From The Economist print edition, Apr 15th 2010:
The new model: Is Oregon’s metropolis a leader among American cities or just strange?
THE city most comparable to Portland might be Vancouver in Canada, reckons Sam Adams, Portland’s mayor, although “we look to Amsterdam, Helsinki and Stockholm” for ideas. Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban planning in Portland, thinks little Freiburg, in Germany, is the best comparison, with its similar obsessions about recycling, sustainability, public transit and bicycling. Others pick Zurich, which, like Portland, has a view of snow-capped mountains, orderly (bordering on staid) streets with trams, even the same peculiar fondness for direct democracy and tolerance of assisted suicide.
This might seem odd for a city on the American West Coast that once was the terminus of the Oregon Trail and has a cowboys-and-rodeos heritage. The locals, in fact, enjoy feeling odd: “Keep Portland weird”, say bumper stickers on the city’s cars, which all seem to be hybrid-electric vehicles. “Keep Portland sanctimonious,” mumble a few contrarians, while others savour the irony that Portland had to steal the slogan from Austin, Texas. But on the whole, Portlanders not only love their city but believe that it is, and ought to be, a model for the rest of America.
Mr Adams has personally contributed by becoming the first (though no longer the only) openly gay mayor of a big American city, and even surviving a recall attempt after a sex scandal (he is now confronting another). Mr Adams has a vision of progressive urbanism: a city where most people cycle or ride the streetcar, recycle what they consume, exist in harmony with nature and live in communities rather than the suburban sprawl of cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix or Atlanta.
Nature, in fact, is the main draw for the mostly young and single newcomers to this city, almost the fastest-growing on the West Coast, says Joe Cortright, a Portland economist: the ocean to the west; the Cascade mountains to the east; and the high desert beyond them. The vineyards of pinot noir and chardonnay along the Willamette Valley are all within a manageable drive. In Portland, “business casual” means wearing a fleece. The area’s main industrial cluster is “activewear”, led by Nike and Columbia Sportswear and including thousands of smaller companies.
The environment is also the main theme of public policy. The biggest force in local politics is not a party (Democrats in effect rule without opposition) but cyclists. The bike lanes are impressive and getting even better now as streets get “bioswales”, patches of turf and shrub that capture and filter storm water and simultaneously calm traffic and separate pedestrians and cyclists from the Priuses. Those who can’t bike are encouraged to use public transport, which is free downtown.
Mr Adams says Portland’s success is “totally replicable”. But much of it seems to be an unintended consequence of land-use policies dating back to 1973. Back then, Oregon adopted “urban-growth boundaries” (UGBs) to preserve the farmlands that were then the mainstay of Oregon’s economy. Over time the rationale for UGBs changed to “don’t Californicate Oregon”—ie, don’t become Los Angeles, a freeway sprawl with no centre. The result has been unusually compact living, which is in turn easily served by public transport.
But cities with sprawling, California-style layouts will find it harder to make people use public transport. Phoenix, for example, has an excellent light-rail system, but it is often empty. And it may be even harder for such cities to get their residents to live more closely together.
Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based demographer and author, thinks that places like Portland, San Francisco and Boston have become “elite cities”, attractive to the young and single, especially those with trust funds, but beyond the reach of middle-class families who want a house with a lawn. Indeed Portland, for all its history of Western grit, is remarkably white, young and childless. Most Americans will therefore continue to migrate to the more affordable “cities of aspiration” such as Houston, Atlanta or Phoenix, thinks Mr Kotkin. As they do so, they may turn decentralised sprawl into quilts of energetic suburbs with a community feeling.
That is not to belittle Portland’s vision. It is a sophisticated and forward-looking place. Which other city can boast that its main attraction is a bustling independent book store (Powell’s) and that medical students can go from one part of their campus to another by gondola, taking their bikes with them? Other cities will see much to emulate. Minneapolis, for example, this month displaced Portland as Bicycling magazine’s most bike-friendly city (“they got extra points for biking in the snow,” grumble Mr Adams’s staff). Adam Davis of Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, a Portland polling firm, says that Oregonians like to consider themselves leaders but also exceptions. They are likely to remain both.