Portland, Metro and The Plan: Boon or Bane for Regional Development?

Portland's reality is far less persuasive than its press

Few urban policies have received the kinds of accolades and encouragement in recent years that regional planning has experienced. Prominent urban policy makers and analysts such as former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk have toured the country, making the argument for regionalizing urban policy decisions, particularly planning and land use. States such as Florida, Oregon, New Jersey, and Georgia have implemented statewide planning to reign in the “parochial” interests of local government.

Nowhere has this paradigm been implemented more comprehensively than in Portland, Oregon. Scores of mayors, councilmen, and planning directors have made the sojourn to Portland to see first hand how regional planning works. There, goes the emerging conventional wisdom, foresight and a strong planning ethic have forged an urban policy that has netted one of the country’s healthiest and most livable communities.

Before policymakers jump onto the regional planning bandwagon, however, they should take a more critical look at what has actually been accomplished in Portland. The reality is far less persuasive than its press.

First, contrary to popular belief, regional planning has not been fully implemented. The metropolitan area’s regional planning agency, Metro, was given regional planning authority in 1992 with a mandate to come up with a regional plan in 1996. It delivered: Metro’s comprehensive regional plan was released in December of 1996, less than one year ago. So, the results of the planning process are still a long way from being evaluated, let alone fully implemented.

Second, the much heralded Urban Growth Boundary – literally a “line in the sand” outside of which growth is heavily discouraged or even prohibited – has become a pawn in a largely political gambit to drastically change the physical and social character of the Portland area. The boundary was initially considered a tool for promoting in-fill. The boundary was established with enough vacant land to accommodate at least 20 years of projected growth. Then, policymakers expected it to move further outward to release additional land for development.

Now, under Metro’s plan, the UGB is becoming a largely unmovable barrier outside of which land development is prohibited. This will dramatically change the quality of life in Portland. The region’s population is projected to grow by 80% to 2.7 million people by 2040. Where will all these new people go? Metro is mandating dramatically higher population densities to accommodate this projected population growth.

This raises a third troubling aspect of regional planning: it goes against the wishes of most of the people living in the communities it plans. Portland’s regional plan – like statewide plans in Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere – represents a regional vision that does not square with the obvious preferences of its citizens. Portland’s population has flowed over into the suburbs that ring its central city. In fact, an analysis of Oregon’s sprawl patterns from 1982 to 1992 by the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute found that land development outpaced population growth by much larger proportions than states that did not have urban growth boundaries, including Florida, Arizona, California, Texas, and even Washington. Oregonians, like most everyone else, prefer to live in low density neighborhoods and cities.

This poses a serious challenge to the ethical foundations of regional planning. If its plan is fully implemented, residents will be forced to live in more crowded cities, smaller houses, and more congested neighborhoods in order to conform to Metro’s vision of what Portland “ought” to be.

Of course, this problem is not new or novel. This same paradox is evident in Florida where statewide planning is encouraging compact development near high density city centers even though the overwhelming choice of Floridians is for low density residential development.

Urban policymakers should take a hard, critical look at top-down, centralized approaches to urban development. Replacing spontaneous market forces that direct land developers to meet consumer preferences for homes and communities with top-down, centralized planning runs the risk of seriously eroding a community’s quality of life.

Portland’s experience will be important for assessing the role planning can play in both local and regional contexts. Rushing to declare victory based on Portland’s experience, however, misconstrues the realities of Portland’s experiment and is likely to undermine alternative, market-based approaches to solving America’s urban problems.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.