Portland and Chicago: Urban Dynamism

7 07 2011

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Aaron Renn, the estimable Urbanophile from the blog of the same name, published a piece considering what Portland, as a beacon of “livability,” means for cities across the country. Renn compares Portland in the 1990s to Chicago in the 1890s: visionary and opportunistic, the “orderer” of its day:

Portland didn’t invent bicycles, density or light rail — but it understood the future implications of them for America’s smaller cities first, and put that knowledge to use before anyone else. The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. Nobody else did. In an era where most American cities went one direction, Portland went another, either capturing or even creating the zeitgeist of a new age.

In the agro-industrial era, Chicago first understood the true significance of railroads, the skyscraper and even urban planning. It saw what others couldn’t — and acted on that understanding. That made Chicago the greatest city, indeed the orderer, of its age.

In the late 20th century and continuing to the present day, for cities below the first rank, Portland plays that role. Like Chicago, it is remaking much of America after its own fashion. Light rail, bike lanes, reclaimed waterfronts, urban condos and microbreweries are now nearly ubiquitous, if not deployed at scale, across the nation.

Renn is an agile and interesting thinker on urban issues, one of my favorites to read on big city policy, even when we disagree. While I think the piece lapses into generalization occasionally, he sets up some very interesting contrasts and asks some great questions.

Portland is the gold standard of “livable” cities, clean and bikable, easy to get around, little congestion, access to nature, and the general accouterments of “ideal” big city living: a flourishing artistic community, small businesses, and, of course, microbreweries, which apparently Americans decided they couldn’t live without ten years ago.

On the other hand, Renn points out, their economy is not particularly dynamic. Unemployment is persistent and problematic, straining city and state resources. While Portland’s vision in the 90s allowed it to “punch above its weight,” it hasn’t capitalized on that. The most interesting reason Renn puts forward as to why is the lack of “dynamism,” or conflict:

Perhaps Portland is actually a bit too livable. As urban scholar Joel Kotkin put it, “Portland is to today’s generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go.”

People move to New York City to test their mettle in America’s ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as to produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.

Portland may also lack the diversity needed to be a truly dynamic city. It is one of America’s least racially diverse cities and lacks a single non-white city or county elected official. Portland may also have excessive civic consensus. People I interviewed who left Portland were uniform in their praise. They also noted with approval the lack of negativity about the city in contrast with other places they had lived, and the high degree of shared values among its residents.

But civic dynamism fundamentally derives from conflict and dissatisfaction. London architect Sam Jacob once said, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” Portland perhaps has too few conflicts of vision, with too few incompatible demands.

I personally am fond of (non-violent, though that should go without saying) conflict. Conflict is the source of dynamism. Renn is on to something here. Conflict and consensus are not mutually exclusive. The process and form of conflict shapes the consensus. Where lots of conflicting voices are muted–or altogether absent–the consensus that emerges from conflict is going to be narrow. It is this fact that supporters of “get-things-done” strongman executives ignore or dismiss as naive attachment to “process.”

But a democratic society, and democratic urban planning in particular, take as a premise that the more people involved in a process, the better the result, even where there are wildly conflicting points of view. The ability of a mayor to just “get things done” is facile if the things he is getting done are born in closed strategy meetings and then marketed to the public. The point Renn seems to be getting at is that Portland’s forward-thinking policies of the 1990s and early Aughts began a process that has stagnated because it hasn’t been challenged by various and diverse classes, institutions, and organizations. Portland is just where it is, and will continue to be.

Then we look at Chicago, a big, loud, and diverse city that nevertheless falls into ruts of intensely centralized and stovepiped policy “debates” thanks to a mighty economic and political machine fueled by big money and parochial power players. In a piece on mayoral candidate Miguel Del Valle, I touched on this issue–the stagnancy of chaos versus productive order. Thomas Jefferson referred to this power of conflict to unleash creative power when he said that, “the boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”

The livability we all want may come from a centralized policy pursuing specific ends; but without dynamic involvement of the public, what appears to be improvement (say, for example, dropping crime rates) may actually just be displacement (say, for example, the flight of working class families from the city over the last decade). Similarly, the livability of a place like Portland, where good jobs are scarce, could just be a result of attracting people with less ambition while those who want to deploy their talents are leaving the city for better opportunities, even if that means fewer microbreweries.

There is one objection to be raised to Renn’s fine piece: Portland seems to be improving economically, at least over the last few years. Between 2001 and 2009, the Portland metropolitan statistical area’s per capita GDP actually increased more than any other city’s, by 23%.


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