I recently made my visit — call it a pilgrimage — to Portland, Oregon, the Mecca of Smart Growth and pedestrian-friendly planning, and the southern star in a constellation of northwestern cities with the dreamy title "Cascadia." After showing slides of Portland for years, I finally had my chance to find out first hand: Is Portland really all that?
Although there's always some trouble in paradise, the answer overall is "yes." And while it seemed to me that this would be a planner's paradise to work in, what I took away more than anything else was that sometimes the best planning is to know how to create an environment for incremental change and experimentation, and then to simply get out of the way.
Take bicycling, for example, an area where the city has won fame.
Suppression of highway building and support of transit — two big top-down policies — have come together to allow for a flourishing of this two-wheeled lifestyle. I rented a bike at my hotel (can you even do that in New York City?). Bike racks are ubiquitous (I saw some even at the airport), bike lanes are never more than a block or two away, and most street cars and light rail vehicles have a place to hang up your bike.
It's true that New York City has made huge strides in this area in recent years. The difference is that in Portland, motorists expect to share the road with bikes. There is none of the fear and loathing as motorists and bicyclists stare each other down for a roadway real estate, which still occurs here. Cycling is simply part of the culture of the road.
But as much as the ease of biking, my strongest impression was that in addition to the important top-down policies of more transit and fewer highways, there was a lot of fine-grained and incremental experimentation going on and a willingness to embrace the idiosyncrasies of the urban condition.
Consider waterfront access. Similar to New York City's bike paths along the Hudson and the East rivers, Portland has developed a continuous bike trail along both sides of its central river, the Willamette.
The two sides couldn't be more different: on the west side — the downtown side — the paved area along the river's edge is part of continuous waterfront park with generous lawns and the expected monuments to maritime industry and military sacrifice.
On the east side, the trail accommodates itself as best it can to a still-changing industrial landscape and to the limited space between the elevated freeway and the water's edge. Although less classically beautiful, the east side is, to me, the more interesting side of the river. Every quarter of a mile the urban landscape changes and you find yourself up against some industrial-strength piece of infrastructure. The way the path has been developed provides a positive example for us here.
One of my favorite spots was in a still active manufacturing area where the trail opens out onto a large concrete apron, giving both the bicyclists and the trucks the visibility and space they need to negotiate their travels. On one side of the trail is a concrete batching operation. On the other side is a manufacturer that specializes in high-end printing; they were inviting bicyclists in to see their work as a way of building visibility and growing the retail side of their business. At another point, bicyclists rest in the shade of a freeway as it flies overhead, providing, at least on this hot day, some welcome shade and a curiously calming droning noise. So as New York works to provide continuous bikeways on its waterfront, Portland is a reminder that one can embrace the messiness, rather than banish or shun it.
Portland also provides some lessons for the incremental revitalization and intensification of older suburbs. Like Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and many parts of the tri-state region, much of Portland consists of older single-family houses on very small lots. You might think there was not much room for densification.
But developers, with the encouragement of city policy, have figured out how to intensify these neighborhoods with everything from "granny flats" over garages, to townhouses, to small apartment buildings, and all of it done incrementally and in ways that seem almost invisible. The rule that gets rid of the parking requirement if near a transit line is a big incentive here (a rule that, amazingly enough, even transit-rich New York City does not have). Over time, this rule encourages development around transit lines where it makes sense, in part by giving developers a break on their cost structure by not having to devote land and construction costs to parking.
In the transformation of these older suburban neighborhoods in Portland, one of the most interesting is commercial avenues that function as "downtowns" and give these neighborhoods their names. Revitalization of every kind is represented: an abandoned building has been reinhabited by several small businesses; a taqueria that was originally just a trailer, has somehow had a foundation built under it and several building additions built onto or over it. In several places there are multiple small mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and offices or housing above.
I didn't see any grand design, and I thought the places better because of it.
Sure, there's trouble in Cascadia. The sprawl within the urban growth boundary looks an awful lot like the sprawl outside the Boundary. There was precious little transit-oriented development anywhere along the Green Line out to Orenco, which is supposed to be the flagship of transit-oriented development but is actually as dependent upon the automobile as any greenfield site. A friend told me that the reason everyone bikes is because their transit system doesn't go to enough of the places people really want to go. But Portland is getting a lot of it right.
I know everyone will say that Portland is not comparable: small by comparison, and temperate much of the year.
But that does not explain it. What Portland seems to be able to do is maintain an environment for experimentation. When a developer colleague -a one-person shop - was asked to present his work on the East Coast, all he remembers hearing was, "Yea, but you can't do that here." Well, we do have something that is the envy of everyone else — a very deep pool of talented and creative people. In an era of shrinking public money, we need to find our urban entrepreneurs and figure out how to cut them loose to experiment.