The Rose City blooms while the Emerald City fades

Portland and Seattle are among the top 10 "best-designed" urban areas, but Seattle ranks lower in part because of its record on historic preservation.
Downtown Portland landmarks. (City of Portland)

Downtown Portland landmarks. (City of Portland) None

BusinessWeek has a story on a new study by architectural firm RMJM Hillier to find America's best-designed cities. Their research focused on the man-made environment (sorry, no points for pretty scenery). Seattle and Portland made the list, but it's interesting to note why Seattle didn't rank higher.

The magazine spells out the criteria used for determining the winners:

To come up with the list, RMJM Hillier compared U.S. cities with populations over 500,000 according to 10 design-related categories, including the number of buildings featured on the National Historic Register, the quality and quantity of public transit systems, the number of "green" buildings and level of sustainability, and the number of architectural and design awards won. They also consulted the heads of local chapters of the American Institute of Architecture.

After whittling the list to the 10 cities with the highest rankings, pollster Zogby International conducted interviews with adult residents of those cities, asking them to describe the quality of life and the creative atmosphere of their environment. Then, adhering to a perhaps less than entirely scientific methodology, the cities were ranked.

The results for the "Top 10 Cities for Design:

  1. Chicago
  2. New York
  3. Boston
  4. Los Angeles
  5. Portland, Ore.
  6. San Francisco
  7. Seattle
  8. Denver
  9. Philadelphia
  10. Washington, D.C.

The study also names three "Cities to Watch": Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Phoenix.

BusinessWeek has a slide show of the winners, and RMJM Hiller has details (including more on their methodology) in a press release.

The magazine gives the following summaries for why Portland and Seattle rated:

No. 5 Portland, Ore.: One of the smaller cities on the list, Portland has long proclaimed its urban greenness. Portland architects also design their buildings and projects to blend in with their surroundings, making for a distinctive urban aesthetic. Approvingly, 72% of respondents professed to be happy with the quality of the city's architecture. ...

No. 7 Seattle: While Seattle has achieved a high level of architectural sustainability and has won a respectable number of Community & Housing Design Awards, its comparative lack of cultural institutions and buildings on the National Historic Register (perhaps not surprising given its status as one of America's newer cities) kept it from placing higher. Of those surveyed, 74% rated their quality of life as either "good" or "excellent."

The comment about Seattle's lack of National Register buildings is interesting since there has been controversy about Seattle's landmarks process, and concern that recent boom times have allowed too much of the city's heritage to be bulldozed. Some have even questioned whether the city has too many landmarks.

I checked to see how Portland and Seattle compare in terms of National Register sites using the National Park Service's database (they administer the National Register). The database includes registered and eligible sites, so it's a broad brush. But the results surprised me. Seattle had 160 listings in the National Register database while Portland had more than three times as many, 538.

There could be a lot of reasons for the disparity — differences in the development climate and building codes that encourage more use of the federal tax incentives that National Register designations allow. Or Portlanders could have made more efforts to designate groups of properties (like fire stations and schools). Or maybe Portlanders are just more into history. Those are among the possible reasons one preservation consultant cited to me.

City size and age are not likely to be reasons, however. Portland is smaller than Seattle and only six years older (founded in 1845, Seattle in 1851). Also, being on the National Register, which doesn't provide guaranteed protection but is honorific, isn't the be-all-and-end-all of preservation. San Francisco, for example, has about the same number of listings in the database as Seattle.

Nevertheless, the numbers suggest to me that Portlanders have worked harder to integrate historic preservation into the fabric of their city — I'd wager you don't get that many National Register listings unless individual property owners are on board. One other piece of evidence for that: There's also a big difference in the number of city landmarks in the two cities. Seattle has more than 350, according to the city's Web site, while Portland's lists well over 600.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Urbane density--Portland's secret: Alas I am wed to Seattle, worts and all, but if anything could draw me to away, it's Portland's Downtown Public Library. The very symbol of Portland's urban greenery, it's also what life there would be like for me. One of those still inviting paths not taken.

There was absolutely no question of replacing it when it was respectfully upgraded for current needs almost a decade ago. I covet that too. First Class on a steerage ticket indeed!
afreeman

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Lost Connections: Great article, Knute...very nice analysis. I fear that only after our architectural history has been erased and our communities razed will they realize what has been lost. Our Seattle history runs deep and its buildings provide an intergenerational thread, a connection--roots to anchor and provide commonality to the people who choose to make this their home.

MaryW

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Fire fire fire raging all about: I agree with earlier poster that this is a fine article. The generalizations based on numbers are intriguing although not yet convincing. It would be interesting to compare where the buildings in the counts are located. Portland was always ahead when it came to potential NRHP buildings since that city's early commerical district didn't experience a catastrophic late 19th c. fire. I would be especially pleased to know how many of the buildings on the National Register are in historic districts and how many are stand alone structures. Our greatest failure has been a lack of creativity when in comes to districting. We have far too few, and those we do have appear to be overwhelmed with cumbersome bureaucracies. I'd be pleased to see some conversation at Crosscut about Conservation Districts or other creative options to the very expensive and tedious individual nominations to historic preservation registers (local, county, state, national). It would also be interesting to compare preservation incentives in the two towns. One hears that there are very few here. What's up in Portland?

MJH

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Another comparison: For a real test on historic preservation it's often helpful to look at how many NR historic districts there are in a community. These require efforts of local citizens to get their neighborhood listed, and often indicates a general public sentiment toward preservation...if there are lots of large districts, then the residents seem to be fairly supportive. And since contributing buildings in NR districts are impacted by the same regulations, you get a real sense of the depth of a preservation ethic. A quick tabulation results in the following...Seattle has roughly a dozen districts with slightly more than 400 buildings listed; Portland has roughly a dozen districts with more than 1500 buildings. And just for comparison's sake, look at a city we've been compared with recently...Oklahoma City. While they have fewer individually listed buildings, they have about 15 NR districts with more than 3600 buildings. It's a shame we're really missing out on preserving a significant number of these kinds of structures.

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Historic Districts and urban villages: Since the urban village planning of over a decade ago upzoned all the neighborhood cores to 85ft, it seems that a Preservation District may be one tool to protect the historic streetscapes of these areas, like West Seattle's Junction. Density can still occur in the urban villages while respecting these commercial streetscapes.

Ironically, where the urban villages placed all the density in many cases is where we do have historic commercial streetscapes. This is a looming issue and has been neglected since much of the focus recently has been on downtown.
bjorn

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Are they really talking about *design*?: Great piece and comments, but I take some issue with the original study. "Design" incorporates, according to the Hillier press release, "public transit systems, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings, LEED registered buildings, art and design universities, museums, sustainability rankings, architecture awards, employees in creative industries, housing and community design awards, and buildings on the National Historic Register."

Public transit — yes. Though I'm not sure what doesn't count as "great public transit" if Philadelphia's SEPTA is considered a bar-raiser.
Art and design universities and employees in creative industries — huh?
Museums — nice to have, but not sure what the applicability is. Why museums and not theaters, for example?
Awards — hardly objective. Seattle's new Central Library has a few of them. It's also been called "decidedly unpleasant," "relentlessly monotonous," "badly designed and cheesily detailed," "profoundly dreary and depressing," and "cheaply finished or dysfunctional."
LEED, sustainability, NHR numbers — Sure.

Granted, Hillier does say "We conducted this study to see which cities are the most forward-thinking in their planning and development strategies and to applaud those that are doing it right," which explains how Los Angeles landed at #4; I doubt anyone evaluating current design would place it so high. But is this study really about design? The criteria almost read more like those to determine the best places to be in design.

Still interesting, and a great conversation-starter (I like the comparisons between Seattle and Portland — the latter is supposedly the new former; hope they don't repeat our mistakes), but the original premise of the study is a bit confusing.

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 6:06 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Are they really talking about *design*?: I've requested a full copy of the report. The poll results and detail might be interesting.

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 1:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Many additional factors account for Portland's greater number of historic listings: The founding date of Portland and Seattle is not really an important factor. What is more important is that the rate of growth of Portland exceeded that of Seattle before the 20th century. And, as another commenter pointed out, Seattle lost many of its original structures in a fire. More still were lost to freeway construction, a burden Portland shared. Portland probably does have a stronger culture of preservation, but it also has fewer grandly expressive ambitions such as those that remade Seattle's skyline in the boom years of the late 20th century.

To go a step deeper into the psyche of these two cities that are so similar, and yet so different, Portland has long seemed to exhibit a higher civic mindedness than Seattle has ever had, though Seattle seems to be slowly improving in that regard. The civic mindedness is often expressed architecturally, generating structures that people feel are worth preserving, and ultimately stimulating discussions such as this one, which only occur in places with a strong civic life.
jdubman

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 11:16 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Many additional factors account for Portland's greater number of historic listings: I totally agree that Portland cares about visualizing itself as a city and community much more than Seattle does. At times Seattle even seems to loathe itself - it's one of the few cities that people move to in order to get out of a bigger city. A component that differentiates us from many places is the constant recycling of the same pieces of real estate in the waist belt of Seattle's corset. That probably plays a role equal to our manic cycles of dashing willy nilly for the world class cash and clinging to main street community sentimentality.

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