Sunday, January 17, 2010

Urban/Rural - Helvetia Part 1

Another recent piece 'Pushing the Limits' comes via the 'Slow Issue' of GOOD magazine and looks at the anti-growth policies of which we are well known regionally. It's a good piece about the current 'dialogue' about urban and rural reserves and relevant to the work we are doing for the 'Urban Edge' class.

:: image via GOOD

The idea of close-proximity farming at the urban-rural interface isn't exclusive to Portland, but it does often seems more evident due to the sharp distinction between the two land uses in our region. One major discussion point for growth has been the little pastoral enclave known as Helvetia, discussed in the article in terms of a local farm called La Finquita del Buho. Helvetia: "... is not so much a town as a hazy-bordered swath of bucolic paradise that looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, a Wendell Berry essay on sustainable agriculture or, at least, a TV commercial for a high-performance sedan. Two-lane country roads twist through lush hills, past browsing cattle and cozy farmsteads. Wheat farms dating back to the Swiss and German pioneers who settled the area in the 1850s stand next to boutique operations like La Finquita that supply heirloom tomatoes and organic kohlrabi to Portland’s rapidly expanding ranks of the food-obsessed. The whole place begs to be romanticized."

:: image via GOOD

The romantic (and economic) notions of the rural so juxtaposed with the urban is at the heart of the land-use policies that shape our region... and seems to benefit as well as be clouded by the eons of cultural baggage with hold in perceptions of city and farm. Helvetia is one of those disputed territories that make the discussions so interesting. One one hand it . How many cities the size of Portland can boast a beautiful agricultural resource so close to the urban center that hasn't been swallowed up with sprawl? As mentioned in GOOD: "Along with creating dense neighborhoods, encouraging mass-transit use, and irritating free-market zealots, the growth boundary saves farmland close to the city. The resulting proximity between country and town defines life here."

A quick measure via Google Earth shows that the center of Helvetia is about 12 miles (as the crow flies) from the Central Core:

:: image via Google Earth

As a poster child for anti-sprawl, Helvetia isn't a bad example of these policies at work - allowing for development in some areas and retention of the 'working landscape' in others. Protection of the farmland is one of the major drivers of Senate Bill 100 and the establishment of the Urban Growth Boundary that is required to be established by every municipality in the State of Oregon.

While limiting growth, this also is meant to provide for, not prohibit, opportunities for development by including a requirement to determine area to meet a 20-year supply of land for housing, industrial, commercial, and other uses and expanding the boundary accordingly. This is sometimes a vague and contentious discussion, so one way of guiding this is a recent shift to determining urban and rural reserves, or areas that will be slated for development or protection for up to 50 years. In the case of a place like Helvetia, which is only about one half mile from the UGB, this means the determination of a future for development, or the long-term retention of agricultural use and character.

The term 'slow-sprawl' is used, which I think is an apt term for the mechanism that continually expands the boundary... a state of tension that makes it impossible to determine the future. The recent planned version precludes Helvetia from the urban reserves, but there were some moments of tension when Hillsboro planned to swallow up the farmland for industrial expansion. While it's easy to take polarized sides in the argument, this distinction between economic development and protection of agricultural lands is a big deal. From GOOD:

"The land-grabbing suburb makes an almost inevitable villain in this kind of tale, but Hillsboro can make a good case for why it should grow. Around 1970—when Spencer Gates, the wheat farmer, was a kid—Hillsboro was a purely agricultural town with a population of about 15,000. Today, it is the fifth-largest city in the state, with about 90,000 people and sizeable Asian and Hispanic communities. Intel, the silicon-processor giant, built manufacturing and advanced research facilities here in the 1970s, and today employs more than 15,000 people in the area. Other tech, manufacturing, logistics, and research businesses piggyback on Intel’s massive presence. Any chance to expand on Hillsboro’s successes looks tempting in Oregon, a state currently afflicted with double-digit unemployment."
The arguments often pit 'economics' versus farming, but this tends to downplay the role that agriculture has in the State and regional economy of Oregon and Portland. The balance isn't just a question of livability, but what is more appropriate for the financial bottom line as well. Read more in-depth in the rest of the GOOD article, and stay tuned, as the discussion of course, still continues.

In Part II, i'm going to look at the progression of maps related to Helvetia and it's proximity to the Urban Growth Boundary, as well as how this area has been designated within this part of the urban-rural reserves determination process.


  1. I've been doing some work with Whole Systems Design and learning more about "Working Landscapes." Using permaculture practices suburban growth or sprawl could be less of a problem if permaculture practices can be integrated into what typically would be unused green spaces.

    Town commons and highway right-of-ways transform from areas of waste, needing to be mowed and maintained, to areas of production.

    It would seem, given suburban encroachment into farmland, that a coinciding development integration model would best suitable.

  2. One of the transformational processes of landscape architecture is the move from single-purpose to multi-functional landscapes, the the ideas behind permaculture and systems design makes a lot of sense. There are definitely some conceptual leaps that need to happen in order for permaculture to move from site scale to district and city-scale, as I haven't seen a compelling version of that proposed so far.

    Check out 'Continuously Productive Urban Landscapes' CPULs for more of a large-scale application (again it's theoretical, but seems doable) the best resource that starts to approach this idea.

    The evolution in Portland is from a typically inside/outside dichotomy (where agriculture is outside and urbanity is inside) and this is changing as there is more demand for productivity close to where we inhabit. While protection of regional farmland is still vital both for close access to food and to curb sprawl, we still need to balance density within cities with adequate amounts of natural habitat, usable open space, productive lands and other varied uses.


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