The People in Your Neighborhood

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Americans spend a lot of time in their cars. We drive to work, to school, to do our shopping, to visit our friends -adding up to an average of 1305 trips a year in personal vehicles. These long trips are emotionally exhausting as well as economically draining: suburban residents spend 24 percent and urban residents 16 percent of annual income on transportation.

The city of Portland, Oregon, is hoping to change this situation by making commuting cheap and pleasant through the creation of "20-minute neighborhoods." A 20-minute neighborhood is one in which residents can walk or bike to places and services people visit on a daily basis: transit, shopping, quality food, school, parks, and entertainment. In the jargon of real estate development, these neighborhoods are "mixed use" because they provide diverse activities--living, shopping, working--in close proximity to one another. This contrasts with our conventional notion of the American cityscape, where large residential communities are connected via highways to large shopping centers, which in turn stand miles from large office parks.

The 20-minute neighborhood plan is a part of Portland's long-term strategy to manage the challenges that face many urban environments across the country, including rising energy costs, population growth, roadway congestion, and demand for expensive public transit to connect more and more distant suburbs. In this interview, Portland Mayor Sam Adams speaks with The Atlantic about the benefits of 20-minute neighborhood and how his city is making this vision a reality.

What are the benefits of 20-minute neighborhoods?

Well, for the individual, the benefit is that you live in a neighborhood where what you need and what you want is within a mile, within 20 minutes, walkable, bikable. You get your needs met and also have a sense of community and camaraderie with the folks that you share the neighborhood with. It will improve Portlanders' sense of belonging.

How do 20-minute neighborhoods create more camaraderie than drivable neighborhoods?

Well, if you're going to the same place repeatedly, you're more likely to meet people. If you see the same people, you're going to feel more comfortable introducing yourself and striking up a conversation. And when you look at ratings on "sense of satisfaction," it's that sense of belonging, of being noticed, of hearing what the latest news is. I don't know if you have a favorite coffee shop or restaurant where, even if they do not know you by name, it's clear they like to have you back. It's that sense of belonging, that informal exchange. Your neighborhood becomes an extended family.

So people tend to visit the same places over and over again when everything is nearby.

Exactly. If you're going to the same neighborhood grocery store, you're going to get to know the people at that grocery store. You have a connection because you live there, and they work there, and hopefully, a good percentage of them will also live there You've got something in common, more than if you drive across town to the big box stores in the suburbs, where you're overwhelmed with people from all over the region. And when you go to the neighborhood store, you might ask, "Hey, can you carry this?" There is a positive cycle. Each grocery store, let's say, will begin to reflect the needs of the surrounding neighborhood because of a sort of mutual dependency. They're going to be very reliant on neighborhood business.

For the city, the benefits are multiple. We'll more readily meet our climate change goals because there will be less driving. On the individual side, households save energy costs and fuel. And, people who are walking and biking are going to be more fit. People healthier and insurance premiums go down. There's less pollution. CEOs for Cities did a study and we already drive 20% less than comparably sized cities. We don't have car companies here, we don't have oil wells here, we don't have car insurance companies here, so every dollar we don't spend on something we don't produce here is a dollar that stays in the economy. For us, based on 2005 figures, that's about $800 million that stays in Portlanders' pockets

And when people slow down, they call in more complaints. And that's a good thing. If a sign's got graffiti on it, they notice it. If a streetlight is out, they're more likely to call it in than if they're whizzing by at 25 to 40 miles per hour. So it actually improves governance. It improves the city, because I want people to call stuff in.

How does the city go about converting "regular" neighborhoods into 20-minute neighborhoods? I know Portland has a number of these neighborhoods already, but the project is not complete yet.

Right. About 11% of our city is what we would characterize as 20-minute complete neighborhoods. That is sort of the platinum standard. One key factor is walk quality. Some of our neighborhoods lack sidewalks. You might have an inexpensive grocery store that really meets the specific and unique needs of an area of town, but if you don't have sidewalks to get there, you can't very well call it walkable. The other key piece here is getting clear what the market is. What do people want?

How do you determine that?

We're doing market surveys to figure out what the economic profile is of a potential 20-minute neighborhood. We want to not only meet people's basic needs but also find out where they'll go for play and recreation and entertainment. This kind of research is a relatively new area for government. We're used to being "sticks and bricks." What we are trying to do now is figure out information. Where do you want a neighborhood park? How many school-aged kids within a proposed boundary are going to the local public school? A local business does not have the resources to go out and do a market analysis of the mile that surrounds it. But we can do that for 30 businesses on a main street.

What are the biggest challenges for converting to 20-minute neighborhoods?

Well, the challenge of money is long lasting and universal. After that, it's lack of insight, lack of research. I hate to say it, I'm a nerd--but it's data. Not data in and of itself, but insight. The notion of what can we do better with the resources that we have, is really, really key. In a lot of cases, it's the matchmaking of needs and wants that comes with analysis and insight. And that's not free, but it doesn't cost the kind of money it costs to expand arterial streets and freeways and other things.

I think the other big challenge, on the federal level especially, has been the lack of valuation of the trip not taken. The 20-minute complete neighborhood concept puts a very high value on the trip not taken, the mile not driven. It's changing now, because this administration gets it. But the biggest challenge has been getting federal funding for investments that prevent trips.

Are you in touch with mayors of other cities who may be undertaking similar initiatives?

Yes. Everywhere I go, I always look at what they're doing and I try to shamelessly steal, whether it's the food desert analysis in Chicago--

And what's that?

The Chicago city government, under Mayor Daley, has asked where in the city of Chicago is food, basic food, just not available? I've found that inspiring. In New York City, Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has taken the "no excuses approach": yes, we've got this big, massive city, but we can transform our streetscapes into something more humane, no matter how busy they are. Auto access is very important, but you need to have places to pause, and a small plaza or small median island with sand on it is better than nothing.

Do you yourself live in a 20-minute neighborhood in Portland?

I am very lucky. I live in a 20-minute neighborhood in Kenton. I live a half a block from a café, the Cup and Saucer, and the Kenton Station Saloon. I also live about a mile and a quarter from a Fred Meyer, which is a Kroger supermarket. I live a block from a light rail station. Two blocks from a park. A library's in the neighborhood.

And how many bicycles do you own?

Well, Sanyo donated to the mayor's office an electric bike. You pedal, and there's a little bit of extra juice behind it, a little electric motor. And then I just have one bike, a Trek bike.

Do you think there's something about Portland that makes it uniquely suited for 20-minute neighborhoods? Or do you think this can be replicated in other cities?

I absolutely think it can be replicated in other cities. I do not think it's anything in our water, as wonderful as our Portland water is. I don't think it's partisan, I don't think it's ideological. In fact, in many ways it's a conservative pitch. You want to get the most out of the infrastructure you've already invested in. You want to be a more self-reliant city that isn't as vulnerable to the vagaries of energy costs--most cities don't have oil wells or gas wells. These are the kind of self-reliant things you should do anyway. In the process, you actually make more of your business owners' money, and save more of your residents' household costs. It's radical common sense.

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