Thursday, 12 November 2015

Portland - a willingness to experiment

Prior to our visit I didn’t realize just how big a focus there was on active transportation in Portland, particularly the commitment to walkable neighborhoods and cycle infrastructure. Also of interest was the development approach behind light rail or streetcar connections but I did note the primary concern was always around transport and linking neighbourhoods and then to look at development. This might seem obvious but the limited success of other US cities that have tried to replicate the Portland approach may be due to using rail transport primarily as a development tool.  

Funding issues are a constant but having no sales tax makes things particularly difficult for local government in Portland and they have resorted to various methods to finance transport infrastructure and redevelopment. The use of tax increment financing for urban renewal projects is one method, although the success in areas where this technique has been used like the Pearl District is somewhat tempered by the gentrification that drives out local residents. California recently banned TIF for this very reason. Another funding mechanism was the use of a wage-based tax for businesses located along the streetcar rout, this was also aided by private funding for shelters at stops.

I believe as side effect of committing to a strong UGB that constrains outward expansion has created an environment where there is a willingness to experiment. The cable car connection between OHSU and South Waterfront is a perfect case of coming up with a creative solution to a problem that would struggle to get a hearing in many jurisdictions.

The most pressing problem seems to be how Portland can sort out its housing issues. In a way the city is a victim of its own success, with the large homeless community a visible reminder that there are many who have not shared in Portland’s growth. The growth of inequality suggests many of the development approaches used to revitalize cities may even exacerbate the problem. Convincing state legislature of need for measures that allow local government to level some sort of development guarantee around social housing will probably be just the start to restoring balance around inequality.

Will Bakes