by Alissa Walker
Portland, Oregon—the misty evergreen Shangri-La for the young, the creative, and the progressive—has an interesting problem. Its miles of bike lanes, its rock-bottom rents, its deep vats of craft brews are all far too good. Yes, Portland has actually made itself too attractive. According to one study that compared May of 2009 with May of 2008, Oregon’s unemployment has grown faster than any other state in the country, 3 percent. For large metropolitan areas in the country, Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates, which topped out at about 11.8 percent—even higher than Detroit. To blame, some economists believe, are the large numbers of designers and artists who have been moving there without jobs, dubbed the dubious “young creatives.”
Last week, as I visited the dozen or so of my friends who have recently relocated there (some without jobs themselves), I did not, as you may think, have to step over piles of out-of-work hipsters. Portland is an outpost of high-tech entrepreneurship nestled firmly in the Silicon Forest, and these highly-educated people are already finding innovative ways to make money. But like other “youth magnet” cities (Austin, Charlotte, Seattle), they’re less likely to go to work at an office. As I strolled the city from meeting to meeting, I realized that out of necessity, Portland is quickly finding the answers to a much greater issue that’s going to affect an increasingly freelance workforce across the country: Where are all these people going to work?
Ziba Design is a design firm headquartered in Portland that stands to benefit from the influx of talent. “We always have a [lot] of interest from around the world, but over the last few years we have begun to see more local talent interested in working at Ziba,” says executive creative director Steve McCallion. “The quality of this talent seems to have increased.” McCallion attributes the pilgrimage to Portland’s personality. “Portland’s DNA is based on collaboration, creativity, and independence. This has manifested itself into a thriving DIY creative culture making everything from craft beers, to micro-roasters, to handmade bikes.” Being a good corporate citizen is also important to the city’s residents. “The young creative class is interested in working for companies that have strong values and are rooted in doing good for the community.” So when the 25-year-old company recently built a new headquarters in the Pearl District, a quickly-gentrifying part of downtown known for housing many of the city’s creative firms, they made several decisions that go against the sealed-bunker mentality of design firms often working under strict NDAs: They opened the building up to the local community.
Ground floor retail rings the building and a “pocket gallery” create cultural opportunities for the neighborhood. A huge 200-seat auditorium will host public programming and be available for nonprofits to use free of charge. Ziba is even renting office space within the building and allowing their tenants to share their amenities—again, radical for a company that practically requires a retinal scan to enter. Besides the fact that supplemental rent helps keep their own business afloat, the reasons for all these things were clear to Ziba: The more they can have those serendipitous interactions with people outside the firm, the stronger it will be. “The emerging practice of open source design means that creative firms must get better at co-creation and collaboration,” says McCallion. “The creative class is looking for diversity not just in their city, but in the workplace as well. Opening up to the community increases diversity.”