Portland

We’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for two and a half days now. If I were twenty years younger, I would seriously consider moving here.

We wanted to visit Portland because we are urban policy nerds, and knew that Portland was something of a city planner’s dream. It is. Here, in no particular order, are some of our observations:

Billboards are obviously strictly controlled; we counted exactly five between the airport and downtown, making that 45 minute taxi ride far more scenic.

Streets are a bit narrower than in most cities, and blocks are a good deal shorter–even shorter than the “short” blocks in NYC. Most are tree-lined, and in the downtown area there are flower baskets hanging from hooks on the street lights. Although there’s a grid, it isn’t rigid; there are also streets angling off in various directions. All of that makes walking around really pleasant. Plus, the urban core is amazingly¬†compact.

Bikes are everywhere, and there are dedicated bike lanes.

Perhaps the walking and biking account for another observation: people on the streets in Portland are mostly thin.

There are tons of parks–big and small and interactive (kids splashing in park pools is encouraged). The streets are active–unlike in Indianapolis, parking garages all have first-floor retail, so there aren’t long “dead” areas. And most of the retail seems to be local–although there are some national chains, local shops, bars and restaurants (of which there are so many you wonder if anyone here cooks) outnumber them by a significant margin. (I’ve seen few Starbucks, for example, although there are regional and local coffee shops everywhere.) Hundreds of food trucks offer all sorts of creative cuisines (Mauritania has a cuisine? Who knew?)

I wasn’t able to find out how many people live in downtown Portland, but there are many, many apartment buildings, and a good deal of the retail downtown caters to residential needs. (There’s a huge kitchenware store and three supermarkets–including a Whole Foods. So I guess someone must cook….) And there are regular, rotating Farmer’s Markets; we saw one, and it, too, was huge.

Speaking of huge, Powell’s books. An entire city block. 300,000 titles in stock, new and used. We got there a few minutes before 9:00 a.m., when it opened, and there was already a line.

And everywhere you look, you see public transportation. There are buses and trolleys in traffic lanes dedicated to them–no cars allowed. Light rail. A tram to carry folks up the big hill (with bike parking at its base). Nirvana…

We spent yesterday morning riding the trolley system. The cars were immaculate, the system was easy to understand, and $5 bought a 24-hour pass, good for the bus, the trolley and the light rail. The system is obviously well-used, and by a broad cross-section of riders.

I’ve also been absolutely blown away by how NICE people here are. My husband and I stopped to look at a building, and a man asked if he could help us find something. In a shoe store, the clerk whipped out a map and suggested places we should see–and gave me her card in case I had questions. The motorman on the first trolley we rode not only offered complete directions, but let us know when we were approaching the stop at which we needed to transfer. Servers in restaurants have been equally helpful. Drivers yield to pedestrians–and each other– everywhere, and no one honks his horn!

Portland is pretty similar in size to Indianapolis, and every urban amenity I’ve described is something Indianapolis (and other cities) could do, if we had the political will. But fairness requires acknowledging assets we couldn’t duplicate, like the absence of mosquitos. A climate in which you can evidently grow ANYTHING. No humidity. Mild winters that don’t take as much of a toll on roads, buildings and infrastructure. Mountains, rivers and hills.

I’m sure if I actually lived here, I’d find things to complain about. But from our admittedly limited perspective, this is a city to envy.

22 thoughts on “Portland

  1. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been to Portland and since, I’ve been told, it has suffered quite a bit from Californication, but apparently has survived even that well. Congratulations to its city fathers and mothers.

    One thing that I’d like to understand more about both for Portland and its Puget Sound counterparts is how are they doing with resilience planning? As sea levels and ocean acidity rise do they have adequate plans to keep them at bay?

  2. One of my sons and his husband (married about a month before his dad and other half took advantage of that late June 2014 window between Indiana’s federal court decision and the initial Seventh Circuit stay) have lived in Portland for almost a decade. Prior to that they lived in downtown Seattle, which frankly I initially liked better…..but the traffic and congestion always made me appreciate returning to something easier to deal with despite its shortcomings. I agree with everything you say concerning Portland. Hope you and Bob enjoy the rest of your journey.

  3. I felt the same way last year when I visited for a conference. The hotel was a block away from Portland State Univ. I walked around and was taken by how green everything is! The river is nice. Plenty of brewhouses. I would definitely go back!

  4. nice post (as always)! I have never been to Portland but have heard it is a dream city. If only Indiana had enlightened leadership…

  5. I like to think that Portland’s relative success as a City might be attributed, in part, to its structure of government. Portland maintains a Mayor/Commission structure where the governing body is composed of an elected Mayor, four elected Commissioners, and an elected Auditor.

    All elections for these 6 people are at-large, are nonpartisan, and are staggered so that no group of Commissioners is composed of first-time Commissioners. Commissioners are also administrators for specific City departments, meaning they are full-time employees.

    I read the bios of the Mayor and the Commissioners, and they bring considerable expertise to the table with all the Commissioners having earned relevant degrees from among Harvard, Cornell. MIT, University of Virginia.

    Electing City leaders based upon educational and experiential backgrounds and upon policy issues rather than upon political party affiliation seems to work rather well by eliminating the gridlock of partisan bickering among people who frequently have no background other than claiming to be a Democrat or a Republican.

  6. Implicit in your comments is the notion that Portland taxpayers and elected officials are willing to make choices and investment that we rubes here in Indiana/Indianapolis just won’t do because we’re too conservative. But maybe there is another factor at work. Portland is just over 1/3 the size of Indianapolis, 145 square miles versus 403. If you want a comparable situation, take the population of Indianapolis and move them all into Center, Washington and Lawrence. Could we then, focusing on that limited geographic area, build a good mass transit system, dedicated bike trails and the type of planned urban development you desire? Absolutely. It would be affordable…and needed. But when you have a city with very little population density, like Indianapolis, the cost of doing those things skyrocket.

    The No. #1 factor in having a successful mass transportation system is population density, which Indianapolis does not have

  7. Both the mayor of Portland and Oregon’s governor are Democrats. A coincidence? I don’t think so.

  8. My experience has been that the real structural difference between conservatives and liberals is found on the optimism-pessimism spectrum. Liberals tend to be more optimistic and invest assuming growth. Conservatives being more pessimistic and critical focus more on saving against the coming troubles.

    I believe that the demise of America’s conservative culture will be attributed to the general realization that what we are is not sustainable. Very significant change is inevitably coming.

    If you make the conservative/pessimistic assumption that that means chaos and trouble you resist rather than adapt to the change. That spells extinction.

    A liberal optimistic worldview is that inevitable change can be managed into advantage. Decrease what’s not sustainable replace it with what works better and voil√†, progress.

    The north west has always been a leader in the search for better from any number of perspectives. Business, culture, entertainment, ecology, recreation, urbanization. Their liberal bent is paying off. Progress attracts.

    Indianapolis from what I read here more than the little first hand experience I can claim seems more destined to resist change rather than adapt to it and backwardness is leading progress.

    There’s a price to be paid for that.

  9. Perhaps it really does boil down to a choice between voting for the past or the future. While there have been moments in the past that are attractive, unsustainable means temporary. Why vote for what cannot be?

  10. Another way to look at it. Neither our new President nor Congress will be powerful enough to create our future culture. So we must choose those best able to operate within it.

  11. Shelia, as always, your blog is tremendous. I have several friends who live there, including three transplanted Hoosiers. Love the neighborhoods (remind me of another river city, my hometown of Cincinnati). And great mass transit and bike culture. But homelessness and other forms of housing insecurity are a very real by-product of some of the innovative restrictions on sprawl. I would be curious to learn what you learn about the high cost of housing and the homelessness issues of Portland. So grateful for you and your fellow urban policy nerds!

  12. Judith, I looked up homelessness in Portland and Indy; theirs is estimated at 4000, ours at 4500. Housing, however, is much higher in Portland–median home price (per Zillow) is 311,000. Indianapolis has long been one of the most affordable cities for homeownership.

  13. CERTAINLY AGREE BUT
    THEIR GREENWAYS ARE NO BETTER THAN OURS AND THE CAR TRAFFIC OVER THOSE OLD BRIDGES THRU THE CITY IS WORSE AND ATROCIOUS AND BUMPER TO BUMPER EXCECT AFTER 10 AM/PM . UP SCALE NEW DEVELOMENT ALONG THE River WITH WALKWAYS , RESTAURANTS AND CONDOS.
    ESPECIALLY HEAVY SLOW TRAFFIC TO THE BREACHES ON WEEKENDS AND TO BEAVERTON EACH DAY.

    THE COLUMBIA RIVER bASIN DRIVE AND ITS FALLS AND LEWIS AND CLARK HERITAGE TRAILS ARE WONDERFUL , THE BONNEVILLE DAM AND FISH LADDERS AMAZING , MT HOOD LOVELY AND THE FABULOUS LEWIS AND CLARK LANDING SITES AND FEDERAL LEWIS AND CLARK NATL PARK SITES THRU CANNON BEACH DOWN TO DEPOE BAY AND THE WHALES ALL YEAR ROUND AND THE SEA LIONS ARE WONDERFUL. . AGREE THAT THEY DO NOT HAVE A DEAF TONE GOVERNOR AND BETTER POLITICS BUT THEY ARE NOT PARADISE EITHER ESPECIALLY WITH RAIN AND OLD INFRASTRUCTURE. . .

  14. Everything you describe sounds like Hell on Earth.

    Hate bicycles, except on bike trails. Hate pedestrians. Wait for your “walk” light, or wait for cars to pass.

    Hate liberals. Hate tolerance. Hate beards. Shave, you losers. I like swearing. I don’t like food with adjectives. Coffee comes from White Castle. It’s not a sacrament. I like fast cars. I like women who look hot and show a little bit.

    Portland seems like a place where I’d want to beat up everyone I saw.

    Portland seems like a “Safe City” for outcasts who 30 years ago would have go beaten up in the schoolyard.

  15. “The No. #1 factor in having a successful mass transportation system is population density, which Indianapolis does not have”

    Ogden, the quickest way to destroy a peaceful standard of living is to increase population density. Keeping population density moderate increases the blessing of sprawl, which gives us wonderful choice in living areas, and low density keeps the roads moving.

    Go to Chicago. The densest areas are the most hellish, with the weirdest looking people and the greatest concentration of non-Americans. High density doesn’t look like or act like America, and we should not be trying to encourage that. A nice suburb with single-family homes, wides streets and strip malls is what Real Americans like.

  16. “The No. #1 factor in having a successful mass transportation system is population density, which Indianapolis does not have”

    Who wants to sit next to someone on a train or a bus? Gross. Public transportation is transportation of last resort.

    That’s why Saint Ford invented cars.

  17. “I like women who look hot and show a little bit.”

    Is this a hint that Gopper is a male or, being Republican and believing Pence’s RFRA and the unfix offers protection to LGBTs, is Gopper a female?

    The current comments are from someone who is angry at everything and everyone; sad, they have lost their entertainment value and are not worth responding to directly.

    I walk my small neighborhood, only one way in and out so there is little traffic. The bus stop is located outside the area approximately one block in both directions on two-lane, heavily traveled East 16th Street on an unsafe, narrow shoulder which has a grassy incline on the north side and into private yards on south side. In essence; local bus service is unavailable – and I would have to drive half a mile and park my car to struggle to reach either stop. I have lived here 10 years and don’t remember ever seeing anyone any stops on this stretch of 16th Street. The bus does go to Washington Square Mall but no idea where it goes headed downtown.

    The bike lanes I have described before; starting and stopping on both sides of 10th Street only and bikers must move in and out of traffic lanes. Few sidewalks in the general area of East 16th Street and Arlington Avenue. It is a mix of business and residential as much of the east side is.

    Portland sounds like utopia…or science fiction regarding Indianapolis ever nearing the safe and sane conditions found there. We have gone downhill in residential areas; my once middle-class neighborhood is nearing low-middle-class level. Streets cracked, grass sprouting in some street areas that are nearing a need to be mowed. Some of us maintain the curb areas in front of our homes but dirt and weeds are carried by rainwater from those who don’t maintain their areas and need frequent cleaning. The vast majority of home owners and renters do maintain homes and lawns; bike riding and walking is safe in this area due to the lack of through traffic. These same problems are prolific throughout Indianapolis; unless you are wealthy enough to live in better areas – but that is a minority in the local population.

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