Planning Winter 2021

Viewpoint

Portland Defines the New Decade in Planning

By Bruce Stephenson, PhD

When federal troops clashed with protestors in Portland this past summer, scenes of chaos and flames dominated the news cycle. Once the prototypical green city, political narratives often recast it as a lawless wasteland.

Bruce Stephenson, PhD, is a member of the Pearl District Neighborhood Planning & Transportation Committee and author of Portland’s Good Life: Sustainability and Hope in an American City (Lexington Books), due out this spring.

Bruce Stephenson, PhD, is a member of the Pearl District Neighborhood Planning & Transportation Committee and author of Portland's Good Life: Sustainability and Hope in an American City (Lexington Books), due out this spring.

But as the hyperbole of election season fades, Portland should reemerge as an urbanist ideal. With planning that values public good over individual interests, the city sets an example all should follow as we head into a new decade informed by the pandemic and racial justice advocacy.

For decades, Portland has set the curve. In 1973, Oregon passed landmark legislation requiring the establishment of urban growth boundaries to limit suburban sprawl and preserve some of the planet's most productive farmland. Metro, the nation's only regionally elected governing board, was established to oversee the area's urban growth boundary.

The market embraced this system. Investments in greenspace networks and active transportation made the automobile an option, not a necessity, and Portland's downtown — once the "Graveyard of the West" — was transformed into a magnet for high-tech capital and anyone desiring an alternative lifestyle. Vehicle miles traveled began dropping in the mid-1990s. In return, carbon emissions plummeted, commuter bike rates topped the nation, and obesity levels ranked among the nation's lowest.

With planning that values public good over individual interests, Portland sets an example we all should follow.
—Bruce Stephenson

By 1993, Portland had adopted the nation's first carbon reduction plan — which went on to inspire the Obama administration's Partnership for Sustainable Communities (PSC), created to help coordinate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

The city has also been working on sustainability's Achilles heel. In 2016, then-Mayor Charles Hales declared a state of emergency to address homelessness and affordability. Zoning was densified, and voters approved a $258.4 million housing bond measure for affordable housing. Of those sales, $20 million dollars went to Right to Return, the country's first funded initiative to rectify displacement in Black communities.

Portland also pioneered tax increment financing to spur development in the Pearl District, a declining industrial area that has now been transformed into a walkable, transit-centered neighborhood. And while often branded as a "tony" neighborhood for hipsters and the wealthy, it is far from affluent. The median income is slightly below the city average, and 30 percent of residents live in subsidized housing.

Promoting the proximity of people from different classes and incomes has worked in Portland, but can planners transfer that model to more racially diverse cities? Black Lives Matter provides an answer there. As protest turns to policy, restructuring property rights to build pedestrian-scaled, sustainable communities is essential to systematic reform. By harnessing the synergy of social justice and smart planning, cities can build neighborhoods where affordable housing is mandatory, the pedestrian realm is sacrosanct, citizens have a role in governance, and the sidewalk ballet fosters the social capital that elevates community life.