Sunday, January 3, 2010

City Limits: Distance from the Center

As a follow-up to the exploration of the introduction to David Oates' book City Limits I wanted to write a bit about the first essay in the book, entitled 'Distance from the Center', which seems appropriate as a quick take on this thing we call the Urban Growth Boundary as well as the dynamic of inside versus outside. This short essay gets at the roots of contemporary urbanism by taking a measure of sorts for our planning, or at least an investigation as to whether the UGB is a mechanism for good (p.6):

"Since the inception of Oregon's land-use system in the 1970s, Portla
nd has evolved from a decaying, lackluster provincial burg, into one of the nation's most successful and distinctive cities. One of the things I'd like to figure out, as I walk, is whether the UGB might be contributing to that success. And if so, how."

:: image via

" A boundary is a lie that reveals truths. Sharp edges -- distinctions -- are indispensable to clear thinking. On a map, the UGB looks perfectly clear. It says we are separate. But in fact we are connected."

:: image via Free Association Design

Images of the edge reinforce this distinction with a defined inside and outside delineated in sharp clarity. It's easy to imagine this as a social contract - but it's as much a product of the political as the topographic and hydrologic. By walking the line the specificity is evident, and perhaps rooted in something as old as our need for prospect and refuge, a remnant from the evolutionary days on the African Savannah - as mentioned by Oates on p.7: "...I want to see how the UGB runs along the wooded hilltop just behind those houses. When I go up a cutbank to look close, I see second growth Douglas-fir crowding its whole life right up to the magic line. For one morning hour, this vivid parallel world hovers above the street... The human habitat, maybe, imprinted deep in an old part of the brain. Edge of the forest. Safety and a prospect of possible dangers, or dinners."

:: image via Prospect-Refuge Theory

Although rooted in evolutionary comfort, there is another face to the peri-urban, something many urban folks feel is mirrored in Oates comments of feeling 'unease' when far from the center. While the center seems a place, the boundary is a marker of the urban area's 'self' (p.8-9). "Distance from the center" implies that one place has a relation to other places: to the center first of all, the place of convergence, and also to the edge where intensities relax and then distinctly, cease. You can map any point by reference to center and circumference, metering the intesity, knowing where you're at: Edge or Downtown or in between... So 'distance from the center' is the physical and emotional yardstick of a place that is a place. Its center and edge are located, findable. And feelable, too; each has its paradoxical human meanings marked out as well. Emotional trade-offs, clarified by their relation to each other. This, not that. More connected (but crowded); more private (but isolated)."

The concept of a boundary assumes that there is a bit of homogeneity within the line, which a quick drive or stroll around the entirety of the urban area will quickly prove a challenge to pin down. It's all 'Portland' but is it different shades? Can we maintain individualism while adopting the share communal ideology that the structure of our urban area rests on? Oates relates this as a question of our linked humanity (p.10): "We cannot think a thought, speak our native tongue, drive down the street, or even stand there in our genes except by profound connectedness to the other humans who have built the species for a million years, body and mind, and who are doing so this very moment all around us."

"What we receive from others is, pretty much, everything. This implies reciprocal responsibility."

This responsibility is the root of what makes Portland tick. It's what allows Metro to govern and provide a net around many separate municipalities, as well as allow us to accept that there is good for one, and good for all, and that those are rarely the same thing. The application on-the ground leads to quirks like islands within the UGB that are outside while simultaneously inside and myriad other notable places. And they aren't theories and policies but places where people inhabit. And the line is merely a delineation, but not a specific container, as Oates mentions on p.11: "Ecologically, all places are connected. Economically, the life of Oregon flows into an out of Portland with little regard for the UGB. What's the line mean, after all? What's inside, what's out?"

To that end, as the ever shifting boundaries evolve, what is outside will become inside. But the distinction is perhaps less important than the result. From page 12, Oates reflects: " occurs to me that Portland could be riding that paradox of boundaries in a most productive way. 'Distance from the center' works for us. Here's how: By making Portland a center in its own right, we can be inside and outside at the same time."

The idea then is that it seems to work for us, and perhaps not for others. We are urban yet not too global to lose a feeling of togetherness. We aren't coastal, but are connected to the water. We are metropolitan and provincial at the same time. Thus the conclusion from page 13: "Portland may be building a place -- just far enough away, just close enough -- where meaningful edges and a defined center give us groundedness in place and expansiveness of spirit. That's our civic goals, our Portland commitments, argued and plotted endlessly: the good place, under the watchful view of snowy Mt. Hood, where we work on being human together."


  1. Hey Jason,

    I found this article on that is all about the urban growth boudry. Hope you find it interesting.

  2. I saw the city is really situated a perfect and discipline place.Hope the locality of it must be entertained their life.Any way thanks for the nice info.Keep update your feed back.

  3. Thanks for the heads up on the GOOD article... will check it out.


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