The author of Planologie, a blog dedicated to considering the ways we live, build, move, and think, recently spent a few days in Portland, after also visiting Vancouver and Seattle.
It is a rare experience in the United States to travel between cities in a region as well as neighborhoods within cities without requiring an automobile. I recently spent ten days in the Pacific Northwest sans car, flying in and out of Seattle, riding trains between Seattle and Vancouver, Vancouver and Portland, and Portland and Seattle, and utilizing a combination of light rail, streetcars, buses, and my own two feet to explore the cities themselves.
In Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part One, he recounts his impression of Seattle. Part Two looks at Vancouver.
Part Three, published today, is about Portland.
Though a native, fan of, and defender of Portland, I tend to agree with some of his critical observations and generalizations. Yes, the Portland Streetcar is both a the most visible manifestation of urban planning in a city renowned for its prescient planning practices and at the same time the city’s urban core is so small I can cross it on foot with ease, and at an only slightly slower pace. (Though I dare say the streetcar can be quicker and more pleasant than traipsing from NW Portland to PSU or the South Waterfront in the rain.)
And I can’t much refute this:
The Pearl was still attractive, but it felt lifeless, even shabby in parts, and populated solely by yuppies where any activity could be found. I saw few families. Few adults. None of the ethnic or cultural diversity one expects in a city. None of the urban vitality. Portland’s urban core is tiny, and though it looks the way one expects—even wants—a city to look, the majority of the people who seem to have committed to it are homeless, addicted to drugs, or newly arrived from out of town.
Though he dismisses all of Northeast and Southeast Portland, near Alberta, Division, or Hawthorne as suburban and composed of single family homes, and not part of the urban fabric, which makes me curious as to whether he visited any of them. For his next visit I would recommend spending some time in Westmoreland and Sellwood, Woodstock, Hollywood, Montavilla, Roseway, Goose Hollow, Boise, Beaumont-Wilshire, St. Johns, etc. My point being that Portland is a city of neighborhoods. Downtown, the Pearl, and NW are where the tourists generally wander, and most tourists are happy with that. But if a tourist is interested in the real urban fabric of Portland, he has to expand his horizons.
And I don’t see the McMenamin’s Kennedy School as anything like Main Street, USA at Disney World though. Or at least, knowing that the larger body of the McMenamins’ work, which mixes historic preservation with artifice and a dash of authenticity, is so unlike the artifice of Disney which just features . . . artifice, I can’t equate the two.
I do, however, agree with this:
Portland, like its famed streetcar, is an interesting case. It boasts many of the pieces found in successful cities and some that no other American cities can match. The streetcar. Light rail. Cycle tracks. Skateboard tracks. An aerial tram. Traffic calming. No major downtown arterials. Local music. Local art. Local beer. Great food. Environmental awareness. A history of proactive and progressive decision making. Historic urban fabric. Food carts. Park blocks. It’s walkable. It’s bikable. The DIY spirit is pervasive. There is much to like in Portland, and the hype is not all smoke and mirrors.
My largest point of contention with the article is the conclusion. Portland is a small city, so comparing its central city with that of big-city Seattle is not interesting outside of that both cities are in the NW corner of the country. The economic woes of Portland the article outlines have been with us for decades now, and the hipsters only for the last decade or so. The economic woes will in all likelihood continue, but the hipsters will eventually migrate to the next hip city. The loss of the hipsters won’t effect Portland’s urban planning and general ability to build consensus around development and other social issue, which began decades before this current crop of hipsters discovered our fair city.
Josh Grigsby says
Thanks for commenting on my article, and for disagreeing respectfully. I appreciate it. I understand what you mean when you say Portland is a city of neighborhoods, but I’m not sure a collection of neighborhoods is enough to constitute a city. A town, sure. In my view, at least, cities require a level of density (residential, commercial, retail, industrial, recreational, etc.), of compactness, that most of Portland hasn’t attained (and may well not aspire to). The collection of neighborhoods argument has been used many times to demonstrate why Los Angeles isn’t really a city, and despite L.A. having one of the most densely settled metro areas in the country (three times that of Portland), there is some validity to it.
As for the Kennedy School, I’m not sure what it is about it that didn’t quite sit right. I support historic preservation, mixed-use, repurposing, and local placemaking, and everything about the Kennedy School feels right on paper. Maybe it seemed a little too self-conscious. Come to think of it, self-consciousness might be both Portland’s bane and its boon. That said, I wouldn’t mind having a Kennedy School near me.
I’ll make note of the many neighborhoods you mention, and will hopefully be back in Portland before too long to check them out. Thanks for the recommendations.
Out of curiosity, though, why do you think it is that Portlanders have built their communities largely outside the urban core? Why has downtown been relegated to the tourists? And why are tourists such a bad thing?
Nice take Dave!
Josh, I read this article with the greatest hope that you would be convinced that Portland would be an urban wonderland. However, while disappointed in your conclusions, cannot disagree with them.
Portland is a unique experience. As someone who lives on the hated west side of Portland (Beaverton) I many times visit Portland and feel like an outsider to the prevalent east-side culture that has dominated the city night-life and culture.
Trust me, what culture that exists on the west side should stay there. However, I do feel out of touch to the “scene”. So if I live that close to Portland, I can only expect someone visiting for three days would not get the sense of places that Dave mentions above.
I enjoyed both of your takes on Portland and look to read more.
Josh – Thanks for stopping by, and your comments.
Yup, Portland’s a city of neighborhoods, each of which generally has a nice urban commercial strip. Something that has been interesting (and fun) to watch for me, as a native, is how much denser and bigger (i.e. taller) these commercial strips are becoming due to zoning changes (and ultimately the urban growth boundary). Come back in 20 years, and Portland’s density will be much higher, and will definitely feel more urban too, but at present Portland in general is not very dense or urban in the sense I think you’re referring too.
I think an answer to your question about why Portland has largely built communities outside the urban core is that these neighborhoods were originally established independent towns, and/or former streetcar induced suburban villages. And really, until the 70s, Portland almost exclusively followed the same march to the suburbs that other American cities did.
But there’s also just something peculiar about Portlanders – we’re fiercely loyal to our city, and intensely interested in our communities (notice, for example, the number of comments on your Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland posts – Portlanders, you may notice, love to talk and debate about their city!). And City Hall actually listens to average citizens, neigborhood associations, and advocacy groups (the bicycle folks are a great example of the latter).
Personally, I love to see tourists in Portland. It’s amusing on one level, as no one paid much attention to our humble burg until the last few years. And it’s exciting to see what we already know as locals reinforced – Portland’s a pleasant city. Compared to most other Western USA cities, I think Portland’s downtown is actually one of the more vibrant you’ll encounter. There isn’t a lot of housing downtown though, but NW Portland is one of (if not the) densest neighborhood in the City, and it’s very close to downtown. And I really think the Pearl district will only get denser and more authentic as Portland (like the rest of the country) recovers from the real estate bubble’s collapse.
Josh Grigsby says
Great points. Thanks for the info and quick history. It’s good to remind oneself that Portland hasn’t been PORTLAND!! for very long. An easy thing to forget given how intense the buzz has been. I love that Portlanders are so involved, so vocal. They do frequently come off as either smug or intolerant (and I’m sure some are), but that’s obviously due to how passionately they identify with their city. Rampant civic engagement is certainly one of Portland’s greatest successes (and hopefully one of its growing exports). I’m curious to see what happens over the next couple decades.
Apologies for being a few days late to the debate, but I’m having trouble with the “city of neighborhoods” argument. We use that term as if it inherently explains why Portland has taken the form it has. But what city isn’t a city of neighborhoods? San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods. New York City is a city of neighborhoods. I would even venture to say that Seattle and Vancouver are cities of neighborhoods, but I’m not experienced with either enough to do that.
Josh’s argument that the east side neighborhoods are primarily suburban is completely valid. When we’re talking urban vs suburban, we’re talking about form. Urban form allows more density than suburban form. We typically don’t associate streets and streets of detached, single family homes with urban areas, and we typically don’t associate a collection of mixed use highrises with suburban areas. What would “Alberta, Division, or Hawthorne” or 21st to 23rd be without their single strip of retail? However nice and neighborhood-anchoring they might be, one “urban commercial strip” does not make an urban area. It makes one commercial strip.
Portland is just an itty bitty city. There’s nothing mystical or particularly special about its collection of neighborhoods because every city is a “city of neighborhods”. Portland’s distinction is that most of our neighborhoods are suburban. There’s no shame in admitting that. People here (and everywhere) seem to find virtue in their back yards. Let’s acknowledge that and then move on to more important things, like adding some color to the Pearl and getting more people living downtown.
Josh Grigsby says
Richard, I think you’re spot on. Very well said. Any suggestions as to how to add color to the Pearl and get more people living downtown?