From the Rose City to Rock City

You might think that comparing Detroit and Portland, Ore., is a bit of a stretch. In many ways, these two cities couldn’t be more different.

Portland, America’s “Most Livable City,” has walkable neighborhoods, a great transit system, a plethora of city services, a wonderful diversity of shopping and a healthy coexistence with its surrounding natural wonders. Yes, this land of the Chinook, Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark is infinitely beautiful, with its dripping abundance of greenery, hills, streams, valleys and majestic mountain vistas only a short ride away from a healthy urban core.

America’s “Motor City” has more brownfields than greenfields. But natural beauty notwithstanding, Portland can't shake a stick at Detroit's history of technical innovation, our musical heritage or world-class architecture.

So why is Portland the “City that Works” while metro Detroit is so often at odds with itself?

Portland has a leg up on Detroit in one, most essential way: It has been able to positively define itself in relation to the rest of the region.

And because of this, the “City that Works” really does work.

Over the last three decades, the greater Portland area has articulated a regional vision that embraces the idea of intra-municipal cooperation, shared destiny and progressive politics.

Intra-municipal what? Shared destiny gets a lot of lip-service around here, but as we all well know, cooperation is Southeastern Michigan’s Achilles heel.

So what can a shrinking city learn from a thriving city? A little bit of everything.

Progressive leadership

Back in the early 1970s, Portland wasn’t on any “best of” lists. The city was at a crossroads. Industry was struggling, the air and water were polluted, and the city’s population and tax base were eroding to surrounding communities that were increasingly in conflict with one another and the central city. Sound familiar?

Fortunately at this time, Portlanders were blessed to have a young, energized contingent of inspired leaders that collectively seized a unique opportunity to fundamentally shift the way Portland did business.

This group included officeholders at all levels of city, state and federal government. Major players included Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, and Gov. Tom McCall. The governor, with his "1000 Friends of Oregon", connected inner city development with farmland and open space conservation, and many consider him to be one of the state's most visionary leaders.

Working together with community, business, civic, corporate and philanthropic interests, McCall and his supporters passed landmark legislation to allow for more centralized planning of regional transportation and land-use issues, as well as cooperative management of regional cultural and “public assembly facilities” like Portland’s zoo and convention center.

The formal outgrowth of this initiative is Portland METRO, the only regionally elected government in the United States, and the corresponding Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), which encompasses 25 municipal governments and is designed to contain and guide future development.

Progressive development

In the years since these measures have been implemented, Portland has sustained a renewed spirit of urban vitality and has evolved into a national leader in the promotion and implementation of “green” building technology and higher standards of livability.

One of the major components of Portland’s strategy is its commitment to the idea of a balanced transportation system, where the funding of transit options is standard practice. Beginning with the regionalization of transit through the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District (Tri-Met), and continuing with a wide range of capital investments — the construction of a bus mall downtown, a suburban commuter rail service (the MAX), traffic calming measures, the wide proliferation of bike lanes, and, most recently, the return of streetcars (from the Czech Republic) to several inner-city districts — Portland’s multi-pronged approach has won wide acclaim and has made visible impact.

Having transit options in Portland not only allows for a more densely built urban environment, it drives it. The corresponding shift away from suburban-style zoning regulations means that new developments do not have to accommodate cars and parking lots as much as more auto-dependent cities. What you get are areas, such as the fashionable Pearl District, that become wonderful pedestrian-friendly environments, with walkable streets and lively mixed-use blocks of cafes, restaurants and urban groceries.

Not only has transit allowed Portland to build denser, greener and more efficient buildings — the city has more Green Council “LEED-certified”  buildings than anywhere in the country — it has also facilitated the greening of its open spaces. As fewer parking lots are needed, Portlanders have benefited from the creation of parkland and public space.

From the city's smallest park — 452-square-inch Mill Ends Point — to its largest — 5,000-acre Forest Park — Portland has one of the highest percentages of green space per capita of any city in America. Portland’s fantastically successful Pioneer Square was a parking lot from 1950 until 1984, when Tri-Met leveraged its newly-created transit hub and cauterized public sentiment to transform a gravel strewn wasteland into Portland’s “living room”.

Progress, but not perfection

In spite of these progressive steps, the Rose City is not all rosy. With high levels of post dot-com unemployment and embattled public schools, Portland grapples with many of the same urban challenges as we do here in the Motor City.

Recently, Portland has experienced a sharp divide over the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). The UGB, literally a line drawn around greater Portland separating urban land from rural land, has been the bane of property rights advocates since the inception of the UGB. The basic premise is that the boundary keeps urban expansion from encroaching on farms and open space, while land inside the UGB is allowed to develop and receive services through Portland METRO.

On a regular basis, the Oregon legislature revisits the UGB and assesses whether or not there is the requisite 20-year supply of land based on current population and development trends. If necessary, the legislature can act to expand the UGB to accommodate additional regional growth. Today, METRO and the UGB are operating on the assumptions of a long-term plan that projects through the year 2040.

Although it seems hard to argue with the revolution of Portland into a livable city, last year’s contentious “Measure 37”, threatened to undermine the UGB by forcing the government to pay or cede restrictions to property owners who owned property before the UGB was implemented. This proposal was first adopted through a statewide vote, only to be struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year. Even though Measure 37 was reversed, many believe the fight over property rights is not over.

While there may be rumblings in paradise, the underpinnings of Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary reverberate far beyond the Pacific Northwest and have incited lawmakers all over the country to integrate the notion of “Smart Growth” into their message and policies.

Portland’s prescription?
Back here in Eastern Standard Time, our own politics of regional dissonance unfortunately tend to ring out much louder, and the promise of a place like Portland can seem quite distant.
Southeastern Michigan is almost four times bigger than greater Portland, and arguably more complicated. With our peculiar brand of racial politics and Michigan’s entrenched home rule law, a METRO-style government here seems unimaginable – but should it be?

As Mayor Kilpatrick begins his second term next year and Gov. Granholm kicks off her campaign for re-election, can any of the lessons learned in the land of evergreen effectively translate to the City of the Straits?

There’s no shame in looking elsewhere for inspiration. If regional cooperation has been the prescription for Portland’s transformation, then a double dose for Detroit might do us some good.

all photographs copyright Francis Grunow

Francis M. Grunow is the executive director of Preservation Wayne, Detroit’s oldest and largest architectural preservation organization.

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