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.
Crosscut archive image.

Downtown Portland landmarks. (City of Portland)

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.

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.

At the very least, the comparison should put to rest the idea that Seattle is somehow overburdened with historic landmarks or that we have a low bar for determining what is preservation-worthy. Not only do the pros see preservation as essential to sustainability and great urban design, but Seattle is seen as having, if anything, preserved too little.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.