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What Can Be Learned from Portland’s Smart Growth Experience?

The annual “New Partners for Smart Growth” conference opens in Portland on Thursday, February 11. “Smart Growth” refers to an amorphous planning theory favoring (or requiring) high urban densities, mixed-use development, and non-auto travel.

Given Portland’s status as the Mecca for this philosophy, it’s likely that the conference will be a love fest of planners, activists, and consultants celebrating the “Portland story.” Unfortunately, the reality of Smart Growth is a lot less glamorous than the PowerPoint slides.

For example, Portland has been a leader in light rail construction for over 30 years, but it hasn’t changed how people travel. According to the Portland City Auditor, in 1997 – when Portland had only one light rail line terminating in Gresham – 12% of Portland commuters took transit.

In 2015, transit use was still only 12% of commuter travel, despite (or because of) a multi-billion rail construction campaign that added a streetcar loop, a new commuter rail line, and five new light rail lines. During that era bus service was reduced by 14%, and buses still account for two-thirds of daily riders.

On the land-use front, planners have succeeded in their goal of densifying the region; but there was collateral damage. Due to density regulations, buildable land is now scarce, driving up the cost of housing. This is incentivizing many property owners to tear down nice homes and replace them with out-of-scale apartment buildings – many with no off-street parking. Some Portland Progressives who supported this planning agenda now wonder why their formerly pleasant neighborhoods are flooded with automobiles.

In the suburbs, most new projects simply have no backyards. It’s hard to remember now, but in 1995, the average lot size for a new home in Washington County was 15,000 square feet. This provided plenty of room for kids.

Those days are over. In the new “South Hillsboro” development, which will be built out over the next decade, most dwellings will be attached units on tiny lots. The larger parcels – averaging only 7,000 square feet – are being marketed as lots for “executive housing.”

Nice backyards that were once common are now only available to the rich, due to the artificial scarcity of land that Smart Growth calls for.

The Portland conference will feature trips to “transit-oriented developments” (TODs) like Orenco Station in Hillsboro. Orenco features a housing project with passive solar design along with urban-scale density near light rail, but both elements required large public subsidies. It would be difficult to replicate those projects elsewhere.

Perhaps the most disappointing fact about regional planning in Portland is that very little effort is being made to learn from the experience. Since 2008, at least four audit reports by the Metro Auditor have criticized agency planners for this failure.

In the 2010 report, the Auditor found that “Metro’s processes to plan transportation projects in the region were linear when they should have been circular. After a plan was adopted, the update process began anew with little or no reflection about the effectiveness of the previous plan or the results of the performance measures they contained.”

It’s clear that this was not an accident; it was by design. As the Auditor noted, “systems to collect data and measure progress towards these outcomes were not in place.”

No measurement means no accountability. That’s not a smart way to plan a region.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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