Portland's Green Peace: At Play in the Fields of Urban Planning

By Walljasper, Jay | The Nation, October 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Portland's Green Peace: At Play in the Fields of Urban Planning


Walljasper, Jay, The Nation


Oregon has long attracted visitors seeking spectacular natural beauty--mountain peaks rising above the clouds, green cathedrals of spruce and fir, a wild seacoast dotted with rugged cliffs. But in recent years Oregon has also become known for its urban scenery. Town planners, city officials, environmentalists and neighborhood activists from all over the country are drawn to Portland to see sights like these:

[sections] Tom McCall Park, a pleasant patch of green downtown--where kids splash in a fountain and couples walk hand in hand along the Willamette River--that was once the site of a freeway;

[sections] downtown Portland itself, written off for dead thirty years ago, which now features block after block of lively storefronts, coffeehouses, restaurants, parks, rehabbed warehouses and office towers, plus a Chinatown and Powell's, the largest bookstore in America. The number of jobs downtown has doubled since 1971 with no net increase in parking spots, thanks to a popular light-rail line and efficient bus service;

[sections] Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which boasts new housing, stores and jobs along with dropping crime rates in the center of what has long been Portland's African-American ghetto;

[sections] West Union Road, a two-lane blacktop thirteen miles from downtown. On one side stand clusters of houses and apartment buildings, with swingsets and grills. Across the road lie rolling pastures and leafy orchards with only an occasional farmhouse. West Union Road marks Portland's Urban Growth Boundary, a line beyond which suburban development cannot sprawl;

[sections] downtown Gresham, which sits just a few blocks from one end of the East Side light-rail line in this largely blue-collar suburb. The sidewalks now bustle with folks stopping at the new shops, new health club, new brew pub, new townhouses and a farmers' market. When another light-rail line opens on the West Side next year, Yonmental issues in t passengers will be able to step out into several newly constructed downtowns. Beaverton, once a standard-issue sixties suburb, will host a town center with substantial housing, shopping and services around the train station. "You will no longer be able to say there's no there there," boasts Beaverton Mayor Rob Drake.

Portland attracts this interest from around the country because instead of accepting ever-escalating levels of traffic, air pollution, sprawl and inner-city decay, it offers a different version of what American cities could look like in the twenty-first century. Most other growing metropolitan regions, from Orlando to Minneapolis-St. Paul to Las Vegas, still follow in the tire tracks of Los Angeles, the classic twentieth-century city founded upon an unwavering commitment to freeways and new subdivisions. Since the sixties, however, Oregonians have looked south with horror. They didn't want to see their beloved forests, farms and foothills plowed under by spreading suburbs. Yet it was clear that Portland, with its scenic setting and mild temperatures, was going to grow. So discussion began about how urban growth could be managed to prevent the environmental and social problems afflicting other regions.

The city took a first step toward a new kind of urban development in 1975 when Mayor Neil Goldschmidt (later Secretary of Transportation in the Carter Administration), responding to intense pressure from community groups in working-class Southeast Portland, canceled plans for the Mount Hood freeway, which would have ripped apart several neighborhoods to accommodate suburban commuters. The East Side light-rail line was later built to replace the freeway.

The cause of growth management won another major victory the next year when environmentalists teamed up with maverick Republican Governor Tom McCall to enact an ambitious statewide program of land-use planning that required all cities, including Portland, to establish an Urban Growth Boundary.

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