Building Sustainable Communities Through Community Governance The Story of Portland, Oregon Steven Reed Johnson, Ph. D

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Building Sustainable Communities Through Community Governance

The Story of

Portland, Oregon

Steven Reed Johnson, Ph.D.


The Peculiarity of Portland

Carl Abbott

Portland, Oregon is a middle-sized city with an outsized reputation for innovative government and good planning. From beginnings in the ferment of the later 1960s, residents of the city and metropolitan area have crafted an unusual set of institutions for guiding public policy. The result by the 1990s was to make Portland an example–or warning–to other cities.

As he revved up his presidential campaign, Al Gore offered glowing accounts of Portland as the city where improving quality of life makes everyone a winner. A professor of architecture has called Portland “America’s most successful management and urban design model . . . the product of enlightened judgment applied over many decades to wisely accommodate growth within a beautiful landscape.” [Roger Lewis, arch. Prof., U Md]. Portland is “way ahead of most other places in the country” says another expert [Bruce Katz of Brookings Institution].

But if Al Gore likes it, we can be sure that George Will does not. He thinks that Portland is strangling in traffic congestion and drowning in housing price inflation. Free marketers from the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute and the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy and Portland’s own Cascade Policy Institute agree with the indictment.

Other critics claim that Portland is not so special after all. What’s all the fuss about? asks D. J. Waldie, the chronicler of the hypersuburb of Lakewood, California.. Portland is nothing but a junior Los Angeles, Waldie claims, growing up to be just like its big brother in the Southland. For Waldie, by the way, that’s a compliment, since LA “answers to most people’s longing for a community.” From the other capital an Orange Empire, new urbanist architect Andres Duany, with somewhat selective memory, writes that Portlanders never let visiting urbanists in on the nasty little secret that their suburbs look–well–suburban. Miami, he says, has it all over Portland as an epitome of good city making.

So what will it be? Is Portland a planner’s paradise or a Potemkin village? Is it a good faith effort at shaping a livable metropolis or a faked-up facade that hides serious problems of social inequity and overregulation.

I’ve argued elsewhere that Portland’s positive accomplishments in planning, growth management, community preservation, and environmental conservation outweigh the negatives. For the past thirty years, Portlanders have tried to redefine and bridge a fundamental divide in urban and regional planning. Builders of modern cities have long been torn between the preference for "going out" or "going up"--for lowering the overall density of metropolitan settlements or for increasing the intensity of land use. In the Portland case, environmentalism as an urban planning goal draws explicitly on the thought of Frederick Law Olmsted and Lewis Mumford, with their visions of cities and towns interlacing with the natural and cultivated environments in a democratic regionalism. Portland's eclectic urbanists borrow the insights of Jane Jacobs and William S. Whyte to assert the value of civic interaction in public spaces.

Such conceptual and practical choices are common to every American metropolis. They are central terms in our planning and policy vocabulary. Yet Portland may be one of the few cities that has actively reconciled their inherent tension–a major reason why our middle-sized city has an outsized reputation. It does have a strong and vibrant downtown. It has preserved its older neighborhoods and commercial districts without suffering a zone of abandonment. It is growing compactly within a carefully monitored Urban Growth Boundary. It is investing in public transportation to keep the center and edges tied closely together. In short, metropolitan Portland comes close to matching the now standard model of good urban form–in part by reconciling the interests of “urbanists” and “”environmentalists” within a single political consensus and coalition. The result, in simplest formulation, is a metropolis that is stronger at its center than its edges, whether we measure that strength in political clout or the allocation of investment.

Portland is able to offer up these accomplishments because its citizens have been working hard and self-consciously at the job of city-making for a long time. Like Moliere’s character who is delighted to discover that he has been speaking prose for years without knowing it, Portlanders now discover that they were conserving downtown and neighborhoods and open space long before they realized what they were doing is “smart growth.”

Portland fifty years ago was nothing to write home about–or to attract visiting journalists, curious architects, and chamber of commerce delegations from around the country. It had inert leadership, a status quo mind set, and few attractions except its surrounding landscape. Richard Neuberger, then a journalist and later a U.S. Senator, told readers of the Saturday Evening Post in 1947 that the town had a “split personality. It can’t quite make up its mind whether to be a swashbuckling industrial giant . . . or a landed squire pruning rosebushes and meditatively watching salmon ascent to their mountain spawning grounds.” As late as 1970, Neal Peirce wrote that “if any west coast town could be said to have a monopoly on propriety and an anxiousness to keep things as they are, it is Portland, a town of quiet wealth, discrete culture, and cautious politics.

The first steps toward changing this dowdy and unimaginative city into national pace-setter came in the late 1960s. The Model Cities program of 1968-69, which trained and empowered a generation of community leaders. At the same time, middle class activists who were frustrated with the never-ending war in Southeast Asia turned their energy to local politics. New environmental concerns–symbolized by the first Earth Day in 1970–brought others into the fray.

The issues that activists introduced thirty years ago are still on our agenda–neighborhood revitalization, downtowns for people, environmentally sustainable development. For the city of Portland, these are issues that the administration of Mayor Neil Goldschmidt advanced in the 1970s, the administration of Bud Clark in the 1980s, and the administration of Vera Katz in the 1990s. At the regional level, these issues are the raison d’être of regional transit and planning agencies–Tri-Met and Metro--which also date from the 1970s. They are central to the Oregon statewide planning system established in 1973.

The recent history of Portland is very much a story of politics. In some vocabularies, “politics” is now a nasty word. It Portland it retains its positive implications as a process for finding, defining, and acting on the common good. As Portland has worked through issues of growth and planning, its residents have made “deals” that bring different groups and interests together around opportunities for mutual benefit.

The Downtown Plan of 1972–Portland’s near mythic success story–was a response to typical problems of “urban crisis.” Downtown parking was inadequate, the private bus system was bankrupt, and a new superregional mall in the affluent western suburbs threatened the end of downtown retailing. In reaction, technically sophisticated citizen activists worked with city officials, downtown retailers, property owners, neighborhood groups, and civic organizations to treat previously isolated issues (parking, bus service, housing, retailing) as part of a single comprehensive package. The resulting Downtown Plan of 1972 offered integrated solutions to a long list of problems that Portlanders had approached piecemeal for two generations. It was technically sound because its proposals were based on improvements in access and transportation. It was politically viable because it prescribed tradeoffs among different interests as part of a coherent strategy. Its success led to a follow-up Central City Plan from 1988 and a Central City Summit from 1998. Each iteration built on the previous, but also introduced new problems, concerns, and solutions. The result is a downtown core that has added 45,000 jobs since the start of the 1970s. There is a burgeoning housing market on the edges of the business core, and nearly every important civic facility is located in downtown or adjacent districts–museums, university, theaters, sports arenas, convention center, gathering places for protest and celebration.

Framing downtown planning has been a powerful alliance between downtown business interests and residents of older neighborhoods. At the same time that downtown was struggling, older neighborhoods in the 1970s were at risk from institutional expansion, schemes for large scale land clearance and redevelopment, concentrated poverty, and racial inequities. Many cities understand this situation as a zero-sum competition in which downtown businesses and homeowners battled over a fixed pool of resources. In Portland, the two interests came together in a lasting political marriage around housing and public transit.

Portland has built a strong bus system, a downtown bus mall to speed traffic and facilitate transfers, and roughly fifty miles of light rail lines running east, west, and north from downtown. Better public transit improves air quality, enhances the attractiveness of older neighborhoods, and brings workers and shoppers downtown. In turn, a vital business center protects property values in surrounding districts and increase their attractiveness for residential reinvestment. Middle-class families who remained or moved into what are now “hot” inner neighborhoods patronize downtown businesses, and prosperity supports high levels of public services. Neighborhood planning can focus on housing rehabilitation, housing infill, and amenities to keep older residential areas competitive with the suburbs.

A political bargain with neighborhood activists accompanied direct investment policy. After a series of testy confrontations about zoning and land development between neighborhoods and city hall in the late 1960s, the new Goldschmidt administration decided to legitimize and partially co-opt neighborhood activists by incorporating independent neighborhood associations as secondary participants in public decision making. The city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement (established in 1974 as the Office of Neighborhood Associations) provides city funds to neighborhood associations and monitors their conduct for openness, but does not dictate issues or positions. The acceptance and financial support of voluntary neighborhood groups has offered a partial alternative both to confrontational tactics from the grassroots and to top-down management of citizen participation from city hall. Despite arguments over specific issues, downtown and neighborhoods to this day see mutual interest more often than opposition.

Portland is also a metro area where city and suburbs talk to each other. . . and sometimes agree. In particular, Portland and several key suburban cities agreed in the later 1980s to share the benefits of a multi-spoke light rail system. The cities of Gresham to the east and Hillsboro and Beaverton to the west see that light rail links to downtown Portland offer strong development potential for secondary activity centers. With visions of Walnut Creek, California and Bethesda, Maryland glimmering in the future, leaders in these communities have chosen to pursue a role as outlying anchors on radial transportation lines rather than as beads on a beltway.

A final alliance brings together urbanist and environmentalist, advocates of urban vibrancy and lovers of rural quiet. Portlanders have managed to create an urbane metropolis at the same time that many residents see easy access to the natural environment as its greatest asset. The city is carefully “placed” within its landscape, and residents of the region wrestle with reconciling complex and contradictory claims to the use of its rivers, valleys, mountains, and biotic communities.

In the 1990s the two goals came together in a powerful “livable future” coalition.

There is strong public involvement in both grassroots environmentalism and neighborhood conservation. Small waterways, wetlands, and natural spaces in the Portland area benefit from more than seventy-five “Friends of . . .” organizations. Friends of Forest Park, Friends of Fanno Creek, Friends of the Columbia Slough, Friends of Elk Rock Island, and similar organizations monitor development pressures and advocate for restoration programs. At the same time, Portland hosts nearly a dozen community development corporations and has a national reputation for its network of nearly 150 city-sponsored but community-controlled neighborhood associations.

The framework is the statewide land use planning system, adopted in 1973-74. Local communities are required to prepare comprehensive plans that are compatible with state planning goals. One of these goals requires the definition of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) around urbanized areas. The UGB is intended to include a twenty-year supply of developable land, and to expand slowly and carefully to meet the needs of growth (think of it as a skin around a growing urban organism). For the Portland region, the UGB is administered by Metro, the nation’s only elected regional government. Created by referendum in 1978, Metro and its council directly represent the residents of the metropolitan area (not local governments, as is the case with the “council of governments” found in most metropolitan regions).

The Portland region debated the proper location of the Urban Growth Boundary in the late 1970s and considered its possible expansion in the early 1990s in the Region 2040 plan. In Portland style, this was a broadly participatory process that utilized the input of nearly 20,000 citizens. Because some communities and interests felt that their concerns were not adequately accommodated, Metro revisited the issue at the start of the new century and arrived at an expansion that satisfies–if not necessarily pleases–both the Metropolitan Homebuilders Association and the land use watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon.

What makes Portland stand out is the reinforcing effect of an unusual set of political institutions, commonly shared goals, and a civic culture that believes in the possibility of good government.

We have already noted the unusual institutions. Activist neighborhood associations are formally recognized by the City and function, at their best, as a sort of loyal opposition. Metro stands out nationally as an elected regional government whose powers were actually expanded by a home rule charter in 1992. The Oregon land use planning system gives the regional growth management tools that are unavailable in most other regions.

Government is honest and politics is open to broad participation. Weak political parties, nonpartisan local elections, and an absence of ethnic block voting mean that elections are fought on personalities and issues. Citizen activists can emerge as successful politicians and newcomers with interesting ideas get a hearing. The civic culture encourages study committees, team play, and compromise. Public life takes place around a big table. Some of the seats are reserved for elected officials and heavy hitters from the business sector, but anyone can sit in who accepts the rules (politeness is important) and knows how to phrase ideas in the language of middle class policy discussion (the goal is to do “what’s good for the city”). Conversely, radical new voices may be ignored until they learn to play the game middle-class style.

In many policy areas, early success stories have built a constituency and a value bias toward further action. For example, Portlanders have made three distinct decisions against freeways. They decided to rip out the six lanes of Harbor Drive in favor of a downtown waterfront park in 1972. They choose to abandon plans for a radial freeway in 1975, rejecting a massive community-killer in favor of maintaining affordable housing. And in the 1990s, they mobilized the weight of public and professional opinion against a beltway through the western suburbs that would have helped electronics industry commuters but blown a gaping wound in the Urban Growth Boundary. The list of consensus issues can be extended: Neighborhoods are good–although there are plenty of conflicting ideas about what a good neighborhood looks like. Green is good–both the metaphorical green of sustainable development practices and the literal green of open space and trees

Steve Johnson’s book takes us into the middle of this intersection of values and institutions. Drawing on more than three decades of experience as a Portland community activist and developing a massive data base about the growth and transformation of civic institutions, he traces the community roots and foundations for Portland’s emergence as a widely admired city. He demonstrates that the Portland’s political culture has been open to new ideas and issues, incorporating the energy of activists into both new and existing institutions. The result has been a metropolitan region where the enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1970s has been maintained and adapted to the needs of the 1980s and 1990s–and, we hope, to the new century.

Chapter One

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