Old World meets New: Russia's Young Leaders Visit Portland

This week, First Stop Portland is hosting a delegation of young leaders from St. Petersburg, Russia who have come to Portland because they see it as "one of the best examples of human-made and natural landscapes in the world" and they are looking to take away lessons from Portland's experiences in sustainable development and apply them to the many challenges they face back at home, where they are working to shape old St. Petersburg into an energy-efficient and accessible 21st Century city.

Jillian Detweiler, TriMet & Dean Larry Wallack, PSU College of Urban and Public Affairs, with St. Petersburg's emerging leadership

The delegation hails from the Frunzenskiy District, a densely populated administrative and territorial unit in the south-central part of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Frunzenskiy District's is home to 405,274 of St. Petersburg's 4,848,700 residents living primarily in larger single-family housing and some apartments. An important retail hub punctuated by scattered processing and manufacturing industry facilities, the district  prior to 2010 had only one metro station to serve its population, so overcrowding on public transportation has been a major issue. However, new investments in public transportation have resulted in a number of new metro stations under construction or in the planning process as of 2011.

These young leaders face some tough challenges. Despite a weakening of  the top-town and rigidly controlled planning of the socialist state which shaped much of the existing urban infrastructure, an administrative hierarchy persists, concentrating power in traditional channels and shaping urban policy and form in traditional ways but lacking the "big picture" redistributive mandate that centralized planning once provided. This lack of creativity and desire to innovate, they bemoaned, has lead to an lackluster urban environment, rich in history but weak in vitality. Their city, they said, just doesn't feel as lively and friendly as Portland. Furthermore, they expressed dismay that their district residents don't seem to grasp that direct engagement in civic live is necessary for democracy to thrive. "Now that capitalism is here," one delegate observed, "most of the people are only interested in making money and spending it. They don't want to volunteer or don't have time to or don't think that it is important."

At First Stop Portland we struggle to make "The Portland Story" relevant across contexts. We are beginning to appreciate that sharing "The Portland Story" with others is as much a process of deepening our understanding of our own city--it's history and and its aspirations--as it is about proselytizing about green building, civic engagement, and the joys of mass transit.  These aspirational policy and decision makers are visiting Portland because they want to shake up things, to shift what business as usual looks like in St. Petersburg and they see Portland as a place that has chosen to do things differently. But how and what are we doing differently? What can a 300 year-old former Soviet stronghold possibly learn from a fiercely democratic and politically progressive city half its age? What does Portland do well that these folks might take away as lessons in policy development and urban planning?

Foremost, there is a cultural legacy of direct democracy in Portland that they do not share in St. Petersburg. However, as the seat of the three revolutions in the last century, St. Petersburg's citizens have a history of openness to trying new things. This might mean that rather than directing civic engagement programs downward from inside government, local agencies might consider promoting strategies like Portland's Neighborhood Small Grants Program, strengthening the community fabric by serving as an incubator for existing and emerging social organizations. In addition, Portland's legacy of partnerships between the public, private, and not-for profit sectors, evident in projects like the innovative Solarize Portland or development of The Brewery Blocks in Portland's Pearl District might prove valuable takeaways. Finally, understanding who your citizens are and what they value is only the beginning of democratic governance and building a sustainable city; maintaining transparency while giving people direct rights and responsibilities in government goes a long way to effective civic engagement. The outreach model for The Portland Plan or even Metro's new Opt-In program (why not head over and sign up while you have a minute) are great examples of the ways that city leaders can empower they citizens not simply to voice their opinions about their city, but to take a direct, active role in turning into the place they'd like to see.

Stay tuned for photos from the visit...

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