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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Portland, Oregon + 25 years

Air Date: Week of

The City of Portland, Oregon seems to have a success story on its hands, twenty- five years in the making. In order to improve the quality of life in urban Portland, and limit growth of its farms and forests, back in 1973 citizens began implementing a zoning plan to limit sprawl whose outcome they are enjoying today. Jacob Lewin explains.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

One of the nation's most important projects to contain suburban sprawl is marking its 25th anniversary this year in Portland, Oregon. In 1973, Oregon residents decided to draw a line around the Portland metropolitan area, beyond which development would be tightly restricted. The goal was to protect farm land and wild areas outside the city, while improving the quality of life in the urban center. A generation later, the Portland area is widely considered one of the most livable cities in the country. Jacob Lewin reports.

(Footfalls, bird calls)

LEWIN: At the edge of a road 10 miles outside of downtown Portland, the suburbs suddenly stop and you can see the farms and forest land of Washington County stretch for miles to the west. This is Portland's invisible line, its urban growth boundary. On one side almost all non-farm development is banned; on the other, it's encouraged. Urban growth boundaries are the cornerstone of Oregon's landmark land use law, created 25 years ago to protect the state's valuable farm land from suburban sprawl. Dave Vanasche works right up to the line.

(A motor starts up)

LEWIN: Vanasche is a grass seed farmer and a strong supporter of the urban growth boundary.

VANASCHE : Being a farmer, full-time for the last 20 years, and being born and raised on this same farm, I saw what was happening before our state land use planning system went into effect, and I've seen what's happened afterwards.

LEWIN: Do you think if we didn't have this sort of thing, you would still be farming here?

VANASCHE: I don't believe I would be farming in Washington County today.

LEWIN: Without the boundary, Mr. Vanasche believes many Portland area farmers would have sold out to developers, and rural lands would have been chopped up. A subdivision here, a farm there. Even farmers who did not want to sell to developers might not be able to farm.

VANASCHE: We have to have enough farm land in one area to create the need for chemical fertilizer dealerships, for machinery dealerships, for seed processing. And once you lose a certain amount of farm land, you lose that agricultural infrastructure.

LEWIN: The growth boundary idea has worked as planned. Compared to neighboring Washington, California, or Idaho, Oregon has lost very little of its farm land in the last 25 years. That has allowed a $3-1/2 billion industry to flourish. It's also allowed Oregon to retain more of its beauty and rural flavor. The area outside Portland's urban growth boundary is still mostly the green, slow-paced, and pleasantly sleepy place it was 25 years ago. But inside the boundary, things have changed a lot.

(Salsa music plays)

LEWIN: The group Conjunta Allegre plays at a festival in downtown Portland's mile-long Waterfront Park. This park didn't exist 25 years ago. Neither did downtown's marina, vibrant retail district, new arts center, open-air markets, strong nightlife scene, or light rail system.

K. MACCOLL: It was dead, very dead downtown. The Oregon Journal had an article called "Sad Sack City."

LEWIN: Portland historian Kim Maccoll says the city has been transformed since the 60s and early 70s. Mr. Maccoll says mostly for the better. Fifty percent of the region's office space is downtown, and its residential neighborhoods are thriving. The revitalization of downtown is the flip side of Oregon's effort to preserve farm land outside the city. Kim Maccoll says it all began with a visionary governor who was the law's chief promoter.

K. MACCOLL: Tom McCall, our governor from 1967 to '75, was the great outdoorsman. He loved the environment. And one of the first things he did when he came into office was to decide to make a study of all of our land use in Oregon at that time. And it was pretty devastating.

(Archive Tape:) T. MCCALL: There is a shameless threat in our environment. And in the whole quality of our life. And that is the unfettered despoiling of our land. Sagebrush subdivisions. Coastal condo-mania. And the ravenous rampage of suburbia here in the Willamette Valley. All threaten to mark Oregon's status as the environmental model of this nation.

LEWIN: With development restricted outside of Portland for a generation since Governor McCall's speech, the region has had to make more creative use of the land that does exist inside the ring. Instead of sprawl, developers have turned to infill, the building of houses, townhouses, and apartments on vacant inner-city land. Lot sizes have shrunk, and abandoned industrial properties redeveloped. Ethan Seltzer, who heads the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University, says Portland has reversed the country's dominant development pattern of the last few decades.

SELTZER: When you look at similar figures in other metropolitan areas, they're consuming land at far greater rates than they are growing in population. Our rate of population growth is greater than our rate of land consumption.

LEWIN: But critics say this apparent success is merely a failure in disguise.

BUCKSTEIN: Basically, what we're doing is trying to contain a growing population in a very small space.

LEWIN: Steve Buckstein is president of the Cascade Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Mr. Buckstein contends that when Oregonians voted to protect their farm land, they weren't expecting to get more crowded cities in return.

BUCKSTEIN: Most people had no idea that we would mandate, the governments would mandate high densities inside the urban growth boundary, destroying open space, putting houses closer together, increasing traffic congestion, and raising housing costs.

LEWIN: Supporters acknowledge that by limiting the supply of developable land, the urban growth boundary has helped push up housing costs. But prices have also risen in other fast-growing western cities that don't have urban growth boundaries. And Ethan Seltzer of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies dismisses the concerns about over-crowding.

SELTZER: This is still a relatively low-density region. What we're talking about is not Singapore. We're talking about maybe a second floor in some cases on structures which are now single-story.

LEWIN: Traffic congestion has increased inside the city, but the average commute time in the metro area is still only 14 minutes. And the metro area is trying to relieve congestion with more mass transit.

METRO ANNOUNCER: The doors are closing.

LEWIN: New light rail lines have contributed to a 17% increase in ridership over the last 5 years, growing twice as fast as population. Hop on a rush hour train and you'll find few empty seats, as commuters head home to places like Orenco Station in the high-tech corridor of Washington County.

(Train riding over tracks)

METRO ANNOUNCER: Orenco, Northwest 231st Avenue. Doors to my left. Orenco...

LEWIN: Government has zoned new transit villages built at places like Orenco Station. They include small but attractive homes built on relatively small lots, many with apartments over the garage to increase density. The streets are designed for walking and stores are being built nearby. And resident Joyce Miller says you'll find something else: a sense of community.

MILLER: I love knowing my neighbors, and I like the idea that we're all together here. We can walk with each other. I've already made contact with women here. And I think it's just a great, great place for people.

LEWIN: The fact is, most Oregon residents are happy with the results of their growth management laws. Voters have rejected 3 efforts to repeal the state's land use laws, and several court challenges have failed as well. But the challenges continue to come. On election day, voters face a ballot measure that would make it easier to chip away at land use laws, and will choose between a candidate for governor who wants to roll the laws back, and an incumbent who supports them. There are also population pressures on the urban growth boundary. Metropolitan Portland's unique regional government will soon vote on whether to expand the ring for the first time ever, by about 2%. Ethan Seltzer of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies says whichever way the decisions go, it's important for residents to remember that Portland has turned out far differently than it would have without its land use system.

SELTZER: It can be as subtle as being able to find fresh-grown produce within 20 minutes of your home. It can be as subtle as being able to see the stars at night. How do you quantify that?

LEWIN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jacob Lewin in Portland, Oregon.



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