Urben Explorer - Portland

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In recent years Portland has become synonymous with happy hipsters -  a place for great coffee, microbrews, vegan food, beards and bicycles. Such is the reputation of Portland, that it has even been skewered in its own sitcom “Portlandia”. On a visit to Portland for the ISOCARP Congress 2018 (this year held in conjunction with the local chapter of the American Planning Association), we explored the city and tried to understand if the clichés are true. What we found was a city with fantastic food, wine and coffee; amongst a community that embraces creativity, independence and diversity; yet there are of course, complexities and challenges. Yes, Portland is generally cycle friendly and has decent public transport, but for every bearded fixie rider, there is also a counterweight of people living on the perimeter of the city (or beyond), for whom driving is a way of life. One driver, frustrated at a cyclist said, ‘If it didn’t mean jail, for sure I’d run over a cyclist. They’ve got nowhere to be and if they did, they’d find a faster way to get there!’. Clearly, for all the great work the city is putting into encouraging sustainability, there are still some people to reach!

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The number of homeless people in Portland is striking, with many also suffering from difficulties associated with mental health and addiction. Homelessness is a common issue in US cities, perhaps partly the result of a different approach to healthcare and social welfare (though there is no denying the situation in the UK is worsening).  It is upsetting to see such a large number of people barely surviving, let alone living in a city. Drug addiction (particularly opioids) is an acknowledged healthcare crisis in many American communities. Not only is drug addiction deeply painful for the individuals and families involved, but it also robs communities of people otherwise able to contribute to society. In an excellent speech at the ISOCARP Congress, Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer described a lack of affordable housing and treatment for people with addition and mental health concerns, as a failure of Government policy that needs urgent attention. The importance of these issues is further underlined within the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), where a “right to the city” is enshrined. Ensuring equality of access to the opportunities that cities provide means:

  • Transport – support access to employment through affordable, safe and efficient public transport, and ensure that people aren’t left behind by emerging transport technologies.
  • Employment – help cities achieve a mix of land uses that support different types of industry including the arts and manufacturing, not only in the centre of cities, but near to the communities needing a range of employment options.
  • Education – ensure a sufficient supply of land for the expansion of schools in line with population growth
  • Healthcare – make space for growing nutritious and affordable food, encourage walking and cycling, be mindful of the impacts cities can have on mental health, and ensure there are an appropriate amount of well distributed and designed health care facilities.
  • Public Space – make places feel safe and inclusive at different times of the day and night, including for women.
  • Housing – provide safe, comfortable and affordable housing in a range of typologies and tenures, including temporary accommodation and social housing.

On the subject of affordable housing, Portland faces similar challenges to many other cities, including a distortion of local property prices by external forces, be they corporate (Air BnB), or individual (e.g. cash buyers relocating from more expensive cities). Discussing housing and life in Portland with another driver, he said (with kindness) ‘Come for a visit, yes, but don’t move here’. He described Portland’s rise in popularity, as leading to an increase in property values of 50% over a 7-year period. Portland property values are generally lower than nearby cities such as San Francisco, therefore it attracts interstate property owners looking for second homes to use for holidays or rental income. Rents were also described as having increased from $1,000 / $1,200 to $1,800 in the past 5 years.

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Notwithstanding the challenges described above, Portland is a great city. The abundance of trees in streets, parks and nearby hills is a great asset, and displays beautiful autumnal colours. Landscaped, sustainable drainage is also prevalent. There is an interesting mix of building styles, including some high quality new medium density apartments, as well as older warehouses that have been repurposed for commercial and residential uses. The city is proud of, and provides space for, designers and makers – from microbreweries, to furniture, and clothing.  We also noticed that some of the best places to visit were found in the suburbs rather than the CBD (which had a number of vacant prime commercial and retail properties, as well as surface car parks). The range of businesses on SE Division Street and East Burnside is far more interesting than the majority of chain dominated high streets in the UK. London’s suburbs could also learn a lot from Portland – with exciting and unique restaurants sitting beside low-rise apartments blocks or Californian bungalows, that in turn are mixed between warehouses, consulting offices, and independent retailers. Could Portland be a glimpse at Suburbia 2.0?

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If you do make it to Portland, here are a few places & things we enjoyed: