Portland, Oregon: Sprawlbusters

The West’s urban fortress defends itself against sprawl and big-box retail


| May-June 1997


If the fight against sprawl is the new war of the West, as The New York Times recently observed, then Portland is the Lone Ranger. In the 1970s this innovative city took a stand against the blight of unchecked suburban growth and did what supposedly couldn’t be done: restricted development to a compact central area and left forests, farmland, and orchards untouched. First the city drew an urban growth boundary around the city—in essence, a thin green line beyond which development would not spread. Then, working with other municipalities, it created a regional government body known as Metro that required each city and county to file a comprehensive land-use plan to keep open space intact. The plan evoked howls of protest from developers, who tried unsuccessfully three times to get voters to repeal the act.

The result of all this planning is a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly downtown area where people love to live and work. Life in Portland takes place not inside autos but in great rainy-day hangouts like the block-long Powell’s bookstore and the restored 1920s Bagdad Theater, where you can watch a second-run movie for a dollar, and order pizza and a beer too. Light rail trains and free downtown buses whisk people swiftly around town. And as if to underscore that the real enemy is car culture, Portland knocked down a multilevel parking garage to create Pioneer Square, a European-style open-air plaza. Today it’s a central gathering spot where thousands of downtown workers eat lunch and listen to concerts.

Critics warned that Portland would stagnate under sprawl-control measures, but just the opposite has happened. The economy boomed as people and companies moved to Portland because of its livability. The population has climbed to 500,000, and that has created new pressures for development. The debate about how and where to grow continues as various factions propose a limit on “big-box” retail development like Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R’ Us, an expansion of the growth area, and measures to create more affordable housing.

Portlanders may be self-satisfied, but they’re not lifting one of the many local microbrews in a victory toast yet. “We’re in the middle of seeing if we’re going to pull this off,” says Lenny Dee, who’s on the steering committee of the Coalition for a Livable Future, which is lobbying for measures to ensure the vitality of the inner city. “There are enormous growth pressures. The money machine is relentless.”