On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

Retrofitting suburbia in Portland: What have we learned?

Note: This is a longer version of a post that is now appearing on the Atlantic Monthly blog, Atlantic Cities.  http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2011/10/in-defense-of-portlands-orenco-station/313/

By US standards, Portland, Oregon has a great reputation as a sustainable city. But the region’s dirty little secret is that its suburbs – home to over two-thirds of the region’s population – suffer from the same kind of car-dependent sprawl that surrounds virtually every US city. In that light, the most important lessons for places like Portland may well be, not what we can do about cities, but what we can do about their suburbs.

This challenge of “sprawl retrofit” – reversing the patterns of sprawl, and infilling and “repairing” the sprawling areas that are already built – has taken on a notable urgency lately, and for good reason. The sprawling suburbs were Ground Zero of the global economic meltdown: the place where unsustainable mortgages met unsustainable car-dependent lifestyles. It just took a spike in gas prices to knock down that precarious house of cards, and trigger the cascading worldwide financial crisis that’s still gripping us today.

So getting the suburbs onto a more stable, sustainable path seems to be an economic issue every bit as important as any ecological ones. The problems of the fragmented suburbs loom especially large for vulnerable populations unable to drive because of income or health or unemployment, and now left essentially marooned in areas not supported by public transit. Those who do drive pay a big premium to maintain a car with insurance, fueled by rising gas prices – money that takes away from other needs at a time they can ill afford it.

Even before the recession, the Portland area has been tackling this issue through its regional planning authority, Metro – the only directly elected regional planning authority in the country. Shortly after its founding in its current form in 1992, Metro, convinced that sprawl was unsustainable, developed a plan to reverse the sprawling pattern in the Portland suburbs, and to develop a series of “centers and corridors” clustered around jobs, services and transit, known as the “2040 Growth Concept” (referencing a target date roughly 50 years after the plan was made).

I personally became involved in a part of this story soon after, on a project to build one of these centers known as Orenco Station, and I can give an insider’s perspective on what we think we did and didn’t achieve, and some remaining lessons. (This might complement Eric Jaffe’s report on the same subject that appeared on this site a few weeks ago: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2011/10/has-new-urbanism-failed-portland/275/)

As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs famously pointed out, the problem with sprawl is not just the dependence on the automobile, but the segregated, “rationalized” planning of which it was a key part. In one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century, planners developed the theory that this was a more sophisticated and more “modern” way to make cities – but the result was that they turned a lot of very good US cities into grim collections of dysfunctional, disconnected fragments, unwalkable from one to the other, and unable to be served by any but the most inadequate transit. The centers were eviscerated in favor of the new suburbs, which segregated jobs from homes. But those who came to the new suburbs to get uncrowded nature only got it briefly, if at all.

So Metro proposed a different model – one that mixed jobs and housing, and created cluster developments around walkable “town centers” served by transit. Orenco Station was to be one of these, served by a new light rail line and several bus routes. Moreover, it was next to the new high tech plants by Intel and others, so that some of the 15,000 people who now worked there could live nearby, instead of piling onto the freeway back to Portland.

The company I went to work for, PacTrust, was an industrial developer who had unwillingly (through a zoning overlay) become the master developer of Orenco Station. But they very courageously stepped up and did the heavy lifting to figure out what the market would accept – absorbing an undue amount of cost and delay in the process. The final result was a remarkably diverse mix of homes and prices (1,834, from $79,000 to $1 million, plus rentals) and retail, office, live/works, granny flats, parks, a farmers’ market, a grocery store – all at three to four times higher density than the market had seen previously. And yet the buyers seemed to love them, proudly paying more for a smaller home on a smaller lot.

What they said in post-occupancy research (including the study by Bruce Podobnik that was reported here earlier) was that they liked living in walkable urbanism, where they were able to walk to shopping and other amenities. Indeed, the statistics for walking as reported by Podobnik were beyond our wildest dreams – 50% reported walking to shopping five or more times a week, up from 17% five years earlier. Indicators of social capital – that drastically declining metric cited ominously by Robert Putnam in his classic Bowling Alone – seemed also to have bounced back nicely. (See charts)

Other metrics for transportation were respectable, and getting better – and here is where I take issue with Eric Jaffe, and even with Bruce Podobnik. They noted that 64% commuted to work in a single-occupancy vehicle, and declared this a significant shortcoming in transit-oriented development. But in transit-friendly central Portland, that number is virtually the same – 62%. In the two suburban comparison areas the number is 69% and 75%. So Orenco Station has moved past the comparable suburban locations, and is nearing central Portland. 

Still, one would think this number could be better. Isn’t the whole idea to get people to take transit?

No, it isn’t. The idea is to let people live in a more efficient relation to all their destinations, so that they can get to work, and to other destinations, more easily by any mode. If they work at Intel, just behind Orenco Station and in the opposite direction from the light rail, they can’t take light rail, but they might drive ½ mile or so – far better, from an energy and carbon point of view, than piling onto light rail and trekking across town.

And indeed, 36% use transit, bike, carpool or bus, or some other combination. That’s still not great, but far better than the US average of 23.6%. And better than the comparable Beaverton suburb of 25%. Moreover, the numbers are getting better with time: whereas only 17% walked to shopping five or more times a week in 2002, 50% did in 2007. What we need to look for, surely, is not instant results, but growing and sustained results.

Another problem in Podobnik’s data is that he only looks at commuting, which is less than 20% of all trips. What are the patterns for the other 80%? We don’t know. We know that 50% are walking frequently to shopping – but we don’t know how many other trips they take, how far they go, and whether they walk, cycle or drive.

This is not to criticize the Podobnik study – it’s a great first step – but to point to the need for much more post-occupancy research on this and other such projects, filling in the gaps: more data on vehicle miles traveled, more data on behavior over time, more data on the wider catalyzing effects on choice and behavior. Do people actually downsize their automobile ownership and use, as anecdotal evidence suggests? Are these people self-selected urbanites, or – again, as anecdotal evidence suggests – otherwise fairly typical American suburbanites, often transferred from elsewhere? What happens to their overall patterns of consumption and emissions? All of these are questions to answer in getting a clearer picture of the success of these kinds of “New Urbanist” developments on sustainability criteria.

There are clearly things that Orenco Station could do better — for example, to get more transit ridership and more use of bicycles (e.g. a bike rental kiosk is a possibility, and so are transit passes). And the connectivity to the surrounding urban fabric should be better – thought this is a tough problem that will be corrected only slowly. Sprawl repair is an iterative process.

But even getting other developers to accomplish as much as Orenco Station seems a steep challenge. The fact is, few other developers have stepped up and built similar Town Center developments along Portland’s light rail. Why? The development system and its incentives (and disincentives) still heavily rewards sprawl, not just in Portland but across the US and the world. (This is a particularly alarming thought when contemplating the growth of China, India, Brazil and many other places.)

Though market acceptance of Orenco Station was far better than we dared hope, the regulatory “lock-in” costs, delays, uncertainties, regulatory complications of mixed use, and the relative ease of doing sprawl nearby, all put a very strong headwind on the project’s performance. Another company could have built cookie-cutter sprawl suburbs on the site with far less complication, delay, uncertainty and risk – things that no business likes. So if we want to see a reversal of sprawl development patterns, the first task is to make it pay off.

And closely related to that, we need to make unsustainable sprawl pay its true cost – the future taxpayer burdens for sprawling infrastructure, the degraded air and water, the degraded quality of life and health, and the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. We need to “monetize” the relative improvements of sustainable development, through tax-increment financing, differential “system development charges” and similar tools, and use them to help make sustainable development financially rewarding.

Just now some promising new tools are being developed to take on the job of sprawl retrofit and repair – financial instruments, design strategies, policy and legal changes – and toolkits of these tools, designed to work together, and to be adaptable to their context. There’s a new incremental thinking, recognizing that we have to plan for changing things over time, sometimes modestly. We’re learning to use “tactical urbanism” – learning to uncover opportunities where they exist, and make incremental changes to repair the frayed urban fabrics where we can.

Along the way we can repair frayed economies too, as we surely must. As noted earlier, these issues are not disconnected.

And to do all that, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes – and from our successes. That means we need good research, and good education on best practices. We need to ditch, finally, the old failing Radiant City models that Jane Jacobs warned us about, and their reinventions in various clever costumes by irresponsible architects. At last, we need to design in response to good evidence of what has actually worked, and not worked, for human beings. What a concept.

Michael Mehaffy is a strategic planning consultant based in Portland, Oregon, and a leader of the Sprawl Retrofit Initiative of the Congress for the New Urbanism. From 1997 to 2003 he was project manager for the master developer of Orenco Station, PacTrust, and he continues to work on projects there and elsewhere in Portland.




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This entry was posted on October 20, 2011 by .
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