Tuesday, 24 November 2015

'Portland: The City That Works’

...is the slogan of Portland. The irony was not lost on us after a heavy night of rain had flooded the downtown area, leaving us stranded on their highly-famed rail system. All my pre-tour research had portrayed a city planned to near perfection – particularly around their transport - and I had heard many rave reviews on Portland... had I gotten it wrong?

Before arriving, I envisioned Portland to consist of never-ending streets lined with shop-top housing and serviced by the light rail, with cyclists filling the roads. While I experienced some of what I imagined, other experiences were completely different to what I anticipated.

Stemming from many hours of research on planning in Portland, one area that receives a lot of attention is their transport system. Despite a rough introduction, Portland’s light rail system has certainly met my expectations. It's accessible, safe, and easy to navigate. Every system has their problems – Melbourne is no exception – it was just a bad coincidence that our first meeting was during the heaviest rain Portland had had in four years. I am, however, surprised at the level of resistance the rail expansion had met.I had expected most residents to be highly receptive to the rail, and was surprised to hear from TriMet architect Bob Hastings that some communities pegged for future developments have campaigned against it. Furthermore, previous naysayers now support the system and regret denying their chance at developments. However, since community involvement is the first of the nineteen statewide development goals, every person is allowed to have their say!

One aspect I am surprised about is the lack of cyclists I have seen. Portland is touted as a haven for cyclists, with a lot of focus on cycling and the future for cycling, and yet I have not seen that many at all. I was honestly expecting to be dodging cyclists left and right. Perhaps this is linked to the housing affordability crisis, as explained by Rob Sadowsky of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance: as housing prices increase, the distance people need to travel increases, so cycling usage decreases. While being acutely aware of Portland’s housing crisis, I never considered the wider effects.

I could only find shop-top housing in certain districts of Portland, particularly in newer, redeveloped or  gentrified districts. One example was the Pearl District, which has undergone gentrification. Cafes, businesses and retail line the bottom of apartment blocks. Parks are central to blocks of apartments, and the light rail circles the area. However, this was the only instance of my vision I saw. This may change in the future, with Portland currently experiencing issues around growing populations and housing in-affordability, so that more shop-top housing is built. This may not necessarily solve the housing affordability issues.

On a side note: Homelessness and poverty is not something a city advertises or prides themselves on, so the prevalence of homeless people on the streets was quite unexpected and confronting. I am aware of homelessness, but I think I was a little naïve in thinking Portland wouldn't have as many homeless people as they do.

The thing about planning is that no city and its system is perfect, and planning is never finished. Every city has their high points and their low points, and every city is constantly needing to adapt to never-ending change. I must remind myself that maybe some of expectations were the victim of circumstance, such as the weather was too bad to cycle in parts I visited that day. Perhaps my vision is still under development, and will come to fruition soon. However, I have only scratched the surface - there is still so much of Portland to see – so maybe I'll keep my mind open for my next visit.   

Talei Lewis