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Six key lessons from Portland's urbanism

An expert on cities distills the Portland DNA. Most of all, it's a city that is comfortable with being an urban place.
The Portland Aerial Tram links Oregon Health and Science University with the city's South Waterfront. (Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett)

The Portland Aerial Tram links Oregon Health and Science University with the city's South Waterfront. (Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett) None

Portland is often held up as such an outstanding model of urban planning — and one that is so difficult to replicate — that you might think it’s somehow different from other cities. But let’s face it: Portland is like any other U.S. city. There are freeways and subdivisions and confusing arterials and big malls and stupid little strip centers.

But there is also a remarkable downtown, a fabulous set of close-in neighborhoods, a remarkably large and diverse transit system for a city Portland’s size, and an emerging ethic that is comfortable with being an urban place.

Rather than simply thinking there’s no way to copy Portland (or that all cities must slavishly follow the Portland model), it’s worth thinking about Portland’s DNA. Why does Portland do things, and do them successfully, that a lot of other cities can’t seem to do? After a visit to Portland last week, I’d say there are six important lessons to learn from Portland. The important thing is to apply the lessons to your own town, and not try to recreate Portland.

1. Portland has great raw material. Although it’s only a half-million people, Portland has a huge downtown core, a large industrial area now being revitalized (the Pearl District), and all kinds of civic endowments from the wealth-building years as a timber capital — such as, for example, many older parks in the central part of the city and a fabulous stock of older buildings. The lesson here is not to try to create buildings or neighborhoods like Portland’s, but to understand what your raw material is and use it to your best advantage.

2. They’re not afraid to just build stuff. Since my last visit seven years ago, Portland has built the aerial tramway from the South Waterfront (the flats just to the south of downtown) to the Oregon Health Sciences University campus on Marquam Hill. No other city in the United States except New York has ever even tried to build such a tram, and the Portland project was plagued by secretiveness, political controversy, 1,000 percent cost overruns, and neighborhood opposition. In the end, they built it anyway. And it is now the key to keeping the city’s largest employer in Portland and an anchor for a series of condo and office towers in the South Waterfront area (also proof that they’re not afraid to build stuff). Sometimes you just have to build stuff and see what happens.

3. They never stop thinking about the actual walking experience. If you look carefully at both Downtown Portland and the celebrated Pearl District, you’ll realize that (although both are built on small grids), we are not talking about the typical New Urbanist wet dream of four-story neoclassical boulevards. For every two or three handsome ’20s downtown midrise, there’s at least one mid-century modernist monstrosity. Yet even these behemoths have created totally walkable places. Never, ever overlook how it feels simply to walk down the street.

4. They keep reinforcing the connection between development and transportation. In Portland, the additions to the transit system operate seamlessly with each other. And they reinforce the development pattern, even when (as with the tram) it seems like a pipe dream. An even more dramatic example is the Portland Streetcar, which connects a variety of dense activity centers in downtown Portland, including Portland State University, the Pearl District, downtown, and the South Waterfront (where it connects with the aerial tram).

The streetcar is so slow that sometimes you can beat it just by walking. But it may be the best urban collector system ever created. If the streetcar didn’t exist, a bunch of useful but inefficient little buses would have to run around Portland connecting things — similar to L.A.’s DASH buses. The streetcar pulls together all the collector systems into a distinctive “brand” that’s integrated into the entire TriMet system. Other cities don’t have to build a streetcar. But they can find ways to brand the collector experience as unique, fun, and just a part of the experience of being in the town.

5. They keep strengthening the informal aspects of city life. Here’s just one example: You have never seen anything like Portland’s food carts. They line up by the dozen in parking lots, facing the sidewalk, creating an instant streetside food court of amazing and inexpensive culinary choices. This is not urban planning, exactly — or, at least, it’s not about building higher density and more public transit. Rather, it’s about strengthening the quirky, interesting, and sometimes even necessary little human-scale things that make up urban life. And that’s one of the things that seems to underlie Portland’s success: There are so many people in town who love urban life and want to make it work in a mid-sized city.

6. They’re not holding out for perfection. Don’t ever forget that most of the Portland metro area is just like anywhere else. But part of the message is that you don’t have to transform your whole city — only those parts of your city that are ripe for the transforming. There is no better advertisement for creating more walkable cities than…well, than creating just one walkable neighborhood in your town.

This article is reprinted from citiwire.net, with permission.

William Fulton is an expert on regional planning, based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at bfulton@cp-dr.com, and he blogs at www.cp-dr.com.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Sep 20, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Great, another "build it and they will come" new urbanist.
Don't get me wrong, I love Portland and I have family who have lived
in Portland for almost 40 years. However, they will tell you the same
thing, "WHERE ARE THE JOBS TO SUPPORT THIS GREAT WONDERLAND?"

Yes, there is high tech, but not a diverse economy to support Portland.
May I suggest that you re-read Jane Jacobs' book if you forget.

12+% "official" unemployment in the Portland, Beaverton, Vancouver area
and 20+% real unemployment are often overlooked and glossed over by
many folks pointing to the Pearl district, Intel, the max, cute neighbor
hoods etc, as proof of progress that their urban philosophy is working.

It is not. What new urbanists forget is that it is the nuts and bolts
that RUN and MAKE a city, not just fancy trams and light rail. When
Portland combine two police precincts into one to save money, it is not
a good sign of good government nor public safety. Where is your tax base
besides construction tax? Where are the jobs to support these commercial
and residential towers? I fear some of these folks who bet big on these
projects are going to lose their shirts, just like in Seattle.

So, please someone explain to me since I do not have a masters of
urban design or planning from Harvard, who should know much better than
a simple layman, like myself.

If Portland has everything that SHOULD work to promote density, job growth, mass transit, etc, for new urbanism, TOD, and everything Green and Holy, why is not working? Please, do not blame the economy or sun spots.
This hasn't been working for many, many years before. Perhaps, this
is the structural unemployment built-in that we must accept if we wish
to have this kind of lifestyle of the haves and the have-nots.

Posted Mon, Sep 21, 7:31 a.m. Inappropriate

#7 Vera Katz

Dos Equis

Posted Mon, Sep 21, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

MahnaMahna: Of course Portland needs more jobs. But what does that have to do with the topic?

Onward...

To me, one of Portland's greatest assets is its narrow Downtown streets, and, related to that, its relative lack of through-streets Downtown. That gives it an ambiance and functionality Seattle misses.

I wouldn't call it a large downtown. Remember, a downtown serves a whole metro, not just the half-mil within the city limits.

Portland's transit would work even better if jobs were more concentrated, including having a larger downtown. Currently, the system is nice, but transit usage for commuting is fairly middling by US standards, substantially below Seattle and greater Seattle per Census estimates.

mhays

Posted Mon, Sep 21, 12:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Ironically the tram in the photo goes to a major development that has sadly gone bankrupt. Not because of the tram, which was a good idea since this area of Portland is hard to access otherwise. Portland is a wonderful city, but I have to agree with some other posters that Seattle has much more - like a vibrant economy.

unter

Posted Tue, Sep 22, 1 a.m. Inappropriate

This is interesting.
I live in Portland, Northwest Portland to be exact, and I gotta tell ya, I don't see what you see.
Talk about just showing one side of the coin, this editorial is the shining example.

alyourpal

Posted Wed, Sep 23, 7:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Although the tram from the Willamette River to Pill Hill was controversial, at no point was it MIRED in controversy. Compared with the glacial pace that public infrastruction gets built in Seattle, Portland's tram was constructed with breathtaking speed. If tram construction were proposed anywhere in Seattle, the "process" would take decades. The only exception is construction of Paul Allen "must haves; a notorious case in point is the SLUT.

Mud Baby

Posted Thu, Sep 24, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

I guess I have to ask. Is the Editor's pick award based on a well-crafted argument or is it because the Editor agrees with the basic premise of the post? Or both?

Dos Equis

Posted Sun, Sep 27, 2:23 p.m. Inappropriate

As an editor making those picks, allow me to explain. I like a good argument that brings up some new information and good links. Points of view opposing the article are also a plus. The best comments "advance the discussion." A helpful, respectful tone also scores points.

Posted Mon, Sep 28, 5:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Mudbaby. Portland's aerial tram was mired in controversy when it's projected price increased from roughly $15 to $57 million mostly due to OHSU's plans for developing the upper terminus. OHSU covered most of the additional cost, but this didn't stop complaints about the project cost overrun. There were also complaints from the neighborhood below the route, mostly to do with their loss of privacy. That complaint has cooled off.

mhays. Look first at Portland's sidewalk widths and curb extensions before its narrow streets to explain why it's easier than Seattle to get around walking. Making it safer to cross 3- and 4-lane streets anywhere is possible. There's no lack of thru-streets in Portland in all directions. Seattle has a geographic problem with its steep hills and related lack of north/south freeway capacity. This means Seattle must improve inner-city transit in all directions. I've been proposing such a transit design improvement for 10 years, but Seattle planning does not seem to actually welcome let alone weigh public input, and final decisions carved in stone behind closed doors.

Wells

Posted Tue, Sep 29, 7:54 a.m. Inappropriate

The tram was also hit by the horrible steel and other materials prices:
http://www.redorbit.com/news/technology/282514/cost_of_steel_lifts_trams_price_tag/

For further reading, here is a good discussion with links to several good articles:
http://portlandtransport.com/archives/2006/01/talking_about_t.html

joshuadf

Posted Fri, Jul 15, 5:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Hmmph..

Wells

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