2.19.2015

A city with no limits? The paradox of Houston

Submitted by: Nancy Hales
Director, First Stop Portland

CEO Angela Baker welcomed us to Houston’s celebrated Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. “Big is the only standard we have,” she told our Portland delegation. “Houston is a city with no limits.”

 Neighborhood Center CEO Angela Baker tours Marc Jolin, Multnomah County (center) and Dave Nielsen, Home Builders Association (right) through their 'wrap-around services' facility
No limits?  That’s an understatement, I thought, smugly.  No UGB, no zoning, no urban density commitments, no design review standards.  Sacrilege to everything a Portland urbanist holds dear.

But after three days of Randy Miller’s recent “best practices” trip to Houston, I had to privately eat a little crow.  No limits? Well, in Houston I also learned, it means some positives – like no limits to the size of philanthropic gifts annually contributed to hospitals, art museums and universities.  And, according to one Houston expert, it means no limits on vision or bold ideas. “We experiment a lot more here than you (Portlanders) do.” Ouch!  Did he just call Portland parochial?

James Koski (left) Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Annise Parker opens morning  plenary alongside Randy Miller (right)

Houston, Texas sprawls (they call it ‘outward urban expansion’) over 656 square miles. Houston Mayor Annise Parker qualified the development pattern by acknowledging, “We have very liberal annexation laws,” she told us. And when questioned by Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt if there were conflicts with neighboring cities she answered, “No, we just bring them into the city.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt (standing), PDC's Kimberly Branam (left),  AAA's Sarah Lazzaro (center), and Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen (right)

Is there an up-side to this un-zoned approach?  Actually yes.  Here’s another paradox:  “Housing is affordable, here,” Mayor Parker told us. “Property values are pretty close to market, so it’s affordable for our workforce sector, and our young creatives.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker shares Houston's 'multi-nodal' approach to development
 So you see the conundrum I wrestled with for three days: is Houston truly livable? 

"Houston is business-friendly," we heard multiple times from multiple speakers. Houstonites don’t speak in terms of livability.  Houston home builder Will Holder bristled at the comparisons between the two cities, labeling Portland’s dense neighborhoods as “urban concentration camps.” That comment brought audible gasps from several Portlanders in the room, including green experts like Mark Edlen and Nolan Lienhart. “In Houston we build exactly what the customer wants; the worse thing we can do as a city is try to influence the market,” affirmed Houston City Councilor Steve Costello.

We all wanted to clone Houston's Angela Baker and bring her to Portland. We had to settle for a photo op.  From left, GPI's Janet LaBar, Nancy Hales, Angela Baker, Gerding Edlen's Mark Edlen, and Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle
The result of this thinking manifests throughout the city. The heart of Houston’s downtown folds up at night: I couldn't find the street life, the cool restaurants, the night scene. Walking home to our hotel after dinner one night, Portland developer Brad Malsin and Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle commented that the emptiness in the urban center outside banking hours was downright creepy.


Rice University Kinder Institute's Bill Fulton opened his comments with this question
Rice University’s Bill Fulton characterized Houston as "The Anti-Portland." The irony, however is that when you peel away the biases, we can actually learn a lot from each other.  For example, Houston has arguably solved homelessness and could teach Portland the way; I was glad to see Marc Jolin, Portland’s housing wunderkind taking copious notes. And Portland could teach Houston how to incentivize more sustainable business practices; I was glad Alando Simpson, owner of a thriving Portland B-corp had the chance to share his ideas with some of the folks from Houston.

Feedback from City of Roses Disposal and Recycling's Alando Simpson
Randy Miller took Portland to Houston to throw a monkey wrench into our conventional wisdom about how cities work. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,” said H.L. Mencken in 1880.  Maybe the first learning for us is that pat answers and simplistic dichotomies aren’t sufficient. Cities, the most complex thing of all, need the range of complexities in its answers, too.

12.11.2014

First Stop revists "The Myth of Innovation" on location in Brazil

Submitted by Sarah Iannarone
Assistant Director, First Stop Portland

In November 2014, I traveled to Brazil to share the Portland Story with an ambitious conference, UpWeek2014 hosted by Instituto Jourdan in Jaraguá do Sul, Santa Catarina (click to zoom in on northernmost yellow dot on the map, below).  This week-long exploration of the role of technology and innovation in social development brought together leaders from the state's university, public, and private sectors to discuss ways local governments can develop and implement solutions and promote economic development.

Like many places around the globe, Jaraguá do Sul and its neighbors hope to attract and retain tech-based companies (and the ever elusive "creative class") as part of their development strategy. Unlike many places, a contingent of local leadership (who are also First Stop Portland study tour alumni) understand the importance of civic engagement, placemaking, and public-private partnerships as central to their efforts. 

You can see, then, why First Stop Portland was invited to kick off UpWeek! with a keynote on urban innovation, Portland-style.

Now, it’s one thing sharing “The Portland Story” from a street corner in the Pearl District but another altogether to explain to an audience (many of whom had not yet heard of Portland, let alone visited) why they should care how Portland transformed from “Stumptown” of the 1850s to the “Creative City” we are lauded as today. Alongside my fellow presenters, (many from the tech industry) who approached innovation as the capacity to capitalize on the next best idea or platform, Portland's “innovation” story felt anything but. With terms like “asset-light,” “synergy,” “solutions,” and “disruptive” flying from Prezi slide to slide, Portland's steady-as-she-goes narrative of  incremental change felt megalithic in comparison.

11.20.2014

Portland's Apparel Industry: Driving Meaningful Change

Remarks given by Nancy Hales, Director First Stop Portland to the 2014 International Textile Sustainability Conference, Monday, November 10, 2014

On behalf of our entire city, I welcome you to Portland!!

Right outside and across the street from where you’re sitting - is the Willamette River. In 1843, two men, William Overton and Asa Lovejoy paddled up that river to this spot and laid claim to the site of our future city.  The fee for filing that land claim was 25 cents!  And they couldn’t agree on the name of this new city so, in 1845 – they flipped a coin to determine whether the city would be named Boston or Portland - (here’s the actual penny)! Thank goodness I am not welcoming you to Boston, Oregon!!

Two decades later, in 1864, Thomas Kay started the first woolen mill in Oregon which, in 1909, his grandsons - the Bishop brothers - launched Pendleton Woolen Mills.Today, over one hundred years later, Pendleton is a 6th generation local textile and apparel company. I’m wearing a dress curated from their current Portland Collection.

Fast Forward.  At the turn of the 20th century, in 1912 – we Portlanders planted our first official public rose garden and thus became known as the City of Roses. Also during that decade - -one of our more famous forefathers, Simon Benson, began installing free water fountains all over the city.  Local folklore insists it was an effort to “keep loggers out of the saloons at lunchtime.” Others say that it was Bensons’ effort to assure that “decent and upright citizens of Portland didn’t have to enter a tavern for a drink.”  Today there are 126 bubblers and they’re all over town, in front of taverns, micro-breweries and even city hall. When you are out in our city this week, take a sip and enjoy this pristine water that has been free-flowing from the Bull Run watershed to Portland for over 100 years.

Columbia Sportswear's "One Tough Mother" Gert Boyle presents to First Stop Portland delegation from Langzhou, China

6.26.2014

The Myth of Innovation

Remarks given by Sarah Iannarone, Assistant Director, First Stop Portland to 1000 Friends of Oregon Tom McCall Gala, June 20, 2104.

I want to debunk for you what I'm calling The Myth of Innovation, the idea that anything other than the relentless hunt for the next best game-changing idea is synonymous with complacency, stagnation, and decline. As Wayne Gretzky put it (please forgive the hockey reference in the midst of the World Cup), the mandate that we must "Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it's been." Don’t get me wrong, change is inevitable and we must continue looking for creative solutions to problems that arise. However, I’m here to tell you that--based on the feedback I’m getting--we’re doing something right here and we need to keep our eyes on the puck at our feet.

So, who am I to tell you this?

What I’m sharing with you is based on 5 years hosting over 5000 visitors who’ve dropped by Portland to see what’s so special about this place. As the Assistant Director of First Stop Portland, I occupy an interesting position in an important conversation--learning what matters to leaders from around the globe, hearing the questions they’re asking, the answers they’re getting, and capturing their sometimes very frank feedback about how things are working here.


Debriefing visiting leaders from DaNang, Vietnam

Like it or not, we’ve become a model for the world.

As I speak:
  • 6 Oregon mayors are in Dallas, Texas presenting to a conference of mayors from around the country on the transformative power of collaboration…. spreading the message "There are no republican forests to protect; no democratic jobs to create."
  • Brookings economist Bruce Katz is applauding how "weird and crunchy" Portland just happens to be one of America's most global regions with the third-highest export intensity in the US
  • College educated individuals under 40 (the ever desirable "creative class") are migrating here at remarkably high rates--in good economic times and bad--along with affluent empty-nesters and retirees
  • The New York Times' love affair with our artisan culture continues week in and week out they gush over our "rules-be-damned style…divorced from old-school notions of propriety, service and polish"
  • And I stay extremely busy at First Stop Portland hosting the hundreds of people—from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to the Planning Czar of Auckland, New Zealand—who visit each year to see for themselves whether what's really going on here lives up to the hype
So, does it? 

5.09.2014

My afternoon with Auckland's Regional Planning Czar

Submitted by: Soleil Rowan-Caneer
First Stop Portland Student Ambassador

We meet in the lobby of the Marriott Waterfront and hit the pavement. I'm with Dr. Roger Blakeley of Auckland, New Zealand. We stroll down to Tom McCall Waterfront Park, seat ourselves on a bench overlooking the Willamette and open a window into the street level experience of Portland. After a quick intro about our interests and concerns, we walk south along the river towards the South Waterfront District, enjoying the teeming life and vitality of the park and the activity along the boardwalk on a beautiful, sunny day in May. Perfect Portland spring weather.

Roger came to Portland after participating in New York RPA's World Cities Regional Planning Workshop. He was one of 13 experts that were invited from around the world to advise on the most recent iteration of their regional plan. Roger tells us their goals were to “share world best practices on Regional Planning, give advice on the preparation of the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut Regional Plan, and be an ongoing international peer review group as the plan is prepared, and prepare a global manual on Metropolitan Regional Planning.”

In 2010, the Auckland region boldly merged all of their local governments into a single entity, The Auckland Council. Roger Blakeley is the Chief Planning Officer on the council, and one of his main roles is to develop a 30-year “Auckland Plan” before the end of the year. This is a visioning plan, similar to Metro's 2040 Concept Plan, that will guide future development for Auckland.



3.18.2014

Oregon’s 'One Tough Mother' shares wisdom, humor with FSP students and Lanzhou MBAs

Submitted by Soleil Rowan-Caneer
Student, Community Development
Portland State University

“Work hard. Always tell the truth so you don’t have to bother remembering the lies. And always trust that if you have your heart and soul in it you will be successful,” Gert Boyle tells us. She is speaking to a crowd of Chinese businessmen and women who are hanging on her every word. “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill,” she advises with a wry smile.



Business leaders in the MBA Executive Leadership training program from Lanzhou University in China have returned for their annual trip to Portland. They come to experience first-hand executive leadership in practice and to learn more about collaborative models of governance and sustainable business practices in cooperation with the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.

EMBA Leadership Training Program is a partnership between Lanzhou University and Portland State University's Center for Public Service in the Hatfield School of Government.
On the final day of their two day tour with First Stop Portland,we were fortunate enough to meet Gert Boyle, the businesswoman behind the successful Columbia Sportswear Company. When the company faltered after the death of her husband, she refused to sell it for the $1400 that was offered, saying she would rather run it into the ground herself. Today Columbia Sportswear is worth over $2 billion. Scott Welch, Corporate Outreach Coordinator for the company, explains that it is largely through her bold leadership that, against all odds, Columbia became one of the most successful businesses to ever come out of Portland.



3.13.2014

First Stop's "fine-grained" approach informs Thailand's Smart Growth efforts

Submitted by: Edward "Cody" Kent
PhD Student, Urban Studies and Planning
Portland State University

The pressure put on natural resources by the increasing human population and rising standards of living is the defining challenge of the 21st century. This challenge is both local and global in scope, specific and universal in nature. The new and shifting character of these challenges means no single group has a monopoly on solutions. We are all learning from each other to solve our own local problems and the global issues. I recently became involved with First Stop Portland as a course requirement for PSU Professor Charles Heying’s "Green Economics" class. As a term project, students are required to step out of the classroom and work with a business, non-profit, or public agency to develop a solution to a sustainable development problem. I was immediately interested in working with First Stop Portland on their task of assisting with the sharing of sustainable development knowledge between Portland and other cities around the country and world.




Although I’m currently a first year PhD student in Urban Studies at Portland State University, I started as an undergraduate studying geology. As clichéed as it sounds, there are two kinds of geology programs: those that focus on field methods and those that focus on computer modeling. My program was one of those programs which focused on field methods and I spent a refreshing proportion of my undergraduate education hiking over the country side to map geologic structures. The value of feeling the texture of different sizes of mineral grains between fingers or the distance between features by how long it takes to walk from one to another cannot be overstated. This is the same kind of experiential knowledge provided by both the community-based learning project and First Stop Portland. For my project, I helped plan and lead a tour for a delegation of public officials and representatives of companies from Thailand, primarily from Koh Samui City.