by Aaron M. Renn
Portland didn’t invent bicycles, density or light rail — but it understood the future implications of them for America’s smaller cities first, and put that knowledge to use before anyone else. The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. Nobody else did. In an era where most American cities went one direction, Portland went another, either capturing or even creating the zeitgeist of a new age.
In the agro-industrial era, Chicago first understood the true significance of railroads, the skyscraper and even urban planning. It saw what others couldn’t — and acted on that understanding. That made Chicago the greatest city, indeed the orderer, of its age.
In the late 20th century and continuing to the present day, for cities below the first rank, Portland plays that role. Like Chicago, it is remaking much of America after its own fashion. Light rail, bike lanes, reclaimed waterfronts, urban condos and microbreweries are now nearly ubiquitous, if not deployed at scale, across the nation.
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.
Louisvillian JC Stites lived for a time in Portland and said of it, “Portland is real. It’s not about ad campaigns pushing false benefits, rather it’s about addressing very real issues regarding how cities grow and sustain themselves.” Partially inspired by Portland, Stites co-founded 8664, a grass-roots organization dedicated to tearing down the Interstate 64 riverfront freeway in Louisville that has excited a large part of that city. That’s the influence of Portland half a continent away.
For a moment in time it wasn’t New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco that captured the national imagination, but a small city on the West Coast far from the cultural and economic capitals of the nation. Portland in the 1990s was, in its own way, the equal of Chicago in the 1890s. The city punched far above its weight.
What’s more, Portland’s legacy is a largely positive one. 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. As with Chicago, even had another city seen the future, it likely could not have acted on it in the same way. Portland is an outlier. It’s geographically at the edge, has a remarkable natural setting, is one of America’s least diverse cities, and has a very different development and social history than most U.S. cities. Like Chicago, Portland was the right city, in the right place, at the right time.
But though Portland can’t be copied, it can be an inspiration. Many of its ideas can and have been adopted elsewhere. Whether most cities succeed in reclaiming their urban cores is not yet known, but it’s a fight worth fighting. Without Portland, we might not be even trying.
A drawback: our economy
However, in one way Portland today is very unlike that younger Chicago: economically. As low-cost haven next to troubled California, with fantastic natural amenities and resources, a burgeoning talent pool, a small underclass, a comparative lack of the legacy problems of other cities and a high degree of civic consensus, Portland should be an economic juggernaut — but isn’t.