its way.

This ugly, dangerous stretch of street has passages that do not even meet the requirements for disabled access under the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA). Nor is traffic flow even any kind of model of “level of service” — since buses regularly impede traffic in the outer lanes, and turning cars regularly impede traffic in the inner two lanes.  The street is thus a textbook case of what not to do.

We have written before about alternative approaches, including three-lane options and other solutions.  In any case, action is needed, as time is passing without any movement forward.

How did West Burnside become such a dreadful negative example of multi-modal transportation?

Incredibly, the sidewalks of West Burnside were not always as narrow as they are now.  They were actually narrowed by PBOT in the late 1960s and early 1970s – an era of regressive car-dominated planning.  Here is an oral history by Ogden Beeman, former president of the Northwest District Association and the City Club of Portland, and a pioneer of the neighborhood association system:

Then there was the narrowing-the-sidewalks project. When they widened Burnside, they narrowed the sidewalks, and then when they put this little overpass over I-405 on Everett, they did one full sidewalk and one half sidewalk. So I went to City Council and objected to narrowing the sidewalks…

We made an impassioned plea. I think we lost five-zip in City Council. The classical thing that I always remember about that was Don Bergstrom’s comments. He was City traffic engineer. I walked down to work every day since I worked downtown for the government. I walked down Everett and Burnside both. I knew those streets very, very well.

So I got up and said, “We have a great place here where people can live and walk downtown, and we can’t make it more difficult.”

In Portland, of course, you narrow a sidewalk and the cars come by and splash water on you. Burnside became almost impossible as a walking street, and then everybody shifted to Everett, on which they were narrowing the sidewalks.

I finished my impassioned plea, and Don Bergstrom got up and said, “Well, the Council should know that we did a study up there, and we found that the sidewalks were occupied about 12, 14 percent of the time. The street lanes were occupied about 85 percent, and therefore it makes sense to narrow one and widen the street.” The sidewalks are “underutilized” by 80 percent.

Those were kind of Don Quixote days. I was a lone voice. I don’t think anybody from the neighborhood, or certainly nobody in government even gave us the slightest encouragement at that time.

Have we made enough progress since those dark reactionary days? Are we slipping back into a reactionary approach to city-building, suppressing grass-roots activism — at best, losing our vision and our courage?

Read the full interview here.


Oregonian Editorial Board slams OCCL code re-write effort

A flyer for the Goose Hollow neighborhood’s annual street festival, celebrating the neighborhood’s history, diversity and livability.

“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.

Read the full editorial here.



An open letter to Portland City Auditor Mary Hull-Caballero

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.

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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 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.
  5. “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.
  6.  “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).
  7. “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:

ALERT! An extraordinary assault under way on democracy in Portland

Democracy under assault — and defended — around the world.

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….

Thanks for listening,
Allen Field

This blog referred to this ongoing subversion of Portland’s grassroots democracy before, including a revealing name change and other actions. We also wrote a piece in The Oregonian, and another in a national planners’ journal as well as on KBOO radio, alertingPortlanders to the issue. The Northwest Examiner has also covered the issue.

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.

56th International IMCL conference in Portland: “A Healthy City for ALL”

IMCL webpage
IMCL webpage with conference announcement

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: