First Stop Portland recently hosted a 5-person delegation from the Regional Urban, and Rural committee of the OECD who were studying Portland as part of a comparative case study (Melbourne [AU], Vancouver [CA], Toyama [JP], Portland [US] and Paris [FR]) exploring compact cities, i.e. those with higher densities, mixed land-uses, and mass transit linkages. They met for discussions with practitioners from the public and private sectors, policy makers, elected officials and business owners from across the region to gain a better understanding of Portland’s “Smart Growth” policies and tools. They toured the city and region, observing first hand the impacts of these policies and practices in urban space, from transit-oriented development in the Pearl District to the interface of agriculture and development at the edge of the UGB (urban growth boundary).
They were impressed by Portland’s aggressive implementation of compact development policy and strategies in the last three decades. In a panel discussion on urban form and placemaking, local experts shared with delegation members the importance of visionary leadership and policy that balances short term commercial interests with long term legacy projects. Where policy creates opportunity, leadership makes it happen. While certain tools from the Portland region, like the urban growth boundary, may be less transferable to other compact cities, others, like its transit policy and urban design guidelines, are robust and accessible. This is in large part because Portland’s approach has historically been less prescriptive than aspirational, moving beyond the confines of short-term thinking and NIMBYism to toward a vision of livable city built on thriving public spaces, active street life, engaged and empowered citizenry, and environmental protection.
They observed that that the city has done many things very well, especially with regard to urban form. Citizen participation in the planning process has cultivated an understanding of the role of urban design and planning in the public consciousness. The city’s continued dedication to creation and preservation of public parks and green spaces and to historic preservation have resulted in a city that feels accessible, safe, and lively. Portland has done a great deal right in cultivating sustainable urbanism, the delegation praised: it's a place where urban design and planning policies and practices have resulted in a livable city comprised of dense, walkable places and neighborhoods fed by a diversity of natural and human-made amenities.
Yet many questions followed quickly on the heels of such commendation, not the least of which concerned equity in the the city and region. What’s happening outside the city center, the delegates wondered, in places like East Portland or in the suburbs? What about gentrification? Where are the socioeconomically disadvantaged and ethnic minority groups being pushed to? Why aren’t policy makers and planners more aggressively promoting affordable or (heaven forbid) public housing? In addition, they wondered, why, given Portland’s longstanding commitment to preserving and developing public parks and greenspaces, is there such a dearth of civic architecture, like schools and community centers, evident in its (re)development efforts? Most important, they wondered, how does Portland assess the extent to which it is accomplishing what it sets out to do? What are its measures of success with regard to economic growth, social impacts and environmental outcomes?