Travel November 1992

How Portland Does It

A city that protects its thriving, civil core

On two visits this year I walked, rode, and interviewed people all over Portland, Oregon, trying to figure out how this courteous, well-kept city of 453,000, and especially its downtown, has become a paragon of healthy urban development at a time when most American cities find themselves mired in seemingly intractable problems.

Portland, sixty miles from the Pacific Ocean, is by no means immune to the suburbanization that has sapped the vitality from many cities. Its suburbs now contain about two thirds of the area's 1.4 million residents and about half of the area's jobs. Yet as the suburbs have grown, the downtown has become more attractive and popular than ever.

Downtown Portland has distinct edges. Its eastern border is the deep, navigable Willamette River, lined for more than a mile by Tom McCall Waterfront Park, a grassy, mostly level expanse suited to events that draw thousands, such as the Rose Festival (Portland calls itself the "City of Roses"), a blues festival, and a summer symphony series. Its western border is the steep West Hills, which contain Washington Park, home of the International Rose Test Gardens, where more than 400 varieties of roses are cultivated, and Forest Park, whose 4,800 acres of Douglas fir, alder, and maple constitute one of the largest nature preserves and hiking areas in any American city.

People driving through the West Hills toward downtown used to come out of a tunnel on the Sunset Highway—a major commuter route from the western suburbs—and suddenly see the snowy peak of Mount Hood, fifty miles to the east. In 1984 a Canadian developer blocked the view with a new thirty-story downtown office building. That kind of act is anathema to Portlanders. "Portland has an outward orientation, unlike cities back east," says Ethan Seltzer, the director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, at Portland State University. "Having a downtown skyline is less important than being able to see Mount Hood, the flat-topped remains of Mount Saint Helens, fifty miles to the north, and the hills to the west." The office tower's imposition prompted the city to strengthen municipal regulations that protect "view corridors" through the downtown. Such regulations have become increasingly comprehensive since 1972, when the city first required that buildings step down as they approach the Willamette. "We want a sense of scale and proportion, and we don't want the waterfront walled in by a row of tall buildings," says Robert Stacey, Portland's planning director.

It is characteristic of Portland that the centerpiece of downtown is not a building but, rather, an outdoor gathering place: Pioneer Courthouse Square, a one-block plaza in the center of the shopping district, seven blocks from the river. The square, designed by the late Willard K. Martin in an architectural competition in 1980, is much loved. Its center is carved out like an amphitheater, with terraces of brick seating that make it a favorite site for rallies, music, and other outdoor events.

My walks around Portland took me past Pioneer Courthouse Square beginning at eight in the morning and as late as ten at night. Each time I went by, I saw activity. At the end of a mild afternoon in February a group of gays and lesbians massed in one corner, celebrating their successful defense of a Portland ordinance protecting homosexuals from discrimination in housing and employment, TV cameras capturing the cheers and speeches for the evening news. (Even if Portland has been liberal to gays, this month the Oregon electorate will vote on a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that would be the country's most repressive to gay rights and would in effect legalize discrimination.) On a sunny Sunday in May a rock musician named Silicone Jones played to an audience mainly in their teens and twenties—a counterpart to the summer lunchtime concerts that entertain brown-bagging downtown workers every Tuesday and Thursday. I always saw scatterings of couples and small groups carrying on conversations that seemed elevated by taking place in the heart of the city, amid old buildings of gleaming white-glazed terracotta.

Through the large windows of a cafe on the plaza's top level, customers sipping robust Starbucks coffee can keep an eye on what's happening outside. Beneath the cafe is that rarest of American urban necessities—clean and safe public bathrooms, next to the glassy lobby of a public-transit-system information office. Half submerged in another corner of the square is a travel bookstore run by the local Powell's chain, whose flagship store is elsewhere in downtown Portland. On a Sunday morning I watched an employee of Powell's cross the plaza with a young retarded man in a wheelchair to make sure that he could get into the men's room. Portlanders tend to have an almost small-town sense of responsibility for what goes on around them. That attitude, almost as much as the design, ensures that the square—potentially vulnerable, like public spaces everywhere—remains civilized.

BEFORE visiting Portland, I had heard that the square is paved with 65,000 bricks imprinted with the names of people who each gave $15 to $30 to help build it, on the site of a demolished parking garage. What surprised me, in exploring Portland, is how much of the rest of the downtown is paved in brick. Brick sidewalks in hues from orange to maroon continue for block after block. At intersections the brickwork extends into and across the streets, as if to admonish motorists, "Drive carefully—this city cares about pedestrians." Portland may have the most richly surfaced downtown in the United States.

Up from grates in the sidewalks grow hundreds of trees, mature enough that when the sun is low on the horizon, their leaves cast shade on the second and third stories of the buildings. The trees soften the downtovvn. Another softening influence is water, flowing constantly. Brass drinking fountains are all over the downtown, each with a quartet of spigots that gurgle day and night. (During last summer's drought most of the fountains were shut off.) The fountains, donated early in the century by Simon Benson, a local philanthropist, reflect Portland's considerate attitude toward the public's needs.

The downtown is amply supplied with parks. In 1852, seven years after founders from New England named the city in honor of Portland, Maine, land was set aside for the "North Park Blocks" and the "South Park Blocks"—two linear parks, cut by cross streets, that run a total of seventeen blocks. Many of the city's cultural institutions line the South Park Blocks. The North Park Blocks are being refurbished to encourage the conversion of nearby old warehouses into loft apartments—one element in Portland's strategy for increasing the number of downtown residents, currently about 9,500.

During urban renewal in the 1960s, Portland added more downtown parks, two of them including dramatic waterfalls designed by the firm of the San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The most ambitious development, initiated by Governor Tom McCall in the early 1970s, required the removal of a riverfront expressway, and the result was the park bearing his name. Removing the highway reconnected the downtown to the Willamette, gave people a strong incentive to go downtown on weekends, and stimulated downtown housing and commercial development.

In twenty years the number of people working downtown has grown from 59,000 to 94,000. The amount of office space has increased from 5.3 million to 14 million square feet. More than half a million square feet of retail space has been built, including Pioneer Place, an elegant glass-roofed, four-level shopping center developed two years ago by the Rouse Company. Stores such as Nordstrom's and Saks Fifth Avenue have opened in the downtown, which has acquired a reputation as the region's center for high-fashion retailing. In all, 1,100 stores, mostly small, operate downtown—a much greater number than in other cities of Portland's size.

Portland has been able to devote its energy to burnishing its downtown and its civic design partly because the city has not been overburdened by poverty and racial division and their accompanying problems. Although high unemployment and gang violence afflict some parts of the city, particularly neighborhoods in the run-down Albina district, on the city's north side, Portland as a whole is safer and economically better off than many cities.

Middle-class neighborhoods have remained intact both on the flat land east of the Willamette, where most of the city's residents live, and in the West Hills, which have been home since the 1920s to much of Portland's social and economic leadership. "The movers and shakers can go out on their verandas and look downtown," says Carl Abbott, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. "It's easy to enlist those people on behalf of good downtown planning, because they see they can benefit from it."

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