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."

This may seem to suggest that Portland's accomplishments in downtown development were inevitable. The fact is, twenty years ago the city had an undistinguished downtown. In the 1960s and early 1970s Portland went through difficulties like those of other cities. The privately owned bus systems went bankrupt. The downtown emptied out daily at five. Retailing was in decline; stores were going out of business or considering moving to the suburbs.

One study in the early 1970s claimed that the downtown needed 10,000 more parking spaces to reinforce its economy. Portland's leadership, however, instead focused on making mass transit efficient and the downtown convenient and pleasurable for people on foot. Neil Goldschmidt, Portland's mayor from 1972 to 1979 and later Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Transportation, led Portland to develop an attractive bus mall in the core of the office district. This speeded bus service, which was reorganized under a new three-county transit authority known as Tri-Met. Rather than go all out to provide parking, Portland imposed a limit on the number of parking spaces in the downtown core and insisted that new buildings, including parking garages, have stores or other pedestrian-attracting uses at street level. Blank walls at ground level were banned. Even the Justice Center, containing police headquarters, courtrooms, and jail cells, has a delicatessen, a camera store, a hair stylist, and a sandwich shop at street level.

A key asset for urban designers has been the decision by nineteenth-century Portlanders to lay out the downtown in small square blocks, just 200 feet on a side. The short blocks help make the downtown inviting to pedestrians—there are more ways to get from one place to another, and no dull streets that go on and on without a break. Architects like small blocks, because a single new building can fill an entire block and be seen from every direction. In return for the greater prominence this gives their buildings, architects are obliged to make the buildings completely hospitable at ground level. "No building can have a backside," says Gregory Baldwin, a partner in Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, Portland's best-known architectural firm. "You always put the dumpsters inside the buildings. The trucks pull into the buildings."

During Goldschmidt's tenure as mayor, officials began planning a lightrail system called MAX, which loops through the shopping district, passes Pioneer Courthouse Square, crosses the Willamette, and proceeds twelve miles east to the suburb of Gresham. Because of limited funds, the initial plans called for MAX to travel on streets with asphalt pavement, concrete sidewalks, and no new trees. "A number of us thought that was not appropriate," says Robert Packard, a managing partner in Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, which designed the light-rail facilities. "The local business community along the line stepped forward, raised additional funds, and improved the quality." Today the entire route through downtown is paved with cobblestonelike Belgian blocks, often complemented by brick pavement and trees (the effect can be less charming for women in high heels). Such comprehensive planning has enhanced the downtown's attractiveness and boosted MAX's ridership beyond what had been forecast. Nearly 40 percent of downtown employees travel to work on light rail or buses—one of the highest rates of public transit use in the United States.

Portlanders' willingness to work for a common purpose has played a pivotal role in the city's achievements. Downtown property owners contribute the largest share of the $4 million annual budget of the Association for Portland Progress, a thirteen-year-old organization aimed at keeping the city center healthy. Some of the money goes to clean the sidewalks daily and wash the faces of buildings. Sixteen previously homeless people make up the cleaning crew, which last year erased 700 patches of graffiti, helping to maintain Portland's pristine appearance.

The Portland attitude of "we're all in this together" implies a right—and even a responsibility—to intervene when individuals threaten to tear at the carefully woven fabric of public life. Panhandling and obvious mental illness do not go unaddressed. Eighteen green-jacketed Portland Guides employed by the association help tourists and watch for "street disorder"—public behavior that makes people uncomfortable. "We try to get help for the chronically mentally ill," says Ruth E. Scott, the association's chief executive officer. "With panhandlers, we'll ask if we can get them food, housing, or other assistance." A persistent panhandler may be discouraged by guides who stand on both sides of him or her, doing paperwork. But there are still street people and panhandlers in Portland's parks and squares, and occasionally they are threatening. Also among the hundred people on the association's payroll are twelve armed patrol officers, who do not make arrests but who can get to the scene of trouble in an average of three minutes.

The political scientist Daniel Elazar has identified Oregon, along with Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and a few other states, as having "a moralistic political culture," in which politics is expected to lead toward "the betterment of the commonwealth," as opposed to more strictly individualistic ends. Elazar traces this moralism to the Puritan legacy brought westward by many of Oregon's settlers. When citizen responsibility and devotion to the well-being of the community are widespread, as they are in Portland, a fine city—though a rather restrained one—can arise.

THE main challenge now is to keep the city healthy and the region manageable as metropolitan Portland undergoes a population boom. Companies from California, Japan, and elsewhere are expanding into Portland, and from 1990 to 2010 the metropolitan area's population is expected to jump by 485,000. In many places in the Sunbelt growth of such wealth-generating magnitude would be welcomed, but not in Portland. Already people worry about office employment dispersing to the suburbs. In 1970 the central city contained 90 percent of the region's first-class office space; the figure is down to about 50 percent today. Current patterns of suburban development are generating highway traffic that, if it continues to mount; will make the downtown harder to reach and life throughout the region less relaxed.

Portlanders have a tradition of opposing sprawl. "We don't want to be like Los Angeles" is practically the region's motto. Recently Portlanders' consciousness of the problems of metropolitan development has been heightened by the example of Seattle, which once had the same motto. In the 1980s the Seattle-Tacoma area added 466,000 residents—primarily through suburban development, which many blame for tying up traffic and rupturing the region's comfortable scale.

Institutionally, Portland is better equipped than probably any other metropolitan area in the country to deal with these challenges. The Metropolitan Service District, or "Metro," brings urban and suburban interests together in a unique popularly elected government covering parts of three counties. Almost twenty years ago, under Tom McCall, the state began requiring that urban areas establish "growth boundaries" to prevent productive farm and forest land from being consumed by what the governor called the "ravenous rampage of suburbia." (An alliterative moralist, McCall also denounced "coastal condomania.") The Portland area's growth boundary, drawn up by Metro in 1980, takes in 362 square miles. Inside the boundary, where much open land remains, building is encouraged; outside the boundary, governments discourage building through policies such as refusing to allow certain road improvements or sewer service.

The growth boundary and other regulations have already tightened residential development. The average size of a single-family lot has dropped from 13,200 to 8,700 square feet. All communities in the Portland area have been required to enact plans that allow half their new housing to consist of apartments or other multi-family construction—generating affordable housing while conserving land. By raising residential density the region has obtained the capacity to build as many as 310,000 houses and apartments inside its growth boundary—nearly double the number that could have been accommodated under previous planning and zoning.

Still, the growth boundary has not changed the basic pattern of development. Housing, stores, and employment have developed mostly in separate zones. As they have, people have been driving more; total miles driven in the Portland area jumped 55 percent during the 1980s. A regional air-pollution problem attributable to motor-vehicle exhaust is in the making.

Potential solutions are being debated and also enacted. Many planners believe that if a number of sizable mixed-use centers, incorporating offices, stores, housing, and parks, are built—dense, walkable, and connected to public transit—people will have more choices of how to get around and the region can remain compact. Construction will start next spring on a second segment of light-rail transit, a twelve-mile line from downtown Portland to the western suburb of Beaverton. Whether and how to organize development more densely along the current and future MAX routes is now the subject of much talk.

The high public costs that result from a conventional, dispersed style of development may become crucial to the unfolding debate. Many states, counties, and municipalities can no longer afford an ever more extensive network of roads, bridges, utilities. Tom Walsh, the general manager of Tri-Met, estimates that it would cost $100,000 per household to build all the infrastructure that has been proposed to continue the Portland area's current somewhat disconnected form of development. If a more tight-knit form of metropolitan development would cut the cost substantially and offer quality-of-life benefits as well, the Portland area might move toward it.

But persuasion will be required. Charles Hales, who was the governmental-affairs director of the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland before he resigned to run for Portland city commissioner, says, "The power base of a suburb is single-family homeowners." These people typically want to live in homogeneous, entirely residential neighborhoods even if they "have to drive everywhere to do everything." Much suburban development continues to take the form of sprawling office parks, which are at odds with the notion of a compact region.

The stakes for the downtown and the city are high. When metropolitan areas grow in a conventional manner, the cities typically become burdened with extensive blighted areas, sometimes including the central business district, sometimes not. Portland officials believe that if the downtown and the city are to thrive, 20 percent of the region's job and population growth must take place in the city.

Portland may well depart from the American norm in metropolitan growth. The sense of common purpose, the easy communication among the area's leaders, and the longstanding conviction that Oregonians should conserve the good life, even at the sacrifice of some self-interest, point toward an outcome at variance with that in Los Angeles and most other American cities. In his wooded office park near an interchange of the Sunset Highway, Richard Porn, a local developer, told me that a large number of complicated issues will have to be worked out, but concluded with a judgment that nearly everyone in this soft, green region appears to share: "If any place has a chance to do things differently and get it right, Portland is it."