I have seen the future, and it worksat least for nowin Portland, Ore. I say this cautiously. Lincoln Steffens, that myopic muckraker, said the same thing about Soviet Russia in 1919, and that fact alone should be enough to prevent any journalist from tossing catchy phrases around too thoughtlessly. Nevertheless, I stand by my statement. Portland is a helluva town.
I am freshly returned from a trip to tomorrowland. Participating in an inter-city program sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, I discovered Portland to be a city with:
♦ water you can actually drink and air you’re unafraid to breathe
♦ a literacy rate of 85 percent, one of the highest in the country
♦ a public school system that is attended by 90 percent of the available students, a number of whom graduate with some of the country’s highest SAT scores
♦ a community-based policing system with a goal of solving neighborhood problemsand not just incarcerating felons
♦ 9,549 acres of public greenspace, soon to be expanded by 5,985 acres of parks and 41 miles of trails, made possible by the recent passage of a $135 million bond referendum (Nashville has about 9,000 acres of greenspace)
♦ a new convention center
♦ a new arena paid for primarily by the owner of the pro basketball team that calls it home
♦ a mass transit system combining buses and light rail that is used by 40 percent of the population
♦ 7,000 downtown housing units, with 15,000 more projected over the next 20 years
♦ a percentage-for-art program that has resulted in sculpture and other art forms on display throughout downtown
Lest this sound too much like Pollyanna-does-Portland, let me hasten to add two dissonant notes to this symphony of success: In all the postcards, Portland is depicted with Mount Hood as a picturesque backdrop; in my four-day visit, an incessant drizzle kept the snowy peak under wraps the whole time. And while Portland touts itself as the City of Roses, I never saw a bloom. All I saw were vast stretches of thorny stumps, waiting for spring and mired in the mud left over from the recent flooding of the Willamette River. On the other hand, within a two-block radius of my downtown hotel, I found five bagel-and-coffee shops doing business at 7:15 on a Sunday morning. A city like that has something goingnever mind the unblooming roses and the misted-over mountains.
I got this glimpse of what a city can become as I participated in the Chamber of Commerce’s exchange program. The purpose of these trips, which are being revived this year as an annual tradition, is to immerse Nashville’s “civic leaders”this year a group of 83 architects, bankers, contractors, developers, educators, executives, judges, lawyers, media types, politicians, Metro department heads and commission membersin the workings of a city comparable to their own hometown. Participants are furnished with a briefing book, the sort of tome that would overwhelm even the most relentless wonk, and they are subjected to a series of mind-stuffing presentations. The intention is to provide Nashville’s movers and shakers with tips they can take away to build a better city at home. The trip to Portland, for which each participant paid $1,450 for transportation, room and board, is in the tradition of previous junkets to Seattle, San Antonio, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Nashville Chamber decided to visit Portland because the two cities share a number of basic characteristics. The populations of the two are roughly comparable. Within their respective city limits, both Portland and Nashville have populations of approximately half a million, although almost 2 million people live in Portland’s metropolitan regionthat’s about twice the population of Metro. Both cities have diversified economies, and they have similar unemployment rates. Both share reputations as booming regional centers with forward-looking leaderships.
Neither Portland nor Nashville has a 19th- century history as a major urban center. This means that both cities are faced with the challenge of creating, rather than recreating, urbanity within the hostile context of a 20th- century car culture. In Portland it’s happening; in Nashville it’s not.
Rules to live by
In the early 1970s, a grassroots group called Friends of Oregon began advocating for far-sighted land use and transportation and urban design planning. Their concern was not to clean up the aesthetics of a Nolensville Road but to clean up the air contaminated by the cars traveling on it. They halted construction of the southwest link of a beltway surrounding Portland and, in the process, created a bipartisan crusade against suburban sprawl.
Portland’s civic leaders recognized the key factors necessary for weaning a city away from the single occupancy vehicle. They developed a complex planning system with the following aims:
♦ the development of mass transit, particularly a light rail system, that is easier to use than a car
♦ the implementation of zoning guidelines that encourage the density of development necessary to support mass transit
♦ the establishment of the first elected regional government in the United States; their Metro government covers three counties and is responsible for major planning issues, including land use, transportation and greenspace
♦ the establishment of an urban growth boundary for the Metro region, forcing new development to fill in the gaps within the boundary and prohibiting any new development beyond it
♦ the development of a pedestrian-oriented downtown with lots of living space as well as work space
♦ the drafting of zoning requirements that promote downtown development by reducing the number of parking spaces; if it’s hard to park, maybe you won’t drivemaybe you’ll take public transit
♦ the establishment of a mandatory design committee, made up of design professionals and concerned citizens appointed by the mayor, charged with the responsibility of reviewing all major developments.
Over the past 20 years, Portland has met these goals. It has demolished an expressway and replaced it with a riverfront park, it has experienced a 42 percent increase in population with no increase in area, and it has nurtured a downtown where it is harder to find a parking place during a weekend than on a workday. In the process, the city has gotten savvy about the planning process. One government agency or the other is constantly conducting a poll to determine what Portland’s citizens really want. Blue-ribbon committees are appointed to turn those desires into realities. Then the city spends big bucksthe sort of money usually spent on political campaignsto convince the public to agree to pay the taxes necessary to make the dream happen.
Clearly, Portland is going to need all the expertise it can get. The city is facing a projected population growth of 750,000 over the next 20 years. The city’s leaders are worried about how they will fit all these new bodies into the city and still maintain the livableness that is such a point of pride for Portlanders.
Portland’s leaders realize that the city will have to do in the suburbs what it has already done downtown. Hostility to increased density is already beginning to surface in the ’burbs. Some citizens who want clean air, lots of parks and a downtown in which they can walk and shop are also citizens who like their automobiles, their big yards and their ranchburgers. They are frustrated that their impulses are being called contradictory.
Nashville is experiencing frustrations related to many of the same issues: traffic and congestion, strip malls and bulldozed farmland. We have not yet collectively realized that the cure is not as simple as a truncated HOV lane and a NIMBY movement to block a Wal-Mart.
“Data will set you free,” Duncan Wye, executive director of the Oregon Business Council, told us in his presentation, “but first it will piss you off.” After visiting Portland, I’m wistful, but I’m pissed off too. I’m not holding my breath, thinking I’ll be able to sell my car anytime soon. Tomorrowland looks like never-neverland when I’m standing on Church Street.
Nashville pays lip service to the same goals that Portland has set for itself. We say we want a pedestrian-friendly center city, better downtown retail and more downtown residential space, good mass transit, more greenspace. But we have not shown much wisdom or willpower about achieving those goals.
Gerald Nicely, head of Nashville’s Metro Development and Housing Agency, may rightly claim that his department has been in the planning business for 40 years. What we have to show for it, however, are the soulless canyon of Deaderick Street and some big box projectsthe Convention Center, the Stouffer Hotel, Church Street Centrenone of which has yet brought about the advent of the elusive 24-hour city. Portland is busy for about 18 hours a day, and city planners are proud to say that they’ve made it happen without widening a downtown street in 20 years.
One member of the Portland planning team says, “You don’t make a pedestrian-oriented city by building a seven-lane arterial.” Nashville has a public works department that is planning just such a road right nowthe infamous Franklin Street corridorand the department seems to think pedestrians will flock there simply because the seven lanes have been flanked with some grass and trees.
The loyal opposition
Jonathan Nichols, who was another speaker on the inter-city visit schedule, writes a column on civic affairs for the daily Oregonian. As a typical journalist, he bucked the prevailing trend and described his adopted city in less than ecstatic terms. He pointed out that a section of the light rail corridor to the east has been stupidly set into a bed next to the interstate and is underutilized because it is difficult to reach. He said that River Place, a new development that combines apartments, restaurants and shops on the banks of the Willamette, has been only marginally successful, with retail churning in and out at a rapid rate. He noted that Portland’s attitude toward the rest of the world is best summarized by the slogan: “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”
Nevertheless, Nichols admitted that, when he emigrated from Wales, he made a personal survey of many American cities, including Nashville. He ended up choosing Portland.
He rejected Music City USA, he says, because, in Nashville, he saw only halfhearted efforts to make the central city work and because he sensed that our town was a place that didn’t know what it wanted to be. He picked Portland because it was planning a future in which “downtown was the city’s living room, not the city’s garage.”
On the night before our return to Nashville, I looked down from my window in the Portland Hilton. At 10 p.m. I saw people on the sidewalks belowa gray-haired man walking his daschund, a woman whose arms were weighted by shopping bags, a couple strolling arm in arm. Someday maybe the view from the Hermitage Hotel will be the same. We can only plan, and hope.
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