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What We Can Really Learn from Portland

William Fulton / Sep 18 2009

For Release Friday, September 18, 2009

William Fulton

Portland is often held up as such an outstanding model of urban planning–and one that is so difficult to replicate–that you might think it’s somehow different from other cities. But let’s face it: Portland is like any other U.S. city. There are freeways and subdivisions and confusing arterials and big malls and stupid little strip centers.

But there is also a remarkable downtown, a fabulous set of close-in neighborhoods, a remarkably large and diverse transit system for a city Portland’s size, and an emerging ethic that is comfortable with being an urban place.

Rather than simply thinking there’s no way to copy Portland–or that all cities must slavishly follow the Portland model–it’s worth thinking about Portland’s DNA. Why does Portland do things–and do them successfully–that a lot of other cities can’t seem to do?

After a visit to Portland last week, I’d say there are six important lessons to learn from Portland. The important thing is to apply the lessons to your own town, and not try to recreate Portland.

1. Portland has great raw material

Although it’s only a half-million people, Portland has a huge downtown core, a large industrial area now being revitalized (the Pearl District), and all kinds of civic endowments from the wealth-building years as a timber capital–such as, for example, many older parks in the central part of the city and a fabulous stock of older buildings. The lesson here is not to try to create buildings or neighborhoods like Portland’s, but to understand what your raw material is and use it to your best advantage.

2. They’re not afraid to just build stuff

Portland Tram

Portland’s aerial tramway.
(Photo courtesy of CA Planning & Development Report)

Since my last visit seven years ago, Portland has built the aerial tramway from the South Waterfront (the flats just to the south of downtown) to the Oregon Health Sciences University campus on Marquam Hill. No other city in the United States except New York has ever even tried to build such a tram, and the Portland project was plagued by secretiveness, political controversy, 1,000% cost overruns, and neighborhood opposition. In the end, they built it anyway–and it is now the key to keeping the city’s largest employer in Portland and an anchor for a series of condo and office towers in the South Waterfront area (also proof that they’re not afraid to build stuff). Sometimes you just have to build stuff and see what happens.

3. They never stop thinking about the actual walking experience

If you look carefully at both Downtown Portland and the celebrated Pearl District, you’ll realize that, although both are built on small grids: we are not talking about the typical New Urbanist wet dream of four-story neoclassical boulevards. For every two or three handsome ’20s downtown midrise, there’s at least one mid-century modernist monstrosity. Yet even these behemoths have created totally walkable places. Never, ever overlook how it feels simply to walk down the street.

4. They keep reinforcing the connection between development and transportation

Portland Streetcar

One of Portland’s many streetcars.
(Photo courtesy of CA Planning & Development Report)

In Portland, the additions to the transit system operate seamlessly with each other–and reinforce the development pattern, even when (as with the tram) it seems like a pipe dream. An even more dramatic example is the Portland Streetcar, which connects a variety of dense activity centers in downtown Portland, including Portland State University, the Pearl District, downtown, and the South Waterfront (where it connects with the aerial tram). The streetcar is so slow that sometimes you can beat it just by walking. But it may be the best urban collector system ever created. If the streetcar didn’t exist, a bunch of useful but inefficient little buses would have to run around Portland connecting things–similar to L.A.’s DASH buses. The streetcar pulls together all the collector systems into a distinctive “brand” that’s integrated into the entire TriMet system. Other cities don’t have to build a streetcar–but they do can find ways to brands the collector experience as unique, fun, and just a part of the experience of being in the town.

5. They keep strengthening the informal aspects of city life

Food Carts

Food cart vendors selling goods to pedestrians.
(Photo courtesy of CA Planning & Development Report)

Here’s just one example: You have never seen anything like Portland’s food carts. They line up by the dozen in parking lots, facing the sidewalk, creating an instant streetside food court of amazing and inexpensive culinary choices. This is not urban planning, exactly–or, at least, it’s not about building higher density and more public transit. Rather, it’s about strengthening the quirky, interesting, and sometimes even necessary little human-scale things that make up urban life. And that’s one of the things that seems to underlie Portland’s success: there are so many people in town who love urban life and want to make it work in a mid-sized city.

6. They’re not holding out for perfection

Don’t ever forget that most of the Portland metro area is just like anywhere else. But part of the message is that you don’t have to transform your whole city–only those parts of your city that are ripe for the transforming. There is no better advertisement for creating more walkable cities than…well, than creating just one walkable neighborhood in your town.

William Fulton blogs at His e-mail is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Ethan Seltzer
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    This is absolutely the right way to view Portland: not about the tools that we’ve used, but the way that the ideas surface and the kind of impact that they have. Bill Fulton has done a great job of picking up on what really matters here in a relatively short visit. Further, it should give all of us pause when it comes to best practices. That is, a “best practice” is something that worked well somewhere once. Context matters, and cities are not merely the product of tools in a tool box. Glad to see this kind of thinking about what there is to see in Portland and, probably, many other places. Thanks!

  2. Posted September 18, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Not sure who Fulton talked with while he was in Portland. His column is right on as far as I am concerned. But, there was one glaring omission. It doesn’t sound like he talked with any park or urban greenspaces advocates or planners.

    He does not mention integration of the built and natural environments, one of the primary reasons native Portlanders and many immigrants choose to live here. While much of the truly innovative urban greenspace work, such as Portland Bureau of Environmental Services greenstreets, ecoroofs and other urban stormwater programs are relatively new, the concept for a comprehensive, interconnected park, trail and natural areas system dates back to John Charles Olmsted’s 1903 park master plan for Portland.

    In the past twenty years voters throughout the region have taxed themselves to the tune of $400 million to add parks, trails and natural areas to the growing parks and greenspaces system. The addition of this green infrastructure is crucial to maintaining quality of life and any semblance of ecological sustainability within a rapidly densifying Urban Growth Boundary. In fact, the quid pro quo for many resident’s acceptance of higher density, mixed use development is more parks, trails, and natural areas within a short walk of their home and work.

    The current iteration of that Olmstedian vision, writ large at the regional scale, is The Intertwine ( the region’s commitment to creating a world class, perhaps the world’s best, parks trails and natural areas system for the Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA region. It’s no accident that one of the key players in The Intertwine is Metro, the regional government that’s also responsible for regional growth management and transit planning.

    It’s true that Neal Peirce has written previous columns on Portland’s urban greenspace movement for citywire. Perhaps that’s why Fulton chose not to include the greenspaces angle as one of his important factors for what success we have enjoyed. As he rightfully points out, we are anything but perfect, but any list of contributing factors to the success we’ve had in creating a livable city and region is clearly attributable to linking is urban design ingredients with protection, restoration, and management of our green infrastructure.

    Mike Houck, Director
    Urban Greenspaces Institute

  3. Rod Proffitt
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I was just in Oregon – the Medford area. Portland may have been able to pull off a great deal at the city level, but it could not have happened without good enabling legislation from the State. What we saw were any number of towns in close proximity with great thriving downtowns; especially Ashland and Jacksonville. I think the State legislation has given municiipalities in Oregon to think “core” values, rather than planning at the fringe as almost everywhere else in the nation has done.

  4. Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    A few weeks back, Neal did an excellent piece entitled: “Biking and Walking: Our Secret Weapon?” I didn’t fully realize how appropriate that title was until I read Mr. Fulton’s column. The potential of bicycling is apparently such a well kept secret that Mr. Fulton didn’t use the word in describing America’s most bike-friendly city.

    Mr. Houck notes the lack of any reference to Portland’s greenspaces. Taking that point a bit further, the column also does not mention Portland’s efforts to connect the trails that comprise much of that greenways system to Portland’s investments in public transportation. While Mr. Fulton notes that Portland’s streetcars have helped to create “best urban collector system ever created,” if he looked at an even finer grain he would notice that the streetcars are, in turn, fed by a network of bicycle infrastructure.

    Does this omission matter? I would argue that it does. Since 1991, Portland has invested $57 million to create a 300 mile bikeway network that is a critical part of the local infrastructure. As a result, Portland has seen a steady increase in bicycling — at least 10% per year and 15%-20% per year in the last three years. Another $100 million in bicycle investment in planned to achieve a future bike mode share of 20% or more. We conservatively calculate that these investments will produce net benefits to Portland of $1.2 billion by 2040 from fuel and health care savings alone. That is not insignificant.

    But my point in raising these issues is not to find fault with Mr. Fulton. Rather, his column underscores an important lesson for bicycle advocates: we cannot assume that people who should be sympathetic to our cause understand the potential role that bicycling can play in creating the livable communities of the 21st century. To many — even our friends — the bicycle is viewed as a toy for children and weekend recreation for adults. While there is no denying that cycling is fun, it is an unfortunate “secret” that it is also a utilitarian form of transport for people of all ages that can contribute to healthier people, healthier places and a healthier planet.

    Keith Laughlin, President
    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

  5. Sam Seskin
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Bill, thanks for taking a cut at what makes this city great. I wish I knew you were in town, I would have been happy to tour with you, entertain you, or both. At the risk of appearing to dissent from your excellent analysis (which is not my intention), I want to offer some observations about our city that may be outside the usual.
    First, though it isn’t obvious, we have benefited from extremely strong staff leadership at the MPO–the senior staff have been there 30 years and have brought continuity and vision to the job, not to mention skilled leadership. ( I wish I could say as much for the politicians.)
    Second, we benefit from a steady influx of like minded people, drawn both by the reality of our city and by the incredible publicity we have gotten. (We must be a secret shareholder of the New York Times). The reason cycling is increasing, for example, isn’t really bike boulevards or green boxes, its the buzz that comes from newbies, whose social networks support alternative modes (and the associated liberal political philosophy), and whose spirit fuels their passion to own and patronize food carts.. You did make this point, of courses–I want just to reinforce it.
    Third, we have built some expensive amenities–you cite the tram and the streetcar. Both are basically way too expensive for the transportation function they perform, but they further the mystique of the city. They both have as nearly as many suburbanites, tourists and homeless on them as they do local riders. But the same is true of SF’s cable cars. As amenities, they work well to further the brand.
    I offer these opinions not to dissent from yours, but to add to them. This city is a great place to live, and public policy has played an important role in reinforcing its natural advantages. Come to visit any time!

  6. Neal Peirce
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    From a reader’s blog:
    Check out What We Can Really Learn from Portland by William Fulton over at As Fulton points out, Portland stands alone in its ability to generate conversation among city and regional planners. I’m sure that many critics would dismiss Fulton’s article as just the latest misguided love letter to Portland from Planners USA, but I don’t think that’s fair. Community and economic development is about providing people choices: building places that allow people to live the way they want. I don’t disagree with critics who argue that some styles of land use planning–“smart growth” or otherwise–impose limitations on choice that may contradict that definition of community and economic development. But that is why I think places like Austin are so successful. From a regional perspective, Austin offers a wide range of possibilities. For people with the means, you can live in a luxury condo downtown with front door access to some of Austin’s most celebrated assets. If you prefer a traditional single-family house at an affordable price, we have that here, too. I’ve only been to Portland a couple of times, but my guess is that the urban lifestyle Fulton describes is not the only option available there. Presenting planning as an either/or choice between competing lifestyles is misleading.

    If you are interested in reading more about Portland-style planning, you can peruse an abbreviated version of my master’s report: Are Urban Growth Boundaries Raising Housing Prices in California? The Portland Debate Revisited in the Golden State. I lived in Sonoma County during the urban growth boundary debate in 2000, and I think that experience played a large role in shaping my interest in data-driven community and economic development.
    Brian Kelsey
    Civic Analytics Blog

  7. Posted September 24, 2009 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Of course, outsiders never see the price Portlanders pay for all that building and transit:

    *We feed over $50 million annually into the developer’s pockets. See

    * That “South Waterfront” (real name: North Macadam Urban Renewal district) is broke. The city is out of money to fulfill it’s promises. See

    *Our transit system costs well over double what driving costs. See

    *We are taking money from police, fire, schools and human services because of the money given to developers.


  8. Posted September 24, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    We all have our own perspective, and mine is as a Portlander since 1977, and graduate of our public schools now working for the school district. I think our K-12 education system is a critical part of what makes Portland, Portland. Few other mid-sized or larger cities have such a high rate of public school attendance: close to 85 percent, and even those who could afford private school choose to join their neighbors and friends at public schools. That builds community and loyalty — among parents, alumni, kids — and it contributes to our community cohesion and spirit in Portland.

    Unfortunately, unlike our transportation system or even our regional parks, our school infrastructure has suffered from a sad lack of capital investment. The average school building is 65 years old. The last major investment — voters approved a bond in the mid-1990s — mostly went to critical upgrades in seismic safety, roof replacements, and other efforts to keep our students warm, safe and dry. Only two schools have been built in the last 30 years. Our newest building, Rosa Parks Elementary, was built by leveraging partnerships and stretching our dollars. Opened in 2006, it was the first LEED Gold school building west of the Mississippi.

    So Portland is rightly lauded for its cutting-edge design and planning in so many areas . . . . some day perhaps school buildings can catch up.

    Sarah Carlin Ames
    Public Affairs Director
    Portland Public Schools

    Learn more about our school modernization plans:

  9. Mike Hamilton
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    “It’s no accident that one of the key players in The Intertwine is Metro, the regional government that’s also responsible for regional growth management and transit planning. ”

    You mean the group that wants to build a money-losing hotel to go along with the money-losing convention center?

    “You have never seen anything like Portland’s food carts. ”
    Portland is the only city with lots of food carts? really? What I saw in S.F., N.Y.C. & other cities must have been an optical illusion

    “But it may be the best urban collector system ever created. If the streetcar didn’t exist, a bunch of useful but inefficient little buses would have to run around Portland connecting things–similar to L.A.’s DASH buses.”

    The street car which serves almost nobody and goes almost nowhere-but costs big $$ so bus routes (cheaper)are being cut back?

    “a large industrial area now being revitalized (the Pearl District),”

    How do overpriced condos, underemployed “creative class” types”( Hey Mom the web design gig fell thru, send money) and $7 lattes count as industry?

    “Sometimes you just have to build stuff and see what happens.”

    Seems to be the “planner” ethos. To recount: the tram was built due to all the biotech jobs OHSU was going to put into the S Waterfront district along with all the people living in the condos. To date few jobs and the condos are half empty and selling at fire sale prices. The tram operates at a loss because anyone going to OHSU rides for free.

  10. Steve
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Too bad you don’t live here. All of this development money for trollies and downtown, yet you go outside the core and potholes aboud, The MAX has killed the retail environment downtown (you can compare the empty storefornts and Piooner Place vacancies vs. suburban malls) and the final coup de grace – almost 0 job growth.

    I am confused why this is such an improvement when we can find plenty of money in Portland to build “things” yet we have the highest water/sewer rates, lusy schools and a Sellwood bridge on teh verge of collapse.

    I love Portland and grew up here, but ther is no overarching plan besides just running streetcars all over the place.

  11. Ethan Seltzer
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    One follow-up that might be of interest here: Check out the results from a recent survey in the Portland region regarding planning and growth management at:
    What did Metro find? Citizens out here like and support planning and the urban growth boundary. They want new growth to be planned, they want it to occur in predictable ways, and they want it supported by parks, schools, and other important community services and infrastructure. Perhaps most interesting is that attitudes about this kinds of things in the suburbs and the city are converging, and the convergence is around the kind of compact city building that has been occurring in the center of the region. Does everyone agree? Of course not. However, there is solid support for the kind of ideas and dynamics highlighted by Fulton. Note for the naysayers: we aren’t miserable out here… hardly the case. Often I hear others in other regions saying that what we’re doing in Portland can’t be done in their regions. However, that isn’t really the point. What we’ve done in Portland is to use planning and investment to make this a more livable community. Every community can do this in their own way. It would be a better world if they did.

  12. Jon Cope
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    I think Mr. Fulton needs to visit Portland again, but spend some more time on the “east” side of town. And Laurelhurst doesn’t count. Try east of 82nd Ave, the part of Portland that has been forsaken by the city’s elite to build that little utopia called the Pearl District. But watch out for potholes the size of pizzas.

  13. jim karlock
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    That particular survey also found that the number one perceived problem in the region is traffic congestion – a sign that Metro has utterly failed at its job of being the regional transportation planning agency (be sure to download the actual survey, not Metro’s glowing interpretation. You will find this):
    Table 2
    What Voters are Most Concerned or Bothered by about Their Quality of Life in the Metro Region
    Codes Verbatim Concerns Total N=600 Clackamas N=200 Multnomah N=200 Washington N=200
    Traffic congestion/transportation 12% 10% 8% 18%
    Public safety, crime, drugs, gangs 9% 8% 12% 5%
    Government/politics 7% 11% 6% 6%
    Employment opportunities/jobs 7% 6% 7% 9%

    The reason for Metro’s failure is that it directs most of the region’s transportation money to those over priced toy trains (light rail) for a few people, instead of to roads for everyone and freight too.

    And people don’t like Metro’s density increases that result from the UGB, but Metro manages to fool the people with stories about saving farmland without telling people that little local farm land actually grows little food. Metro also fools people into thinking that density is saving money.

    Density increase soundly lost in a Metro wide election a few years back.


  14. jim karlock
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 11:05 pm | Permalink


    Here it the table, properly formatted, in the original order, but truncated after three items. (Clackamas, Multnomah,Washington are the three counties in the region)
    Table 2
    What Voters are Most Concerned or Bothered by about Their Quality of Life in the Metro Region
    Codes Verbatim Concerns……….. Total… Clackamas…Multnomah….Washington
    Traffic congestion/transportation….12%…….10%…………….8%…………..18%
    Public safety, crime, drugs, gangs…9%………8%……………12%……………5%

  15. Steve Michaels
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Here’s the problem — once Mr Fulton gets the reflection of the sun off the streetcars out of his eyes.

    We have plenty of money for trams, streetcars, MAX, rebuilding PGE Park twice in 10 years and building “things”.

    We don’t have enough money for schools, keeping police precincts open or keeping the Sellwood Bridge from collapsing. Meanwhile we have infrastructure 100 years old in the streets with no plans to rehab them and our water/sewer rates are the highest in the country. Meanwhile all the development dollars get poured into downtown while anything else rots (outside of streetcars/trams.) Oh yeah, Portland can’t attract a decent creative job to save its life.

    Mr Fulton should look up the term “bread and circuses.”