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Just Big Enough

Portland was a promising and livable city when I arrived in 1978. In 2011, it's an exciting and livable city.

It helps that it's bigger. When we got here, I offended people by telling them that I liked Portland because it was a large city.I offended people by telling them that I liked Portland because it was a large city. "No!" they said, "No! We're not a big city. We're just a large town." I was surprised. What I thought was a compliment was taken as an insult — as if I were saying that Portland was Los Angeles.

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and I'm sticking to it.

Size brings critical mass for businesses and activities. Portland has a vibrant — if constantly shifting — restaurant scene because the pool of diner-outers is large enough to support them. The same goes for music, theater, film festivals, bookstores, and other cultural institutions. It goes for themed charter schools, model railroad buffs, fans of 1950s architecture, and every other activity that requires customers or participants. Sports entrepreneurs know what they're talking about when they rank metropolitan areas as markets to measure their suitability for an NBA or MLS franchise.

Size also lets business sectors develop an abundance of skilled and knowledgeable workers. If the city is large enough to support a wide array of good brewpubs, it automatically has a skilled pool of brewmasters to further advance the art and craft. A flourishing electronics industry depends on the availability of computer engineers who can move from one company to another. Metal fabricators, animators, sound technicians — a large city has pools of talented people who can staff and support new ventures.

How big is big enough? As far as I'm concerned, a metropolitan area of a million people just barely makes the cut (that's Portland in the 1970s). Two million is a whole lot better (that's Portland today).

Here are some off the cuff comparisons: Spokane, Boise, and Fresno aren't big enough. They're more likely to have one or two of something than a wide variety. Salt Lake City has just edged into OK-ness in the current century, but Seattle passed the two-million mark back in the 1970s and Denver did it around 1990.

More than anything else, size brings variety of people. Cities are huge machines for making connections. You can call a city a market, a switchboard, or a search engine. Whatever the metaphor, we have cities because they make it easy for us to exchange things and ideas, and they build new things and ideas as a resultwe have cities because they make it easy for us to exchange things and ideas, and they build new things and ideas as a result. Big is good because of simple mathematics — more people with ideas mean more possible combinations and permutations of those ideas.

More than a century and a half ago, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill had it down. In Principles of Political Economy (1848) he wrote:

It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been... one of the primary sources of progress.

J. S. Mill was a very smart guy, and as far as I'm concerned, he nailed it. We go to the country to relax. We come to the city to get ideas.

÷ ÷ ÷

Carl Abbott is Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He is the author of How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America as well as several books about Portland history, including his latest, Portland in Three Centuries.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Portland in Three Centuries: The...
    Used Trade Paper $15.50
  2. Principles of Political Economy... New Trade Paper $21.99

Carl Abbott is the author of Portland in Three Centuries: The Place and the People

5 Responses to "Just Big Enough"

    Charles Heying October 3rd, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Carl,

    It's true that cities are places to make connections, but some cities do it better than others. Perhaps because of its relative lack of diversity (to pose an alternative to Mills) Portland seems to do it better. Or do we do it better because strong public institutions and a vibrant culture of engagement open a space for better communications. Perhaps I will find some answers in your book.

    David Martin October 6th, 2011 at 9:38 am

    During my short residence in Portland a decade ago, I got the impression that the city was highly networked, very much like an enormous town.

    I don't currently live in a city, but in a town split between wealthy retirees and a low-wage agricultural and service economy. Its as if Monterey and Watsonville in California were the same town. There are networks, but apart maybe from the Catholic Church, there doesn't seem to be much crossing of economic and social boundaries.

    Tanya March October 9th, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Carl,

    I was reading Brew to Bikes: Portland's Artisan Economy this week so I was charmed to see Charles had posted on your guest blog. I was thinking the connectivity in Portland is less about the lack of diversity and more an attribute of the city's culture of casual dress. Portland has no dress code. In Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America the author attributes that pools are a class equalizer because everyone wears basically the same swimsuit. Looking forward to your latest book.

    Kurt October 12th, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Perhaps modesty disinclines you to mention another major factor in the Portland effect; the growth and maturation of PSU. When you think of small or medium sized cities with high livability or desirability ratings one key is the presence of a good sized public university. Think Austin, Berkeley, Madison, etc. Even Boston would be just another port town without it's colleges and Portland State has gotten big enough to make a real impact in terms of bringing youth and energy to the central city.

    Jim Whittier November 29th, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Hi Carl,

    I am a native of Portland, though I left before I was three when my family moved to Spokane, where I grew up.

    I was wondering whether, in your research on Portland, you ran into any information on my third-great grandfather, Joab Powell. He was born in Kentucky or Tennesee in 1799 and became a gentleman farmer in Missouri. Sometime in the mid-1800's, he, his wife, and his 12 children travelled to Oregon, where they settled. Although he was a descendant of a Welsh Quaker named John Ap'Howell, who entered America through Boston, he himself became an American Baptist preacher. In Oregon, he established the Providence Church in the Albany-Lebanon-Scio area. The church still exists, along with its graveyard, although it has since been taken over by another denomination. He lived until about the age of 72 or 73.

    It was in Portland that my parents met. My father had completed service in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930's, and my mother had moved from Eastern Oregon to Portland and completed a year of beauty school; and they both lived in the same boarding house.

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