Portland is one of the most-praised cities in contemporary America. But is the hype real? To some extent, it actually understates the case.
Portland didn't invent bicycles, density or light rail -- but it understood the future implications of them for America's smaller cities first, and put that knowledge to use before anyone else. The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. Nobody else did. In an era where most American cities went one direction, Portland went another, either capturing or even creating the zeitgeist of a new age.
In the agro-industrial era, Chicago first understood the true significance of railroads, the skyscraper and even urban planning. It saw what others couldn't -- and acted on that understanding. That made Chicago the greatest city, indeed the orderer, of its age.
In the late 20th century and continuing to the present day, for cities below the first rank, Portland plays that role. Like Chicago, it is remaking much of America after its own fashion. Light rail, bike lanes, reclaimed waterfronts, urban condos and microbreweries are now nearly ubiquitous, if not deployed at scale, across the nation.
Has there ever been a case in American history of a city as relatively small as Portland having the same sort of pervasive impact on the policy and the built environment of America? It is truly remarkable, shocking even, and something I dare to suggest will likely never happen again.
Louisvillian JC Stites lived for a time in Portland and said of it, "Portland is real. It's not about ad campaigns pushing false benefits, rather it's about addressing very real issues regarding how cities grow and sustain themselves." Partially inspired by Portland, Stites co-founded 8664, a grass-roots organization dedicated to tearing down the Interstate 64 riverfront freeway in Louisville that has excited a large part of that city. That's the influence of Portland half a continent away.
For a moment in time it wasn't New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco that captured the national imagination, but a small city on the West Coast far from the cultural and economic capitals of the nation. Portland in the 1990s was, in its own way, the equal of Chicago in the 1890s. The city punched far above its weight.
What's more, Portland's legacy is a largely positive one. While too many places transplanted Portland's solutions into foreign and unsuitable soil, it's undeniable that Portland played a major role in making the nation respect cities again, seeing their potential with fresh eyes.
Portland is, however, unique and impossible to replicate. As with Chicago, even had another city seen the future, it likely could not have acted on it in the same way. Portland is an outlier. It's geographically at the edge, has a remarkable natural setting, is one of America's least diverse cities, and has a very different development and social history than most U.S. cities. Like Chicago, Portland was the right city, in the right place, at the right time.
But though Portland can't be copied, it can be an inspiration. Many of its ideas can and have been adopted elsewhere. Whether most cities succeed in reclaiming their urban cores is not yet known, but it's a fight worth fighting. Without Portland, we might not be even trying.
A Drawback: The Economy
However, in one way Portland today is very unlike that younger Chicago: economically. As low-cost haven next to troubled California, with fantastic natural amenities and resources, a burgeoning talent pool, a small underclass, a comparative lack of the legacy problems of other cities and a high degree of civic consensus, Portland should be an economic juggernaut -- but isn't.
Portland's GDP per capita ($47,811) is comparable to Indianapolis ($46,450) and Milwaukee ($45,591). It trails talent hubs like San Francisco ($60,873) and Boston ($57,916), and even Seattle ($55,982) and Minneapolis ($50,797). Seattle's metro region is only 50 percent larger than Portland but has produced fabric-of-the-economy companies such as Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon. Portland has not. Nor has Portland established itself as a go-to location for a major sector the way Silicon Valley has for high tech or Miami for Latin American trade. A recent Metro Monitor report from the Brookings Institution placed Portland's economy in the bottom quintile of performers.
Part of the challenge is effectively deploying its talent. Portland's unemployment rate exceeds the national average. The problem of underemployment among the many high-talent people who moved to Portland for its amenities also has been extensively written about. This is notable given that Portland's population growth rate, while healthy, is half that of talent hubs such as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C. But those cities added many more jobs than Portland. From the first quarter of 2001 to the first quarter of 2009, Austin created 79,000 jobs (11.8 percent growth) and Raleigh 55,000 (12.8 percent), while Portland created just 10,000 (1.1 percent).
Why is this? Perhaps Portland is actually a bit too livable. As urban scholar Joel Kotkin put it, "Portland is to today's generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go."
People move to New York City to test their mettle in America's ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as to produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.
Portland may also lack the diversity needed to be a truly dynamic city. It is one of America's least racially diverse cities and lacks a single non-white city or county elected official. Portland may also have excessive civic consensus. People I interviewed who left Portland were uniform in their praise. They also noted with approval the lack of negativity about the city in contrast with other places they had lived, and the high degree of shared values among its residents.
But civic dynamism fundamentally derives from conflict and dissatisfaction. London architect Sam Jacob once said, "Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands." Portland perhaps has too few conflicts of vision, with too few incompatible demands.
For the future then, where does Portland want to go? Continue to innovate and remain the driver of what it means to be a successful small city in America? Maintain and enjoy the sustainable, high quality of life the region has built (for those fortunate enough to find a job there, at least)? Seek to become a center of greater commercial ambition?
To create a truly dynamic city and realize its potential as one of America's top small city talent hubs, Portland needs to embrace a more aggressive mind-set toward job creation and look to attract a more diverse resident base.
One might ask: Because Portlanders are happy with their city, why change? There are values in life beyond commercial ones and the pursuit of growth. True, but that's a choice with consequences. As the people who've had to leave Portland because they couldn't find real employment there can attest, in order to take advantage of its justly famous high quality, sustainable lifestyle, you first need a job. It's not livable if you can't live there.
Aaron M. Renn is a urban policy analyst and consultant based in New York City. His writings appear at his blog, The Urbanophile, and in other publications.
This column originally appeared in the Portland Oregonian on January 17, 2010.