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.