20 February 2008

Thoughts on Portland

We just returned from 4 days in Portland OR. The stated reason of our trip was to view firsthand the Portland Streetcar system. I took hundreds of photos, and will make many follow-up posts about the streetcar and other transportation stuff we observed while there. In this post, I would like to make a few general observations:

General impressions: Portland doesn't feel west-coast. The city sits on a river about an hour's drive from the ocean, however, what I mean is that the people and the city they've built, could be anywhere in middle America. There are lots of cars, jeans, carbohydrates and malls. The streets are paved in painted asphalt and the buidings look a lot like those in every city across the midwest and northeast US. They have many of the problems other cities have such as poverty, declining industry, struggling public schools, and losing sports teams. However, there is one thing that sets them apart: they are figuring out how to make the city liveable. They are doing something most other cities of this size cannot figure out how to do. They are getting people to walk. They have thriving retail in the city center. Families desire to live downtown. And the important thing to know is that this was done concsiously and deliberately. It was not inevitable, and some people resisted the changes. City leaders have been working for decades to change Portland from a city people want to flee to a city people want to be in.

It is a river City: The city was founded-on and oriented towards a river (Wilamette). This river is similar in width to the Ohio, but the view onto the river is less picturesque. The river is not very dynamic, and I did not see traffic or even movement of the water much at all. The east side of the river is dominated by a major interstate highway and unattractive buildings.

Topography. Portland has steep hills surrounding the basin city. Historically the wealthier people moved to the hills. The basin area is larger than Cincinnati's, but the basin in Portland also contains their University. A very large park overlooks the city. The city Zoo is in this park at a train stop. The basin to the East stretches many miles to the airport and the Columbia river. The hills are steeper and higher, and their are fantastic views to distant mountains such as Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood.

Historic Buildings and Public Spaces. Portland has many beautiful old buildings. Some grand historic commercial buildings in the city center look much like 100 year old buildings in Cincinnati. The city is built on a grid, with 66' wide streets, just like Cincinnati's. The blocks in Portland are 200', which is about half the size of most cities (including Cincinnati's). The benefit of short blocks is something that Jane Jabobs and other planners have praised for improving pedestrian options and walkability. The streetscape in Portland is not beautiful. Trees have been planted and sidewalks widened, but beyond the "park blocks" they are not blessed with great public spaces. Their Pioneer Square, which would be equivalent to our Fountain Square is quite mediocre. Despite this it is full of people and activities all the time.

The people. The city seems to have a solid white middle class that in a way makes it feel very midwestern. That said, people of all races and ages can be seen throughout the center city. Dress and manners are not pretentious. There are homeless people and wealthy people all on the sidewalks.

The government. There are no sale taxes. Government income is derived soley from state income tax and property taxes. Schools are underfunded, but score OK, so I am told. Private schools are not prevalent. The State enacted urban growth boundaries decades ago. The limits of the boundary are modified by a planning commission with a mandate that they keep a few years worth of developable land available.

Their university is smaller than UC. Their hospital is the largest employer in the city. Nike and other sports apparel makers are big. People bike a lot. The weather was beautiful during most of our visit, but it does rain often. Seemed to be many smaller entreprenurial shops and restaurants. We found a bakery similar to Shadeau Breads, but even better.

There are families all over the city center, walking and biking together.

Once I get my photos organized, I'll start posting some, along with observations about the light rail, streetcars, bikes, infrastructure, etc ...

(by the way, spell check is broken on Blogger, so excuse the typos)


Chris S said...

Nice overview of Portland. It squares well with my experiences there. I look forward to your impressions of the streetcar system, which I only got to briefly experience while there. I definitely fell in love with what they have done for bicyclists as well!

hellogerard said...

Excellent report. I'm looking forward to the rest of your posts. I too am looking forward to your impressions of the streetcar, especially when contrasted with the comments on this Jackie's blog, by a lady who worked for the city of Portland for seven years.

Dan said...

Can't wait for the rest!

liberal foodie said...

that's amazing. I haven't visited Portland or Denver but have decided to move to one of the 2 cities because I've read so much about the streetcar system and openess to bicyclying. sp? Someone recently told me they have bars in downtown that list times of the next streetcar. If Cincinnati progress with their plans, I would love to stay here and enjoy it. I am really really happy you got to go, though a little jealous b/c I've been talking about visiting Portland for months.

CityKin said...

The bars may list the streetcar times, I'm not sure, but get this:
The streetcars have GPS locators and the exact time till next car is digitally displayed at each stop, and it can be found online or on your blackberry or cellphone. But that almost doesn't matter most of the time because they come so often.