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A Tale of Two Cities: Portland and Seattle

Even though I spent months poring over Bruce Forster's evocative photographs of Portland as we put together our new book Above Portland, I continue to open the book and be surprised by what I find. Yesterday I spoke with an old friend who lives in Seattle, a city I know well (having been born and raised in Bellingham and having spent three years in Aberdeen). The conversation, coming on the heels of the publication of Above Portland, got me thinking about our two not-quite sister cities and, more broadly, the question, What are the things have made Portland such a great subject for the aerial photographer?What are the things have made Portland such a great subject for the aerial photographer?

Cities, like people, have personalities. Consider the adjectives used to describe various American cities: ambitious, brash, muscular, bold, tired, sinful, wild, boring, and dead.

Now, if you were to compare Seattle with a presidential personality, you might look to Teddy Roosevelt — energetic, bold, and driven. To know how Portland would react to any given situation, some wiseass once observed, it was only necessary to know how Calvin Coolidge would react. I wouldn't go quite that far, but I will aver that Portland shares some of our first president's qualities — independence, intentionality, and vision.

As a native Washingtonian and a long-time Oregonian, I want to reflect a bit on the respective and contrasting personalities of Seattle and Portland because they influence the way our two cities think and act.

Power in Portland still resides in social and family ties, far more so, I believe, than in Seattle. Fred Paulsell, a former Seattlite and Portlander who has since, alas, passed away, once explained that business development in Portland is personal, while in Seattle it's strictly business. As always, however, we know that the truth lies somewhere in between.

People move to Portland because they want to move in and belong. It takes some time for an outsider to get accepted here. People move to Seattle to change things. (Don't they?) As former Seattle deputy Mayor Ed Devine once said, "if you're not at least deputy mayor six months after arriving here, you might as well move away." Perfect!

Portland, as my PSU colleague Carl Abbott oft observes, is an intentional city; Seattle has been built a little more hurly burly, more organically. Portland, once it reinvented itself in the 1970s, seemed to know what kind of city it wanted to be. Seattle seems constantly in the act of inventing itself; a good sign for a city, I believe.

Fear is an element in the Portland personality — fear of growing too big, too fast; fear of too much traffic, too many people, and too much growth. Seattle seems to rush in where angels fear to tread — with haste and hustle and lots of hurrahs.

While Portland lacks the many commercial districts of Seattle, it makes up for them in terms of cohesive neighborhoods and a tightly confined downtown.While Portland lacks the many commercial districts of Seattle, it makes up for them in terms of cohesive neighborhoods and a tightly confined downtown. Such cohesion supports a 24-hour downtown; a great "Olmstedian" park system — which Seattle shares, by the way; a fine transit district — which Seattle may also someday have; and a true regional government.

Portland's regional government is just that, a government with some regulatory powers over land use and urban design and services. The Seattle region's efforts are more those of a council of governments than of a single, unified agency.

Finally, it has long seemed to me that, while Portland has been trying to lay down plans for everything from transit and infrastructure to urban design and neighborhoods over the past 40 years, Seattle has been trying to undue years of sporadic and post facto planning. Seattle, according to a local journalist I once spoke with, looks back at what it has done wrong while Portland looks back on what it did right. (I don't entirely agree with such an assessment. I think that the work that the UW School of Architecture has done with its charrettes projects has been a model for urban design practice.)

So what have these personality traits led Portland to do? What have we done to foster downtown livability, a regional government, and such dynamic developments as the Pearl District and other active — some call them "complete" — neighborhoods?

The city got off to a good start by platting itself into 200' x 200' square blocks that have imposed limits on building size while encouraging compactness and diversity at the street level, qualities that are great contributors to Portland's urban design.

Until the 1970s, some might remember, Portland gauged its growth and success in comparison to Seattle's. But, over the past 40 years, Portland began to resist the temptation to compete and has gone its own way. In what ways?

  • Citizen involvement: by engaging citizens through their neighborhoods and through publicly organized planning efforts, the city marshaled local energy, enthusiasm, and encouragement — critical for broad political support for public projects — that have both initiated and sustained the efforts undertaken by the city's leadership.
  • Portland was fortunate that the State of Oregon created a pacesetting land-use planning system in the 1970s whose principle was to maintain the vitality of urban centers and to keep cities from sprawling out onto agricultural and timber lands.
  • The 1970s in Portland saw the establishment of an urban growth boundary and a regional government. Citizens gave Metro its own taxing authority and the responsibility to manage the growth boundary, regional parks, a convention center, solid waste, and other regional matters. The key to Metro is that it is a true regional government, with the legislative and administrative teeth to carry out its public charge.
  • In 1972, Portland initiated an ambitious and focused Downtown Plan that has resulted in:
    1. Investment of nearly one billion public dollars, leveraging nearly $3 billion in private investments in downtown;
    2. Downtown employment growing by 40,000 and assessed property values increasing by over 300 percent;
    3. A downtown retail district that has increased its penetration of the regional market from 7 to 30 percent;
    4. A new Waterfront Park and Pioneer Courthouse Square;
    5. A light-rail system that, contrary to the critics' dire predictions, is working;
    6. A set of intentional design guidelines that have guided building heights and street-level amenities; preserved historic structures; supported mixed-income housing, and encouraged a gregarious, intensely social architecture and form of city planning — all of which have been applied to the development of the Pearl District, South Waterfront, and other neighborhoods.

What accounts for these accomplishments over the past four decades?

First, a broad consensus was achieved among oftimes warring camps — developers, social activists, neighborhoods, small businesses — that the public's agenda comes firstthe public's agenda comes first. The last 30 years have seen a remarkable burst of public life.

Second, great effort has been put into entertaining as many viewpoints and ideas as possible, tedious as that process can sometimes be.

Third, the spirit of inclusiveness has pervaded nearly every step taken by government and the private sector. That has meant a plethora of public commissions, countless committees, endless task forces, and an awful lot of advisory groups. It's been sometimes messy, but the results are manifest. When local or regional governments fail in their inclusivity, they pay the price in terms of loss of support, citizen anger, and sometimes recall.

Fourth, Portland has been fortunate in having clean politics. Kickbacks and sweetheart deals are rare. "Intelligence," a leading figure has observed, "is sometimes at issue, but not integrity."

Fifth, Portland has been fortunate in having political leaders who, by and large, have supported the basic principles of the 1972 Downtown Plan — a vibrant downtown, public transit, affordable housing, and neighborliness.

Sixth, Portland's downtown development has been aided and abetted by Oregon's land-use system, including the principles of an urban growth boundary and clear planning goals.

Seventh, while the city's goals and guidelines have stymied some developers, others — many of whom are long-time Portlanders (Homer Williams, Bob Gerding, Mark Edlen, John Carroll, to name a few) — have used these guidelines to create entire new neighborhoods downtown.

And, eighth, through the Portland Development Commission, the city has been a dynamic collaborator with private developers in building Portland.

Portland has built an exceptional civic infrastructure over the last 40 years, but as the city and its region confront the ambiguities of the 21st century, the test will be whether the collective vision of that public agenda can hold steadythe test will be whether the collective vision of that public agenda can hold steady with a diversifying population, the competing interests of local municipalities, and the growing divisiveness of interest-group politics.

At the turn of the century, Portland's booster message was simple. Portland just wanted to be big, the "Queen City" of the Pacific coast. Today, a quest for bigness is not a sufficient booster message. Attention has turned to being better, to thinking and acting regionally and sustainably.

Improving the quality of a region automatically brings into focus questions of cost, collective responsibility, and political will. Our experience is that regional planning is fundamentally a community-building task. Furthermore, if people aren't empowered locally, if they don't feel effective in arenas close to home, they won't be able to relate to a regional plan.

Consequently, an ongoing effort needs to be made to build both strong local communities and collective recognition of a shared metropolitan future. One without the other won't ring true and won't go far.

In Portland, as in Seattle, we live in a landscape with oceans, deserts, wilderness, and incredible fresh food all within a single day's drive. We can drink the water from the tap and still see the mountains on the horizon. If Portland can continue to make and remake itself as the best place it can be, then the strength of our collective ideas and action will continue to be of interest to the nation. No one will visit this region simply to see a better version of some other place.

Often the Portland experience is described as an experiment. It's not. This region did not set out to become a national model. Instead, it sought to serve the values that have consistently characterized this community: a real desire to make up our own minds and solve our own problems, and significant concern for the environment. (Back to George Washington!) How well we succeed in the future will depend on how well we continue to serve those values.

All this may not be immediately apparent in the pages of Above Portland. But, to those of us who understand all this, appearances speak volumes about who we are, where we've come from, and where we're going.

÷ ÷ ÷

Chet Orloff served as the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society from 1991 to 2001 and now teaches at Portland State University and the University of Oregon.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Above Portland Used Hardcover $8.95

Chet Orloff is the author of Above Portland

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