Building the City, Structuring Change: Portland's Implicit Utopian Project

By Hovey, Bradshaw | Utopian Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Building the City, Structuring Change: Portland's Implicit Utopian Project


Hovey, Bradshaw, Utopian Studies


Among American Urban Planners, Portland, Oregon, is increasingly celebrated as a kind of planning utopia. Within the planning profession, and beyond, Portland is seen as a practical demonstration of how good planning, effective citizen participation, and regional growth management can produce what is commonly referred to as a good "quality of life." As one journalist wrote recently, "every week of the year, somebody arrives in Portland from far away, wanting to know the secrets of big-city livability" (Ehrenhalt 20). Indeed, Portland is widely recognized as a leader in downtown redevelopment, neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation, urban design control, mass transit development, and regional growth management Oliver). Elected officials, planners and urban managers flock from around the country, look at Portland, and wonder "why can't we do that?"

The answer is that there is no necessary reason why not. In the middle 1960s Portland was a stodgy town in a beautiful landscape, and more or less as vulnerable to the problems of urban decline and suburban growth as any other place in America (Peirce). What they have achieved, and what they are recognized for today, is the product of no less than 30 years of cumulative work toward a widely-shared and continuously discussed vision of what life in Portland could and should be. Few there call it "utopian," but it is.

In pursuing this vision, they have directly challenged most of the central assumptions about the structural constraints to achieving more livable cities: that downtowns must recede in prominence in favor of "Edge Cities," the highway-oriented agglomerations of suburban office, retail and residential space usurping the functions of historical downtowns (Garreau); that central city neighborhoods will decay, be annihilated intentionally, and then redeveloped in what is described as a natural process of evolution; and that the regime of automobile, highway, and low-density suburban development is irreversible, either because of technology, theologized "market forces," or because of the efforts of metropolitan "growth machines" (Logan and Molotch; Gottdiener).

My suggestion here is that Portland has effectively opposed these structural constraints, and achieved a more attractive urban way of life, through a long series of "structuring" events and projects. In the first instance these efforts directly challenged the structural status quo. But having succeeded in their original challenge, they have created in the second instance, a new structural context for action which makes a different and more desirable set of outcomes more likely than before. Not only do they "play the game," but they also re-write the rules.

Moreover, it is not merely material acts in the urban landscape which propel this process (restoring a neighborhood, building light rail transit, or removing a waterfront highway, which they have done), nor the organizational achievements that accompany them (structures of citizen participation, land use control agencies, which they have created). It is also the story that citizens of Portland tell about themselves and their achievements which at one stage can envision and propose the challenge to structural constraints, but at another stage enforce new social structures that allow them to further pursue a more attractive way of urban life (Seltzer).

In its most distilled form, Portland's story about itself is that the quality of urban spaces and places is of great importance to their community; that a combination of strong public leadership, informed planning practice and robust democratic life is necessary to achieve it; and that Portland is somehow different and better than other cities in that they have been able to overcome many of the major negative trends in urban development that others have suffered. It is important to keep in mind that Portland's story about itself -- or any community's story about itself -- is more than a concatenation of events, outcomes, and key players. …

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