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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.

By William Fulton

September 20, 2009.

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.

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2009/09/20/portland/19249/Six-key-lessons-from-Portlands-urbanism/

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Printed on July 31, 2014