Is Portland the Potemkin Village of Planning?
Northern News, The Memo, Orange County Planner, North Carolina Planning Newsletter.
By Richard H. Carson
A national survey says that "urban sprawl" is now tied with "crime" as the leading issue in the minds of Americans. We planners must ask ourselves, "Will urban sprawl take a front seat in the presidential debates?" Several states have taken the lead nationally in addressing the problems caused by urban sprawl. In the last decade, many of the highest growth states were in the West, but only two of them were bold enough to initiate state-mandated growth management. They were Oregon and Washington, and each grew at twice the national rate.
The Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area straddles these two states. So is it any surprise that this region will be in the political cross hairs of the year 2000 presidential campaign? The region is already being portrayed by the conservative right as the political Potemkin village of Al Gore's "Smart Growth" program. The term "Potemkin" refers to field marshal Potemkin, who constructed fake villages to please his lover, the Tsarina Catherine the Great, when she toured Russia. And "Smart Growth" being one of vice-president Al Gore's major campaign themes as he tours America.
So is the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area really Al Gore's Potemkin village? Is the Pacific Northwest where Oregon and Washington have state-mandated land use planning a liberal Potemkin territory. Or is it a progressive Eden and the new Mecca of urban planning?
Political Campaign Claims
As the year 2000 presidential race approaches us, there is more and more discussion about how we do or don't plan for population growth in our metropolitan areas. This is a presidential election issue because the large voter states like California, Florida and Texas are all struggling with the social, economic and environmental impacts of growth.
The "Smart Growth" rallying cry is a call that voters can be swayed with and the "Smart Growth" sponsors represent an impressive political force. Certainly some of the sponsors can be perceived as socially progressive if not liberal organizations. The American Planning Association, American Farmland Trust, Congress for New Urbanism, International City/County Managers Association, National Association of Counties, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Trust for Public Lands are all there. But private corporations like the Bank of America have also signed on.
Al Gore has staked out "Smart Growth" as a major campaign theme. His campaign website says that, "This January, Al Gore launched a new livability initiative to help communities across America grow in ways that ensure a high quality of life and strong, sustainable economic growth. The initiative proposes significant new investments to help communities preserve green spaces, ease traffic congestion, and pursue 'smart growth' strategies." On the other hand, the leading Republican candidate, George Bush, is not saying much about the impacts of population growth or the need for growth management. Bush, who is both presidential candidate and Governor of Texas, has a very brief quasi-environmental statement on his web page that says he: "Believes environmental standards must be based on sound science, solutions based on market driven strategies."
Public Policy Realities
The Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area has become Al Gore's political showcase. In a recent speech before the Brookings Institution, he said: "Today, the environment is better protected; developers advertise not sprawl but community villages; new developments, crafted with care, boast community spaces, light rail stations, and on-the-block day care; and Portland's community spirit has become one of joy."
Unfortunately, claims of "joy" can sometimes be politically overstated. While in Portland to attend the grand opening of the westside extension of the region's light rail line, he claimed before the nation's press that the "new light rail system attracted 40 percent of all commuters." The mass transit district, when pressed about this miracle, noted it was considerably less than that.
If the Portland-Vancouver area is such a political lynchpin, then the year 2000 election question should be, "Has this bi-state laboratory of managed growth produced any worthwhile results?" The answer is not a readily apparent as the political rhetoric. For example:
- The Portland metropolitan area is the 12th most traffic-congested in the nation.
- The Portland-Vancouver area is also ranked in the top 12 percent of the nation's least affordable housing markets.
- The backbone of the region's planning strategy light rail has started failing to pass at the ballot box.
- The City Club of Portland, a decidedly liberal civic organization, produced a scathing report of the city's efforts. It listed a lack of citizen involvement, unrealistic population absorption targets and a lack of a comprehensive vision.
- The Portland area homebuilders, a decidedly conservative association, said with no "joy" in their hearts that all their members should boycott building in Portland because of over-regulation.
- Finally, even the spiritual leader of the new urbanist movement, architect Andres Duany, weighed in by warning "of the danger of canonizing Portland" and complaining about the "insufferable sanctimonious tone of the responses, so typical of the Portland cult."
So what has state mandated planning done to make Oregon and Washington a better place to live? Actually, quite a lot.
- The use of urban growth boundaries has minimized the impact of development on agricultural and forest resource lands. Such boundaries also cost-efficiently optimize the provision of new infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer.
- Urbanization is only allowed to proceed with available urban services. This means that development pays its fair share of the cost of growth and that there is less ground water pollution in the suburbs because there are less failing septic systems.
- The region has utilized better urban design and the acquisition of existing natural areas to offset the possible negative impacts of densification and to create more livable spaces.
- The use of higher quality mass transit like light rail, while more expensive, makes for greater livability for people of all incomes.
- The Portland-Vancouver area boasts one to the highest personal incomes in the nation, one of the lowest unemployment rates and is an economic development magnet for high tech industries.
- Home ownership rates are the some of the highest in the nation.
On balance, any rational person would conclude that managed growth is a superior public policy to unplanned sprawl, but it is important to understand the limitations to such policies. Planned growth works well when used to achieve reasonable economic, social and environmental objectives. However, it comes at a political cost that bares scrutiny.
Is the Portland-Vancouver area a political Potemkin village? No. On the other hand, the citizens of the Pacific Northwest don't like outside scrutiny. Former Oregon Governor Tom McCall once admonished a nation to "Visit, but don't stay" in Oregon. This is also good advice for any presidential candidate Republican or Democrat -- who plays fast and loose in characterizing our northwest corner of America. We are a unique culture. You will not successfully clone our value system onto your national political platform.
Richard H. Carson is a practicing planner of some 30 years, and lives and works in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area. He is a past director of planning for Metro (the Portland, Oregon regional government that represents 1 million people). He is also a past editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and currently maintains the APA national website's Planning Editors Internet List. He is also an elected board member for the APA Oregon Chapter. You can reach him via e-mail at email@example.com.