Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Portland and the Limits of Urban Planning Policy

My latest piece is online at the Portland Oregonian. They commissioned me to write a piece for their Sunday print edition giving an outsider’s view of the city. It is called “Picture Perfect Portland?” (their headline) and you can read it at the Oregonian’s site.

In it I note as a positive that Portland was clearly ahead of other similar sized cities in understanding the importance of density, transit, bike lanes, etc. But more importantly, that the “Portland model” had a wide influence in America. Perhaps Portland has had a greater influence on America’s urban environments than any other city its relative size in history. That’s an amazing accomplishment if you think about it. And what’s more, that influence has been a good thing.

Naturally, they don’t need me to just tell them “It’s all good”. So on the areas for development side I noted their underperforming economy. It’s not so much that Portland is particularly suffering in this recession, though it is, or that it is a failure in an absolute sense, which it is not. No, rather I look at it like diving. There are two aspects: execution and degree of difficulty. Portland has very low degree of difficulty, so we would expect it to perform much better.

I’ll be discussing this piece in a live web chat hosted by the Oregonian Tuesday at 2p Central Time, if you are interested in discussing it.

“First” vs. “Worst”

I’d like to illustrate this performance from a Midwest perspective by comparing Portland to Indianapolis. You can think of Portland as being in “first place” from a policy perspective by popular acclaim. It has an urban growth boundary, extensive transit, excellent urban density, a strong biking culture, a strong culture of civic engagement, the most microbreweries per capita, and on down the line. It is a place people want to live in so badly that they will move there with no job in hand and would be one of the cities that comes to mind among similar sized metros as a talent hub.

If Portland is first, then you’d have to characterize Indianapolis as “worst”. Indianapolis is surrounded by expanding suburbia with very pro-sprawl policies on all four sides. It is one of the least dense cities in America. It has no rail transit and only the 99th largest bus system, along with one of the lowest transit market shares in the country. It is currently in the middle of a multi-billion program to widen about 60 miles of freeway. It just recently put in its very first bike lanes. It scores near the bottom in all measures of environmental sustainability. And its brand image is hardly the best. You don’t hear too many people around the country going, “Man, I’ve gotta get me to Indianapolis.”

But let’s look at how these cities compare on various quantitative measures of urban performance. Note: I pulled these very rapidly, so please confirm yourself before repeating them.

 Portland   Indianapolis 
Population Growth (2000-2008) 14.5% 12.5%
Domestic In-Migration (2000-2008) 5.4% 4.2%
International In-Migration (2000-2008) 3.7% 1.4%
Job Growth 2001-2009 (QCEW) 10,300 (1.1%) 17,100 (2.1%)
Job Growth 2001-2009 (CES) 23,800 (2.4%) 31,000 (3.6%)
Unemployment Rate (Nov 2009) 10.8% 8.2%
Per Capita GMP (2008) 47,811 46,450
Per Capita GMP Growth (2001-2008) 22.4% 1.7%
Median Household Income (ACS 2008) $58,758 $53,671
Median Monthly Housing Cost (ACS 2008) $1,522 $1,125
College Degree Attainment (ACS 2008) 33.3% 31.8%
Travel Time Index (Texas A&M) 1.28 1.21

Now in most of these Portland does beat Indy, but not by a lot. Indy actually leads on the jobs and unemployment front, which is top of mind in today’s world. Portland’s higher incomes are offset by higher housing costs. There are only two stats – international migration and GMP per capita growth – where Portland has a big lead.

Given the wide difference in their policies, it is striking to see these cities so close. By rights, it should be total world domination by Portland – but it isn’t.

Now obviously these aren’t the only statistics to measure a city by. Portland residents would no doubt tout their many livability advantages. Yet at some point isn’t livability supposed to translate into superior demographic and economic performance? Isn’t it supposed to make a city attractive to the talent pool needed to thrive in the 21st century? And isn’t that talent supposed to power the economy? I was particularly struck by how close the cities were on college degree attainment. While I called Portland a talent hub, perhaps I spoke too soon. Contrast with Boston, which has 41.9% of its over 25 population with a bachelors degree or better.

It may be that policy changes act with a lag. But Portland has been at this a long time. The UGB dates to 1973 and the light rail system started construction in the early 80’s. And hey, Indy must be doing something right.

Under-Utilized Talent

One of the problems is that Portland isn’t able to effectively put all of its talent to use. This phenomenon has been extensively written about, but I’ll share this one excerpt from GOOD, a publication that is very pro-Portland.

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.”

And the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the entire story. A significant number of people who moved to Portland are simply under-employed.

The Nikki Sutton Story

I’d like to illustrate this with one anecdote. I had originally hoped to include this in the Oregonian piece but ran out of space.

Nikki Sutton was born on the conservative South Side of Indianapolis. Nevertheless, she somehow managed to grow up as a vegan leftist activist. She had visited family in the Pacific Northwest growing up, and fell in love with the place.

Eager to be in this great physical setting and around more people who shared her values, Nikki moved to Portland without a job in the early 2000’s. (She originally thought she had one, but it fell through right as she was moving). She spent 14 months looking for serious employment, but couldn’t find it. In the meantime, she worked at the Banana Republic flagship. According to her, the entire staff was in the same boat – people who wanted to live in Portland but hadn’t been able to find employment in their own field.

Since it gave benefits to part time workers, Nikki also applied for a retail job at Starbucks. She was told there was such a backlog of applications it would likely be some time before she even got a call back. Yes, there appears to be a long waiting list for jobs at Starbucks in Portland.

After more than a year of this, she was lured back to Indianapolis by an actual job offer from a local architecture firm. After working there for some time, she launched her own firm, Level Interior. She’s also active as a model and fashion stylist. I’m personally very impressed with her work.

When a city isn’t able to put top talent like Nikki to work, that’s a warning sign. It would be different if it were, say, New York, where large numbers of people are trying to penetrate elite levels of niche professions, but that’s not what we are talking about.

It may well be that Portland’s approach is right for it. Focusing on livability and sustainability is certainly a good thing.

But there’s a downside for places that do this at the price of major commercial ambitions. Portland offers a very high quality of life beloved by its residents and a more environmentally sustainable vision of a city. But to take advantage of that, you first need a job. It’s not livable if you can’t live there – just ask Nikki.

True Sustainability

Which brings up another point. Nikki now gets the privilege of “enjoying” a car dependent lifestyle and electricity from coal fired plants. What’s the carbon impact of Nikki not being able to get a job in Portland? I wonder what the carbon footprint of the city would look like if it counted people who had to leave for economic reasons, or who wanted to move there but decided discretion was the better part of valor when they couldn’t secure advance employment. Similarly, I guess, what would be the carbon footprint of California be if it counted all the ex-Californians that moved to Texas?

It strikes me that Portland has adopted an approach of quality over quantity. But trying to create a local footprint that is maximally green may not be the right overall solution. We’ve got to keep in mind the entirety of the saying “think globally, act locally.”

What we really need is quantity of quality. That means places like Indianapolis need to step it up – bigtime. But it also means that we need to maximize the use of places like Portland and California that have the lowest carbon footprints. It’s like Ed Glaeser said last year, we should be building skyscrapers in California. We ought to be encouraging more people who might want to to live in places like Portland. By focusing on construction, Glaeser gets part of it right, but misses the other side of the equation. You’ve got to have jobs for the people who want to live in those skyscrapers.

The Limits of Urban Planning Policy

Perhaps Portland also shows the limits of urban planning policy. By that I mean land use and transportation policy. These can play an important role in creating livable, desirable cities. They might even play a role in improving the brand and attracting talent. And of course they affect the environmental footprint of a city. They surely play a role in maintaining core vitality, a huge challenge for a place like Indianapolis.

But they do not, by themselves, turn a city into an economic dynamo.

Here is an interesting local reaction worth checking out: Landscape+Urbanism: Picture Perfect

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis, Portland

56 Responses to “Portland and the Limits of Urban Planning Policy”

  1. David Parvo says:

    A couplathree years ago a Congressman from one of the Carolinas, if I recall correctly, was asked to define the middle-class voter he and his cohorts were catering their messages to. His answer was somebody who made $250,000.

  2. Wad says:

    Good insights, Alon, as always.

    Something else the six questions of “middle-classness” attempts to find out is how much of the middle class is the result of agency and how much is a consequence of factors beyond individual control.

    What happens to a person who would fall into the middle class by income and/or education, and their livelihood disappears or is not available? They don’t lose skill sets, but they are shut out of the who, when, where and how of the exchange through no choice of their own.

    A yes to the six questions signifies a class privilege, rather than an income or educational one. The privilege in this case is agency.

    As you’ve said, Alon, you can say yes to all but the who and the where in your academic capacity. You would be at the top of your educational cohort, but not necessarily in the top income cohort. As you’ve said, you face stiff competition from the field of candidates.

    However, do you have ways of turning those nos into yeses? For instance, do you have a degree in a field that would allow you to teach as a consultant or in a nonacademic setting? Also, is your field one that is portable to a range of disciplines or in demand outside of where you live?

    These have varying degrees on your economic standing, but significantly boost your social standing. A yes is a confidence in making opportunities.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Wad: yes, I can turn the no’s into yes’s. I’m in math, which a lot of hedge fund managers and finance companies rave about. Both my professors and the other grad students have repeatedly explained that a mathematician who washes out from academia or does not want an academic job can easily land a higher-paying finance job.

    But even among mathematicians, the opportunities are pretty limited for people who did not go to top-tier universities. If you graduate from Columbia, you can almost certainly get a job in finance. If you graduate from CUNY, it’s not so certain.

    At any rate, this is not how the middle class is usually defined. The focus on transferable skills is important in today’s globalized upper middle class, but not the ordinary middle class. Traditionally, the skilled middle class would be limited to one skill or narrow set of skills. Before mass education, it was based on apprenticeships. Today, it’s based on either union affiliation or a degree.

    On the other hand, there’s a trend for deskilling a college degree. In the earlier days of mass education, which in the US corresponded to the middle of the 20th century, a high school education was generic, providing general background for an industrial job; a college degree provided specific skills. Today, a college degree provides the same general skills. As a corollary of their generalness, the labor market is large and wages are not guaranteed to be high; this is especially true in the humanities, where a large labor surplus is driving down income to working class levels. However, even then, social status isn’t too low, because of the effects of education on social networks. A college graduate, especially one from a high-tier college, is likely to know people in such professions as law and medicine, making finding a lawyer and a doctor significantly easier than for other people making the same amount of money.

  4. the urban politician says:

    I realize this thread is a bit older, but I thought this article was very relevant to this discussion, and is exactly emblematic about Aaron’s comments about how a city like Portland views business & economic development, as opposed to a city like Chicago:,mayor-daley-trade-shows-012810.article

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Daley is full of shit when he says that the US is about opportunity. He complains, “I’ve always thought America stands for [rewarding success]. You finish high school. You work hard, go to college and you hope to succeed in life. I never knew it’s a class war—that those who succeed in life are the ones that have to bear all the burden. I never realized that. It will be a whole change in America that those who succeed and work hard [that] we’re gonna tax ‘em more than anyone else.”

    The US has little social mobility – it’s among the least mobile first-world countries. In America you are born rich, and grow up to be rich. You stand a better chance of making top-quartile income if you were born in the top quartile and didn’t go to college than if you were born in the bottom quartile and did go to college.

  6. David Parvo says:

    Yep, it’s what I call the Horatio Alger Myth.

    Some years ago a study was done by a gentleman who asked X amount of poor kids in Harlem when they were eight what they wanted to be when they grew up. The answers were doctor and lawyer and such…ten years later he went back to ask them the same question; he could only find something like 1/4 of them, whose responses were along the lines of nothing.

    Racism has essentially been institutionalized in the US so that the “lower-classes” are divided, thus expediting their “conquering” and, speaking of Chicago, literary theorist Walter Ben Michaels is from there: “Race…has been a more successful technology of mystification. In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people. Furthermore, in the form of the celebration of ‘identity’ and ‘ethnic diversity’, it seeks to create a bond between poor black people and rich white ones.”

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