Sunday, January 3, 2010

City Limits: Where I Walked...

One of the inspirations for the Urban Edge is the book City Limits: Walking Portland's Boundary by Portland author David Oates. Aside from a great read, David is a fantastic guy and a friend. His recent work as part of the South Waterfront Artist-in-Residence program (which was led by artist Linda K. Johnson, whom also had a UGB installation of her own) showed his innate interest in both the urban in addition to the wild, nowhere more evident as in his essays on the boundary from this compilation of thoughts and voices.

:: image via Amazon

The first two essays in the book are worth some exploration. First, the introduction, entitled 'Where I Walked, What I Walked For' provides some motivation and background for the trip - providing an experiential context for the trip, or perhaps justification for getting on foot to experience the entire 260-mile trek around the edge, as mentioned in page 2: "I passed by berryfields and vineyards and orchards along this perimeter: housing on one side and edens purloinable on the other! O taste and see, said the scriptures, so I did. This made me well-disposed toward the entire Urban Growth Boundary project, despite its lumbering superstructure of laws and bureaus, planners and land-use hearings, disputes and wrangles, and to oversee it all, an entire extra layer of government the like of which does not elsewhere exist in these United States, called 'Metro' and hidden in plain site in North Portland..."

"...It is a crazy, going-forward teeter of hopefulness, this Portland."

The beauty of Oates journey isn't just the act of walking and documenting, but rather the fact that this came from a self-described 'non-planner' who didn't get too caught up on the details but rather explored and experienced with a minimum of baggage. His realization wasn't about a policy or a line, but rather, "We were working out how - and whether, to live together." Oates continues (p.2-3): "Our Boundary, both visible border and invisible symbol, is our attempt to agree on how to live: what trade-offs to make so that all (not just a few) can benefit. Oregon's planning scheme is a bit of urban utopianism, an optimistic attempt to tray and live a little better here in this blessed Northwest..."

This isn't to say Oates didn't have a knowledge of the structure, as evidenced in the text. His take really is even-handed (although I know his bias) and truly trying to understand less what the boundary is but moreso what it means as mentioned on p.3, "Portlanders are highly aware of it [UGB]. It's part of our identity... It has given Portland a pleasant and dynamic downtown, close-in neighborhoods that folks love to live in, pretty good public transit, and a fighting chance not to spread endlessly, meaninglessly, in every direction."

Thus the experience of living and not losing what is important is the point, versus the novelty of planning policy of innovative urban form. It's less about what it is than what it's not: (p.3) "We think the orchards, fields and vineyards of the Willamette Valley that have not been covered by tract housing will continue to make our lives richer. We hope to grow in and, in places, up...

"...To become richer in connections and cleverness - to get deeper - instead of wider, flatter, and shallower."

To rely on experience of walking in cities and spaces is historically relevant as a method of inquiry. The travels of the flaneur or the psychogeography of the Dérive or my favorite and more obscure idea of the Greek 'periegete' (mentioned in Placeways, by EV Walter, p.19) that describes a 'tour guide who led people around, giving commetaries on whatever was work seeing," and compiling written guides, known a a periegesis. Oates mentions inspiration of Lucy Lippard's 'Lure of the Local' (p.4): "One way to find ourselves is to walk the map, to think about how the land around us is being and has been used. Looking at land through nonexpert eyes, we can learn a lot."

A true understanding comes not from books or words, but from experiences - informed by a quest for knowledge. Oates mentions Douglas Kelbaugh and paraphrases such on p.4: "...all the theory and blueprints in the world mean little, in the achieving of a real city, without those invisible ingredients I thought about most often during my walk: that certain idealism, naive perhaps, that yearning and striving he names, from the Greek, arete," which for lack of a better term means 'excellence' or I think more appropriately 'purposeful'. Maybe that's the point - a fulfillment of purpose - not a utopian or planning ideal?

The counterpoint is that a lot of what Oates saw, and exists, on the boundary is sprawl, ticky-tack, garbage - or that much of the good and the bad 'on' the boundary would not be on the line for long - enveloped within the urban, no longer the rural. It's a line and a policy - but it's about real places and real people. Either way, it justs makes you want to walk and see - and perhaps translate this to others in a way half as witty as David does.

David included a number of other voices to augment his, which are captured in the volume - including writers, planners, government officials, and artists. I had an opportunity to walk a section of the UGB with David on his journey and it was a great experience to get into a mode of seeing and interacting with folks along the way - while picking our way through an appropriately named section of King City. My fascination with radio documentary at the time led me to record our visit along the edge, which I will try to do a final edit and get into a web-friendly format for distribution sometime in the future.

David also has a new book out entitled 'What We Love Will Save Us' (Kelson Books, 2009).

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