What's in the Water, Portland?

The city of Fort Worth, Texas, is at a critical juncture. In a state that has grown through sprawl and auto-dependent development, civic leaders are trying to bring ideas like New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and transit-oriented development into their Trinity River Vision redevelopment master plan. Recently, First Stop Portland hosted a delegation of leaders from Fort Worth visiting Portland to meet with local leaders who shaped similar major redevelopment schemes here like the Pearl District, South Waterfront, and Portland Streetcar projects.

Fort Worth TVA delegates visit Jameson Square

While the political and economic realities of large projects like these were certainly integral to these discussions, the question that surprisingly arose at each of our meetings throughout the day was a matter of culture: isn’t it something special about Portland that makes it’s leaders and citizens amenable to projects like these? What is it that makes development like this possible?

At First Stop Portland, we hear the question all the time, “What’s in the water?” Visiting delegations look at Portland’s innovative decision-making in the last half-century and conclude that what happens here is special, a unique convergence, if you will, of visionary leadership with economic opportunity and widespread political will.  And while no true Portlander will admit to their city being anything less than special, the Portland experts that met with the Fort Worth delegation heartily professed that, no, there is nothing special in the water. What there is, rather, is deep understanding of and appreciation for livable places.

When one of the Trinity River Vision Authority (TVRA) staffers, asked “What’s in the water?”  John Carroll, of Carroll Community Development, replied that the key factor contributing to the success of Portland’s Pearl District was a community of developers and politicians committed to creating a “place where they would want to live themselves.” This includes preserving important historical features and protecting the district from “rock star” architects and building-by-building design in favor of a more cohesive neighborhood feel. Most importantly, he emphasized, was a connection to community: locals building and developing for locals, developers personally involved in projects and neighborhoods, and civic leaders understanding connections and working to build relationships across the many stakeholders involved.

Furthermore, Carroll emphasized, the reason Portland’s experts can sit over lunch and share stories with folks from Texas is precisely because there’s nothing uniquely “Portland” in Portland’s development strategy. There’s no cookie-cutter approach to sustainable urban development in which what has worked for Portland will transfer directly to Fort Worth, or Denver, or Los Angeles, or Amsterdam or Chengdu, China, for that matter. “It’s not about sharing our story so you can do what we do; it’s about sharing so you can learn how to understand your own place better, so you can go about doing what you need to do in your own context,” according to Carroll. What works for Portland may never work for Fort Worth, but if the leaders in Fort Worth understand Fort Worth history, are active in local politics, and participate in shaping local culture, then they can help build a city best suited to the people of Fort Worth.

Local leaders need to understand that this commitment to making livable places is not a short term strategy, and it’s not always easy, Carroll warned business leaders and developers from the delegation. But, he assured them, “what’s good for the community is good for business even though it sometimes hurts the bottom line in the short term.”

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