An Outsider’s Perspective on Portland Policy

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

By John Glennon

I am not a native Portlander; but the summer I have spent here has given me some interesting insights into the culture of the city, the Pacific Northwest, and the West Coast. Working at Cascade Policy Institute has provided me with a different view of the city from what is experienced by most visitors. Many come to the city to experience the virtues of intensive urban planning. Portland is known around the country as a liberal stronghold that promotes public transportation, cycling, and conservation of land through strict adherence to the line drawn around the metropolitan area known as the Urban Growth Boundary. At Cascade, my work is to do research on these policies and make recommendations for alternative policies that promote economic freedom, which are usually in direct opposition to the methods used by Portland planners to create their vision for the future of the Portland area.

As a newcomer, sometimes I feel I have no business criticizing how things are done or making recommendations for different ways of doing things in a city I am just getting to know. So, I have made it my mission to experience the Portland area as much as I can in the limited time that I have here. Part of what drew me to the Portland area is how bicycle-friendly it is. On weekends and after work, I have cycled around the city and the surrounding area to familiarize myself with Portland and take in the culture using the number-one, Portland-approved method of transport.

In the process I have discovered an amazing city filled with lively neighborhoods and eclectic and friendly residents. The patchwork of neighborhoods that make up the Portland area are filled with delicious restaurants, microbrews, coffee shops, bookstores, marijuana dispensaries, recycled clothing stores, and just about everything else the mind can imagine. This is all set to the backdrop of one of the most beautiful regions in the world. Mount Hood, which looms just east, serves as a reminder of the natural wonders that surround the city in every direction.

One of the most valuable assets to the area that I have discovered is its people. Portlanders are a unique breed, and much of the satire found on the TV show Portlandia seems to hold true (especially on the Eastside!); but some traits that unite Portlanders are their laid-back nature, friendliness, and independence. Everyone I have encountered here has been polite and welcoming. One evening I got a flat tire on my bike and, since I was just a mile away from my house, I decided to walk back. Three minutes into my walk, a man in a Subaru pulled over and asked if I needed a ride. He explained he was a cyclist and understood how annoying it can be to have to walk your bike home. I have experienced similar troubles with my bike back in the Midwest but have been mostly ignored by motorists in those situations. This is just one of many helpful encounters I have had with local residents.

Portlanders are also very independent and accepting of other people’s independence. Walking the streets of Portland usually means encountering some interesting fashions and people who are here to live “alternative” lifestyles. Given this independence, I am surprised that Portlanders often vote for policies that take away their freedoms to choose. My work at Cascade has been focused on residential land use. I have found that the implications of current planning in the Portland area is that finding single-family housing with private yards will become increasingly difficult. This violates a fundamental life choice that most people have in this country, about the nature of the area where they live. It also takes away the main preference that Portlanders previously have chosen in terms of housing.

There are many possible reasons for the disconnect between Portlanders’ independence and the policy choices that they have made. I speculate that friendliness and love of the environment are two of the main reasons that many residents have made this choice. Most citizens are not concerned with the inner workings of public policy since they are busy living their lives. When they hear that strict land use policies will help conserve the pristine Oregon countryside, that is all they need to voice their support.

For most citizens and public officials, there is a lack of questioning the fundamental methods used to protect the environment. Past mistakes can be chalked up to planning mishaps that can be corrected in the future with more planning. Second, people are generally friendly and therefore trusting that their public officials have their best interests in mind since they have the same broad end goal.

Since the 1960s, the people who flocked to the West Coast challenging the dominant culture have become part of the status quo and now serve as the region’s leaders. Since gaining power most of the questioning has stopped, leaving leaders with a serious case of group-think and residents who are complacent with their alleged victories. Portlanders should again reexamine the power structure, which would lead to more policy innovation, and allow them to hold true to their values.

What I believe residents of Portland really want and need are policies that protect the high quality of life they already enjoy. This high quality of life includes a reasonable cost of living compared to other West Coast cities, beautiful neighborhoods full of unique homes, and a clean environment in which to recreate. Unfortunately, the policies currently in place do not accomplish any of these basic goals if carried out. In fact, these policies will change the fundamental nature of the city, and the area that residents have grown to love will be no more.

The Urban Growth Boundary, stringent land use regulation, and subsidies to multi-family dwellings, as well as to mixed-use and transit-oriented developments, will continue to exponentially increase the cost of living in Portland―a trend that is already in the works. Centrally planned developments will be the norm, and housing will look more uniform across the region. Houses will be packed in tightly leaving little room for an urban canopy of trees, like what is currently available in popular neighborhoods like the Southwest Hills. Finally, people will be more removed from the clean environment they love living in when they are packed in tightly with their neighbors and traffic congestion worsens.

I think Portlanders’ fundamental values and objectives are noble, but there needs to be a revision of public policy and a return to the healthy skepticism of power to make sure the region continues to enjoy a high standard of living in the future. Decentralization of power from regional and local planners back to residents would be a radical reassertion of the independent spirit Portlanders celebrate and would allow the city to continue to be a leader in attracting people with openness to experience and the desire to question the dominant culture.

John Glennon is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute. A native of the Midwest, he is a senior at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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11 Responses to An Outsider’s Perspective on Portland Policy

  1. Eric Squires says:

    Good read! I’d invite to to follow the South Cooper Mountain planning process Beaverton and Angelo Planning are conducting. The UGB expansion and annexation forming the premise for this work are certainly interesting for planners to watch. I chair a CPO, or Citizen Participation Organization. GOAL 1 of Oregon Land Use is citizen participation. I’m mesmerized how apathy and NIMBY’s interact in CPO’s, you might be as well. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Kevin Cameron says:

    Thanks for the very deep thought and insight to our state and Portland. Your work is worthwhile and a appreciated.

  3. Hart Noecker says:

    As far as the assertion that the UGB prevents “economic freedom”, I totally disagree. Portland, like all cities, functions as a capital growth machine. City governments are in the business of real estate. Charlie Hales especially is a developers best friend, and he’s lobbied for many large construction projects that totally outsize surrounding homes, pissing off existing members of the community in the process.

    The text on cycling and seeing the city close up is a fairly universal experience. To me, bicycles are a way to maintain personal autonomy/individual liberty that cars rob from us. There is no more efficient, frugal mode of transport than the bike.

    I’m not really sure how Portland’s “planning process” takes away “freedom” any more or less than any other dense urban environment. We enjoy the ability to live with a multitude of transit options, that sure seems like consumer freedom to me. But you’re always going to have to be considerate in the ways we share space, that’s just a fact of city life. And who honestly wants a yard anyway when you can grow so much of your own food on your own property, like our grandparents did?

    As far as the assertion that Portland has become a city too complacent in regard to questioning authority, I totally agree. The city broadcasts an image of progressiveness while letting regressive capitalist business interests call the shots that should instead be up to the people of our communities.

    The assertion that growing density prohibits and expanding tree canopy simply isn’t based in fact. Both have been increasing for years thanks to groups like Friends of Trees. And to say increased density increases congestion is equally absurd. More density means less automobile use. Portland has seen car use decline while the urban population has increased.

    Again, I agree with the last paragraph, that decentralizing power is a good thing as long as it’s then transferred to the hands of the people, not corporations. That said, we need regional planning for things like public transit and sanitation, as do all municipalities.

    • Jared says:

      “And who honestly wants a yard anyway when you can grow so much of your own food on your own property, like our grandparents did?”

      If you have no yard, then how can you grow food on your own property?!?

  4. Johny Belgarde says:

    I agree. Portland Oregon has gone down the tubes. Sure we have bike trails and plenty of other amenities. Then we have 4 to 6 hundred dollar water bills every quarter.
    Crowded neighborhoods where children are forced to play in the street, no backyards.
    People no longer report personal property crime, why bother all you get is an overworked police officer who will make a report. Even if they do catch the criminal the courts just let them go with a hand slap if that.
    Exporting crime through the MAX is pretty common. Take a train to a nice location, burglarize and catch a train home.
    We have a Billion Dollar Hole in the Ground and soon one of our cities features the reservoirs will be gone. Also adding about 40% more to our water bills.
    Randy Leonard would have loved that, more money for non water related projects. Thankfully he is gone but his expensive legacy keeps my family from doing fun things like running through the sprinkler and watering my lawn. No backyard pool children the water bill just topped 600 dollars for a large family.
    We need administrators not law makers. Definitely a paradigm shift in what we demand of our elected officials.

  5. Don Crawford says:

    “The assertion that growing density prohibits and expanding tree canopy simply isn’t based in fact.” While it is true that we are planting more trees in Portland AND we are forcing an increase in density, those two things aren’t happening on the same property! Housing that meets the new density expectations has NO room for trees, or vegetable gardens either. Portlanders are adding trees and vegetable gardens on the older properties that do have yards. The high density apartments without yards are not what most people want. These urban growth policies do limit our freedom by forcing more high density housing, instead of allowing supply and demand to provide what we want. Freedom will, through pricing and supply and demand, balance development to just what people want.

  6. Todd says:

    You can already see the elimination of the loss of the urban canopy in Oregon City, where the planning department has elected to promote higher and higher housing densities. This means that all existing trees are clear-cut, so they can build cookie-cutter developments. The city is blind to the fact that people move here for the rual-urban character – more weight is given to the UGB, Metro, and other interests, than to the residents. The other issue that you may notice is that often times the high-density growth is done without any updating of the road infrastructure. A quick look around Portland will show the planning goal to make auto transport as inconvenient as possible to force people into other modes. You can see this in the lack of addressing the freeway congestion, to simple things like parking lots that only have one entrance and exit, and my favorite, the Portland ordinance that, rather than set a minimum number of parking spaces per business building, sets a MAXIMUM number – so most large businesses will be build without sufficient parking.

    • Neil Huff says:

      Some one in Portland govt should visit Holland and see how their densely packed cities manage to be both livable, attractive and easy to get around in. Also recommended is a visit to Perth Australia, which in my experience is the most livable, best planned and most beautiful city in the world. Large free parking areas at the fringes of the downtown area provide free shuttle bus services all over the downtown area. One may drive their own car and taxis are available, but most people park and use the shuttles. Some downtown streets are closed to all but foot traffic. People coming across the bay from Fremantle use the ferry service. Again, free parking adjacent to the ferry slips in Fremantle. All industry is located down the coast a few miles down wind from the city. King’s park and zoo is located in the city itself and easily reached on foot.

      If Portland is looking for solutions to its growth problems.. there are solutions and many countries have solved the same problems using methods literally alien to the USA.

  7. Bob Clark says:

    Metro and city of Portland central planning is ruining the City of Portland for me, a prisoner of the city for family reasons. Up until the last two decades, Portland was a easy town to get around in whether by foot, bike or car. This was because of the road grid system blanketing most of east and north Portland. You didn’t need bike lanes and traffic calming because there where numerous lightly traveled residential neighborhood streets to make your way across town. But now with traffic calming and high density packing them in, motorists have taken to having to routinely drive through residential neighborhoods and bypass the clogged main street thoroughfares such as South east Division, for instance.
    We want more space but Metro and the Urban growth boundary are preventing this. It is largely an unnecessary impediment as most of Oregon is very undeveloped or owned by government of one sort or another, which just sits on the land and even puts off limit to the public. If you unlocked the urban growth boundary, the Oregon economy which is basically in malaise compared to neighboring Washington state would get a good jolt of economic growth and prosperity.
    We could use a whole lot more liberty, and a lot less of Kitzhaber and the last two decades or so of Soviet style planning.

  8. Neil Huff says:

    What we actually need is a moratorium on all immigration while we still have a few livable cities and some open spaces and forests. Setting limits on urban expansion is a necessary first step if Portlanders really wish to keep their city the one that attracted them in the first place. Most people move to a small city from a larger more congested one in order to enjoy a place less confined crowded and polluted. But, almost at once these same people get caught up in activities and politics that encourage growth and sooner or later their nice little livable town is just another over grown metropolis like the one they escaped. The issue that is guaranteed to destroy all small cities in the US is the continuing flood of people from places that are already unlivable due to over- crowding like India, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mexico, the Philippines, etc. The late Professor Garrett Hardin understood this all too well.

  9. Sam Bjorklund says:

    “If you unlocked the urban growth boundary, the Oregon economy which is basically in malaise compared to neighboring Washington state would get a good jolt of economic growth and prosperity”.

    The ‘economic growth’ in WA only applies if you work for Amazon. If you like over-populated areas, traffic congestion, no where to ride your bike except on the sidewalk, car break-ins, blocks and blocks of ugly cookie cutter condos where homeless people sleep in the doorways, roads in severe disrepair and a public transit system that is laughable oh, and the 9.5% sales tax, c’mon up! This is not effective urban density planning- it’s a handful of corporations making a ton of money. God help you Portland.

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