Portland 2.0: Weaving Myths of Urban Nationalism

"What’s Portland’s current business model? What’s the theory of the case going forward? What’s your version of Portland 2.0?"
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Portland's skyline. (PHOTO: RAZVAN ORENDOVICI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Portland's skyline. (PHOTO: RAZVAN ORENDOVICI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

At TechfestNW, Alan Weber (founding editor of Fast Company magazine) gave a rousing keynote speech laying out a bold vision for Portland's (Oregon) future. In order to inspire a certain future, one must reinvent the past. What's next is only natural. It's in our DNA. It's uniquely Portland. Weber's historical rewrite of Portland's rise from the Rust Belt slag heap:

Which leads me to the first question that I’d like to offer as a topic for your ongoing conversation and debate—a “what’s next?” question for the Portlanders of today: What’s Portland’s current business model? What’s the theory of the case going forward? What’s your version of Portland 2.0?

The second thing you need to know about Portland in the 1970s is that livability was never the goal. True, it was always a component of a well-integrated urban strategy. But it was always a building block, an essential Portland attribute and a deeply held Oregon value. But it wasn’t the definition of victory for the city. It was an input for creating the Portland strategy, but it was never the sole output. ...

... A second question that needs to be addressed also comes, I believe, from that misreading of livability as a goal rather than an input. Making livability and environmental sustainability a hallmark of the Portland story has tended to obscure the key role that jobs and economic development always played in that original strategy.

From the beginning, it was always clear that the environment and the economy were inextricably linked. Two sides of one coin. Far from being mutually exclusive, a healthy economy combined with a healthy environment would make the Portland strategy work—at every step of the way. In fact, I don’t think it would be wrong to say that the livability agenda was only possible because of a pragmatic business strategy.

Take the Mt. Hood Freeway. It could only be killed once it became clear that neither the money for the freeway nor the construction jobs associated with it would be lost—only transferred to light rail and surface street improvements across the entire metropolitan region. When that transfer became possible, the Mt. Hood Freeway became both a business deal and an environmental deal.

Emphasis added. A few years ago, I would have swallowed that narrative whole. That is, until I read about the tension between the two sides of the Portland coin. "Regional Competitiveness and Quality of Life: The Case of Portland and Stuttgart":

In Portland, economic development at the local and regional level is highly fragmented, inefficient and focused on traditional tools such as marketing and industrial recruitment. This is reflected in the organizational structure of economic development planning: Metro does not have an economic development department. Each city in the region has its own economic development program. Traditional planning functions such as land use, transportation planning, etc. are the responsibilities of the regional planning agency Metro. Organizationally, planning for economic development and planning for quality of life are separate. Interviewees noted a deep division among the actors standing behind each. Paradoxically, traditional planning efforts in Portland (such as the implementation of the urban growth boundary in the 1970s, public transportation and transit-oriented developments, downtown redevelopment, upgrading public spaces, and the protection of greenspace) that were implemented over the past three decades have made the region very attractive to firms and people. Interview partners agreed that even though the region has been practicing what Richard Florida is recommending (i. e. focusing on improving the living conditions), it did not implement these strategies deliberately. The success of the region in translating quality of life into economic competitiveness seems to be an accidental and unintended result of a much longer strategy aimed at environmental goals for their own sake rather than economic objectives.

The part of the passage in boldface is my doing. An academic look at the Portland Way yields the total opposite story of the one Alan Weber wants to tell. The sole output was, probably still is, environmental sustainability. The other side of Weber's coin was an unintended consequence.

Then why does Weber bother with the fiction? Because all is not well in Portlandia. As discussed here yesterday, urbanists distinguish between consumer cities and producer cities. The latter are the new winners, such as Portland. The former comprise the old guard, Rust Belt losers such as Pittsburgh. Better yet, take the example from the above academic journal article, Stuttgart. In its own producer city way, Stuttgart is booming. In its own consumer city way, Portland is booming. Trouble in Great Britain's consumer city:

Within policy circles the term ‘High Street’ seems to have become shorthand for city centre. And for many, saving the High Street has become a crusade. Retailers, celebrities and politicians have all lamented the decline of it. In turn, policy documents, newspaper articles and TV programmes have been dedicated to turning round its fortunes.

The approach of nearly all of these commentators assumes that High Streets are the raison d’être for city centres. Yet our research shows that sluggish retail is the symptom of an underperforming city centre, not the cause of it. If a city centre lacks jobs, residents and/or leisure amenities - the primary functions of city centres - then this will shrink the size of the market that a secondary activity such as retail can serve.1 This may well sound obvious. But the economics behind the struggles of some High Streets has been largely overlooked by those that are looking to arrest their decline.

There needs to be a shift in the debate, moving beyond a narrow discussion about the future of retail to a much more practical focus on the future role of city centres. Retail is just one part of a city centre economy. Central locations are particularly attractive to ‘knowledge’ industries such as law, accounting or financial services because they benefit from locating close to clients, competitors and collaborators, making them more productive. In other words, by concentrating economic activity in one place, cities can get more out of what they’ve got, and this will support activity on the High Street.

The Portland paradigm, the consumer city, is falling from favor. But Weber can't critique the emperor's new clothes and rally the forces. Instead, he tries to bring together the two sides at odds onto the same coin. In Steve Jobs We Trust:

What we were advancing back then was an alternative business model for a city—even though nobody at the time had heard of business models.

But think about it: What Portland did in the 1970s was to zig when everyone else zagged.

We didn’t try to be more like Seattle or more like San Francisco. We tried to be more like Portland—the best Portland we could imagine and then implement.

To do that, we disrupted the status quo. We challenged conventional wisdom. We advanced an alternative theory of the case—as they say in business school—one that ran counter to the way every other American city was developing at the time.

We were an urban Apple: Portland dared to “think different.”

Behold, iPortlandia. Put a bird on it.

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