Sunday, January 17, 2010

Picture Perfect

Check out the article in todays Oregonian authored by The Urbanophile himself Aaron Renn, entitled 'Picture Perfect Portland' explores if our fair city is worthy of the praise it receives on a regular basis. The verdict... sure, with a few caveats.

:: image via Oregon Live

Many of us in Portland don't have illusions of perfection regarding the function of our city, but also think that we may be doing some stuff right. This is echoed in Renn's column, where he mentions the idea of strategic planning related to growth and transportation, but also wonders aloud whether Portland may be the last in a line of urban areas - particularly those as small as Portland, that provide a model of contemporary urbanism: "Has there ever been a case in American history of a city as relatively small as Portland having the same sort of pervasive impact on the policy and the built environment of America? It is truly remarkable, shocking even, and something I dare to suggest will likely never happen again."

It is definitely interesting to think of cities as models and the relative absurdity of it. Many of the specific elements that make cities good or bad isn't necessary directly transferable to anywhere else, but are driven by the unique factors and context that shape them individually. For Portland, you can broadly dispute this with some of the specifics mentioned in the article: light rail, urban planning, bike culture, freeway removal, and a host of other methods that have 'worked' here. These make work elsewhere, but in whole they won't make another Portland. I think many of these are 'our' ideas, but I think a more appropriate response would be that we looked outside ourselves and took the initiative and tried some of these things out. And we also continue to do so - not content to rest on our laurels but with a desire to keep innovating. That doesn't mean that any of these in part of whole will actually work anywhere else:

"While too many places transplanted Portland's solutions into foreign and unsuitable soil, it's undeniable that Portland played a major role in making the nation respect cities again, seeing their potential with fresh eyes... Portland is, however, unique and impossible to replicate."

So copy us, no. Be inspired, yes. What Portland does well is understood and worthy of inspiring others - not in specific details, but rather in a strong desire to keep experimenting and making the city better. What the city doesn't do well is manifold - typically oriented towards giving folks that live here something to do and exploiting the concentration of intellectual creativity that exists. Or rather, the thing that draws folks to Portland is also our downfall, as we are over-run with folks coming for the dream but left making due on a shoestring when confronted with the economic drudgery that exists.

The idea of right city, right place, right time is interesting, as it is a description of all cities - because if you live somewhere, and want to continuing to live somewhere, then it is not productive to pine for the policies of Portland, but rather figure out what works in the place you want to be. Or, like many, if this is untenable, and you want to move here and jump on the wave - everyone is welcome, but be prepared, as the livability is a double-edge sword. Fortunately, and unfortunately as Renn mentions, "People move to Portland to move to Portland".

There is definitely an air of Portland being too livable, (thus creating this draw from practically anywhere for a number of reasons), as is evidenced by the large in-migration of people - particular young creatives. In landscape architecture, for instance, it is fascinating to see how many folks regularly want to come here to work, live, and study. It would be interesting to see how the actual in-migration numbers (those who actually move) stacks up with the number of folks who think of and explore moving to the region (those who want to and don't). I'd guess it's 1:10 (with no data to back this up, so I'll say based on personal experience of people I know looking to relocate). A quick dip of one toe in the waters of our flailing job market shows that it will be a challenge to come out here, particularly in certain (ok probably most) sectors.

I hate to say I've talked a good number of folks out of moving here, not for any reason beyond a caution that one may end up unemployed for a good time (especially in our current economic conditions). The example Renn uses of comparisons to Seattle in drawing and supporting 'actual' corporate businesses that are large employment centers may be our most poignant dichotomy. Our anti-corporate streak is well know with Keep Portland Weird and Stumptown over Starbucks localism. Some would say lack of diversity, land-use and anti-business policies drive and/or keep corporations out or growth at bay, but I'd say it's more distinctly more personal. It stems from our parochial, inward, localism that makes us want to live in our bubble rather than open our world to others that may have jobs or different opinions, but don't share our utopian idealism. While our mindset works for progressive planning and politics, we are our own worst enemy in this case of economic growth, as we hate those things that will make us grow too big (large corporations, industry, or playing the dirty political games it takes for maximizing growth). We want to stay small, nimble, and innovative - perhaps at the cost of becoming more successful at doing so. And hell, you can move here, live cheaply, and exist without everything figured out and co-exist with a ton of other smart people. That makes innovation a no-brainer.

While talking numbers is interesting, Renn hits the nail on the head in talking about 'deployment'... particularly in our inability to export the collective genius of our workforce and experience to other places in the world in order to keep ourselves working. While our policies and applications are not directly transferable, the brain power and folks at work creating and experimenting in our urban laboratory is. Does this become a viable economic development picture for us to hang our hat on, importing talent and exporting sustainability? I think so. The downturn impacted some of the most innovative sectors, particularly what I am most familiar with - design and construction. The talent for green building innovation is immense, but it seems that most firms locally fight for the scraps of local development versus taking a bigger picture view of what we can offer outside of the region. Some firms have leveraged the location and reputation into a national and world-wide reputation, but really, how many international architecture firms are located in Portland compared to how much relative innovation is happening here. I blame the city itself, which is comfortable, easy to live in, and difficult to leave. What's a little unemployment compared to access to the good things in life?

So I implore you out there in the world: Give us a call, it can be mutually beneficial for both of us... We have a lot to offer, and currently a lot of mouths to feed, smart folks looking to be deployed. We will outsource this innovation for a bit of an economy to support our greatest commodity, the people who live here.

Check out the full article, and read more:
:: Portland and the Limits of Urban Planning Policy (The Urbanophile)
:: Portland Creatives Find New Ways to Work Together (Good)


  1. Thanks for posting such a thoughtful response to the article.

    Your notion of exploiting Portland's brand reputation to export services such as green architecture is an interesting one. For a less hip place to bring in architects from Portland, might that lend some sense of cachet? Possibly. The biggest challenge might be overcoming the inbuilt bias in favor of local firms that exists in so many cities. OTOH, if Portland firms explored a partnership model, that might be an alternate to go market channel.

    Regardless, I like the idea. Aaron.

  2. Thanks Aaron, and well done on the article and post related to Portland. Always great to hear some perspective and definitely as we talk about hot-button ideas like urban growth and obviously, economic development. The local vs. outsider definitely is a barrier, but the idea of partnerships vs. taking jobs away from other communities makes a lot of sense... mutually beneficial collaborations.

    I had a conversation recently as well about perhaps really physically exporting people to other locales - if jobs continue to be sparse here locally and people need to relocate. Will it be possible, as a worker with experience working in Portland and doing innovative sustainability, to use that as a marketing cachet in other regions. I see that having some benefit, but I guess the rub is you have to leave Portland :)

    The PDC is currently embarking on a look at some specific clusters developments for economic development sectors (Link here) related to certain sectors such as activewear, software, and manufacturing - perhaps green building exportation fits into their cluster of 'sustainable industries' but it doesn't seem like there has been a real focus on this directly.

    Should be interesting to see how much teeth this has, and whether it is internally focused of looking at net exports.

  3. Thanks for the link. I will check it out.

    Exporting surplus talent is a known economic development strategy. Think about India and China, for example. The best work on this I've seen is AnnaLee Saxenian's "The New Argonauts". (She's a bit dry, I'll just warn you - academic style stuff. You might try her "Regional Advantage" first).

    A blog dedicated to this notion of exploiting talent flows is Jim Russell's Burgh Diaspora, if you don't already read it:


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